Baseball in America, Part I: The First Baseball Uniforms

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Baseball in America, Part I: The First Baseball Uniforms
This print depicts Union soldiers playing a baseball game in a Confederate prisoner of war camp in North Carolina during the American Civil War.

This is the first part in a six part series that will explore the history of baseball and how the sport's history has, at times, interspersed with the history of the United States of America, through good times and bad, truly making it "America's Pastime."

Baseball is a symbol of the lasting unity of the United States of America from a time when the first uniforms were blue and gray.

What follows is a brief history of both the United States of America and baseball in their formative years, leading up to the American Civil War, when the sport was intimately wedded to the nation on the battlefields of its struggle for unity under its professed ideals.

A Nation Divided

For nearly a century, the individual municipalities forming the United States of America existed in a questionable union, fraught with contentions between various regions.

When the British Parliament imposed the Coercive Acts on Massachusetts colony in 1774, outrage spread throughout the other American colonies, not out of solidarity with Massachusetts, but out of fear that the same steps could be taken against them.

In the 1790s, the question of the sovereign rights of individual states apart from the Federal government was brought to a head in the Whiskey Rebellion.

The inability to come to a lasting compromise when it came to territorial expansion and emancipation resulted in the Missouri Compromise, Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, each of which only staved off a question that was prevalent in the forming of the nation and brought to a head by the question of slavery:

Was the United States of America to be a loose confederation of separate entities or one entity standing in solidarity?

It's why the nations of Europe laughed at the Declaration of Independence and scoffed at the ability of 13 individual governments to bind together in a lasting union.

By 1861, the United States of America was on the verge of splitting apart. The president, Abraham Lincoln, wasn't even on the ballot in some southern states.

When the South declared its intention to secede from the Union, Lincoln brought the country to war to answer the nearly century old question once and for all, even if it required force.

While the Civil War featured gross savageries, captured quite frighteningly by American writers such as Ambrose Bierce, it also serves as the beginning of our story about baseball in America.

Baseball Goes To War

The game of baseball developed, much like our nation developed out of British customs and social movements carried out in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, out of the British game of rounders.

But in the middle of the 19th century, the sport, while played in urban centers down South, was mostly contained to the country's Northeast corridor.

Various clubs and organizations played baseball, each using their own version of the rules. It wasn't until Alexander Cartwright, of New York's Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, codified a set of rules in 1945 that organized baseball began to take shape.

However, the game lacked widespread popularity. Besides being relatively contained to the Northeast corridor, the sport was thought of as a "gentleman's game." Commoners could not afford the fees required to join a club such as the Knickerbockers.

All of this changed in 1861 when thousands of young men from the cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc...marched off to war on battlefield's such as Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg. With them they brought a favored pastime, the sport of baseball, which had only been codified a little over a decade earlier.

When they weren't busy dying, many soldiers took to playing games of baseball for recreation. Both Union and Confederate soldiers played. Officers played with the common soldiers in their regiments. They played while waiting for enemy advances. They played in prisoner of war camps. The two armies even played baseball together while they waited for General Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

Games of baseball were played by Union soldiers as far South as Texas, where George Putnam, a Union soldier, wrote of the regiment's game being interrupted by an attack by Confederate soldiers.

Putnam lamented, "centerfield was hit and was captured, left and right field managed to get back to out lines. The attack...was repelled without serious difficulty, but we had lost not only our centerfield, but...the only baseball in Alexandria, Texas."

When the war ended, the thousands of surviving soldiers from both sides went home and continued to play baseball. While slavery had been abolished by the Civil War, the sport of baseball had been proliferated.

One Nation Under Baseball

As trumped up as claims that Abner Doubleday is the inventor of baseball are, is it mere coincidence that Doubleday was most known as a Union general during the Civil War?

The nearly century old question about the state of the American union had been answered—the country was to be one body that lived up to the ideals professed in their Declaration of Independence. It would also be one nation obsessed with the sport of baseball.

Shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865, the Cincinnati Red Stockings formed the first professional—meaning paid—baseball team in the country in 1869.

Two short years later, the National Association of Baseball Players, the predecessor of what is nowadays known as the National League, was formed.

Is it any wonder why baseball is known as our national pastime?

Before 1861, baseball was not a widely popular professional sport. It was the leisure activity of gentleman.

Before 1861, the United Sates were anything but united.

It took the American Civil War to bring about both. Since the surge in popularity and the formalization of baseball as a professional sport is wedded to the defining event in the formation of America into an indivisible union, it holds a stake in our hearts that football, with its rigid gridiron, cannot hope to eclipse.

When the prospects of national growth were greatest, it is baseball's mythical pastoralism—the ability to hit the ball as far as the wide open field could carry it, the prospect of time never eclipsing the accomplishments on the field—that best captured the ethos of the American spirit.

And when the nation fell upon fractious times, it was baseball that alleviated the grim maladies of the battlefield and emerged from the fray as a footing on which both Union and Confederate soldiers could find common ground.

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