NOTE: This site, launched in July 2009, is intended both to provide an introduction to Origins research to the public and to serve the needs of the SABR Committee on the Origins of Baseball. It is just a start. We welcome comments, suggestions and corrections.
Where did baseball come from? And what factors determined its general shape, its rules, its many customs, and its anointment as America’s national pastime?
Not that long ago, most Americans – and many baseball writers – thought the answers to these questions were mostly in hand: they revolved around a certain individual in a certain field in a certain upstate New York village. . . or maybe around another individual at another field not too far to the south. However, recent researchers, some of them becoming masters at exploiting the new search capacity in online sources, have begun painting a quite different picture, one that is much more complicated, that goes back further, and that is actually more interesting, than any Single Inventor theory. Our field has seen the recent publications of books and articles that bring to light a much taller heap of relevant facts than was available even ten years ago. Our Committee members are thoroughly enjoying the current tumult, and are looking for ways to facilitate further progress, both within SABR and involving the baseball fans in general.
SABR's Origins Committee comprises SABR members who are interested in the origins and precursors of baseball, and in its spread within the United States and abroad. Its scope extends from the early evolution of baseball's key components -- batting, baserunning, ways of making outs, etc., to the advent of the professional game in the 1870's. (A sister committee, the Nineteenth Century Committee, has as one primary interest the professional teams of the 1800s; the two committees share a discussion group, "19CBB," which operates as a Yahoo group.)
Some members are focused on predecessor games, including Philadelphia town ball, what came to be known as the Massachusetts game, wicket, and other variants that have not yet been fully catalogued. In the 1850s and 1860s, these games were largely eclipsed by the New York game, for which the earliest written record is in the Knickerbocker rules of 1845. Other members have examined even earlier baserunning games, including one actually called "base-ball" that developed in England in the 1700s, and that was presumably later more generally known there as rounders. The name rounders was rarely employed in American ballplaying.
The Committee is served by a monthly e-newsletter, Originals. Available members convene annually in conjunction with SABR's annual convention. Additional committee projects are under discussion.
Today's General Premises about the Origins of Baseball
Few if any baseball historians, having weighed the evidence, now subscribe to the idea that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown in 1839. Most, in fact, now doubt that anyone "invented" the game; many of the elements in the Knickerbocker rules, for example, can be found in accounts of pre-1845 ballplaying, and the premise today is that the game evolved in many increments over the years. Adult play of English base ball in the late 1700s, we believe, and both round ball in New England and town ball in Philadelphia involved adult players not long after 1800. For these games, batting and running and scoring and fielding evidently followed many practices that would later pass quietly into the New York game.
But over the years new historical research has taught us some humility in forming fixed theories about how baseball developed. A century ago, the contending origins dogmas were the Doubleday theory and the rounders theory, and neither has proved durable. Later, Knickerbocker Club members Alexander Cartwright and Doc Adams were suggested as the true inventers of the game. However, questions remain as to what they, or the Knickerbockers, did that was actually new, and we continue to learn about earlier New York City ballplaying clubs. The idea that baseball was preceded by a game known locally as "town ball "across the United States now appears much more doubtful than it did a few years ago. A decade ago, we had not yet learned that Gutsmuths had described "English base-ball" in 1796, nor that the two-base game of wicket, evidently an early offshoot of cricket, was the game of choice for much of western New England (and perhaps much further west) until supplanted by the New York game in the late 1850s. So we may expect current research may lead us to abandon long-held assumptions about how baseball actually evolved.