VIENNA,Va., May 4, 1011 — For many years, Washington, DC has had a love-hate relationship with baseball “ our National Pastime,” going back to the old Washington Senators and ending now with the current Washington Nationals.
When a new, young pitcher was signed, Stephen Strasburg, who soon thereafter tore out his shoulder pitching too hard, the city sat stunned and grieving. The economy and Afghanistan be damned, the pitcher was injured. But the love of baseball by D.C. fans dates back to the Civil War.
It is hard to believe that the earliest local teams played right on the President’s front yard during the Civil War. But such is the case. President Lincoln had had a baseball field constructed on the White House lawn. There is one tale that he was late for a war council meeting, saying,” They will just have to wait. It is almost my turn at bat”.
Merrie Olde England, Home of Baseball
By way of background, and contrary to anything Al Gore may say, baseball was NOT invented in America. Its roots go back to merrie olde England where it was played as a common street ball game. At that time, it went by a number of names, including town ball, baste ball, pick-up ball, and even goal ball.
All this tied in with the country evolving from a primarily rural one to an industrialized one, and as people began working in stores and factories as opposed to on the farm, they began to actually have “leisure time” in which sports could be played. Plus there has always been some sort of innate affinity between men and balls that could be hit.
Naturally, coming from England, baseball started out as a gentleman’s sport, not one reserved for street kids. And the influence of cricket on baseball cannot be overstated.
It seems that one day in 1842, obviously before the Civil War, a group of young “gentlemen” in New York City met on a vacant lot to play what they called “baseball.” It quickly became popular and soon their little team was playing opposing groups from as far away as Hoboken in New Jersey, which was not as close as it is today, thanks to transportation improvements.
As the new sport became more popular, of course, someone in authority (real or imaginary) decided there had to be rules, and organized groups, i.e. “leagues.”
Who “Invented” Amereican Baseball?
While Gen. Abner Doubleday erroneously has been credited with starting all this, the actual person was Alexander Cartwright, a bank clerk who was a member of the first organized team, called the Knickerbocker Ball Club of New York City.
Cartwright was the one who wrote out the rules, which created foul lines, established nine as the number of players per team, limited the number of innings to nine, and also created the terms by which we understand baseball, if we actually do.
Some funny aspects were the terms used for baseball fans, “cranks,” which may be fairly apt, and runs which were called “aces.” The first side to get 21 Aces won (sounds like Blackjack.) Players were fined for disrespect (!) and for using profanity.
Membership in a team was by election to the club, which also assured they were all from the upper classes of society, an aspect that sounds difficult to believe today. Despite that fact, the free blacks of the area started their own clubs and by 1860 there were 50 established baseball teams.
Localized for years to New York and its environs, when some of the New York boys came to Washington to play, the new sport began to catch on. Clerks in the Treasury Department of Washington formed their own team that was named, ironically enough, the Washington Nationals.
Rather than attempting to cash in on the new venture and its participants, established Washington dining spots like the Willard Hotel and Ebbitt’s taverns (now the Old Ebbitt Grill) spent their time worrying about the wholesome young men trading in the bar for the playing field.
Baseball Was the Great Equalizer
At this time Washington had built numerous forts around the city for security dating back to Revolutionary times – Fort Ward, Fort Marcy, Fort Davis – all built in advance of the Civil War. The forts were staffed by officers and their men. So it was natural that soon the military men had joined the baseball players (officers) on the field, where they could compete as equals. The pre-war situation made some changes, since in lieu of actual bats, the ball was hit with poles or fence rails, and the balls themselves were made of rags tied tightly together.
A little known fact is that a former pitcher, Albert G. Spalding, once a grounds player himself, began Spalding Sporting Goods.
Out on the military field, across the countryside, baseball was played by Yanks and Rebs alike to break the monotony of quiet spells between battles. There were games held all over the country, even in areas as such as Salisbury, N.C. and Fort Pulaski outside Savannah, Ga. Many Southerners learned to play from Northern prisoners of war.
One sports minded wag said, “Baseball greatly affected the outcome of the Civil War. The South had some talent, but did not have the depth the North did, and was particularly lacking in team speed.
“Also, the South did not have a very balanced lineup, what with Robert E. Lee being their only left handed hitter. Perhaps if the South had been able to sign a big left handed bat for the middle of their lineup, the war would have ended differently.”
As the current Nationals continue to fight for a winning season, maybe someday they will look back and realize what a proud name and team they carry forward, all the way from the Civil War.
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