Baseball has been in the heart of American culture for more than 200 years. Based on the English game of "rounders", rural folks in the early 1800s began to pass the time away with a game they called "town ball". The popular folk game was similar to earlier versions called by many names: "round ball", "goal ball", "stool ball" and "fletch-catch". Similar to "cricket", it involved a bat, a ball, and running around a course of bases. Over a half a century later, baseball had grown to become widely known as "America's national pastime." It didn't take long before the baseball bug caught on, spawning small teams and clubs throughout the eastern United States. By mid-19th century, baseball's inventor, Alexander Cartwright and others made sure the game had rules, many of which are still in play today.
In 1845 Cartwright drew up plans for a baseball field, and a year later the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey became home to the first recorded baseball game. The Knickerbocker Baseball Club of New York City, led by Cartwright, lost to the New York Baseball Club. The game's popularity soared. As demand for organization would have it, a gaggle of clubs met in 1857 to discuss the rules of the game and by the following year, the first organized baseball league known as the National Association of Base Ball Players was formed. Fans poured in, and paid admission to attend the games.
Following the Civil War of the 1860s, union soldiers brought the game to other parts of the country. That meant more clubs, and more delegates to the 1868 annual baseball convention. But in order to support its popularity, baseball became increasingly competitive and political. Some players received a private pension. That led to the idea that players should be salaried, and in 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional team. Employing the best talents in the country, they won all 65 games that season. Professional baseball was a hit.
With the increasing competition amateur teams now faced, recreational baseball began to pale. The first professional baseball league was born in 1871, and within a few short years the National Association was overseeing 13 teams.
What followed were major renovations in ownership, ticket prices and player contracts. The Association, no longer run by the players, was replaced by the businessmen owned and operated National League. The American Association began to rival them in 1882 with cheaper ticket prices, but unsuccessfully. The two eventually reached an agreement designed to protect player contracts, but in 1884 unsatisfied players formed their own short-lived Union Association. That would only be replaced by another unsuccessful Player's League. Unable to withstand the competition and loss of its strongest players, a defunct American Association lost its best teams to the National League.
The new century would face one court-arbitrated upheaval after another among rivaling Leagues. Eventually a change in the game itself was on the horizon.
In 1911 baseball would use a new kind of ball containing a cork center, but the game was limited to contact-hitters, bunting and base stealing, and few home runs. The coming years would change all that, but not without a fight. In 1914 baseball endured political turmoil over anti-trust legislation and claims that the American and National baseball Leagues had a monopoly on the sport. But the court ruled in baseball's favor. In 1919 the game underwent reforms, and baseball's future legend would take to the stage. Boston Red Sox's George "Babe" Ruth signed on as an outfielder with the New York Yankees, revolutionizing the game.
In 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first black professional baseball player by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, eventually changing the face of baseball as a once racially segregated sport. The 1960s were met with more debate over monopoly of the game by the professional leagues. Teams in the south and western reaches of the country wanted to share the pie, so a compromise was settled in court and the game grew from 16 teams to 24. But there were still caveats to be worked out, as baseball brought in more jobs and more money. Union players were not being paid a fair salary, and the owners were getting richer.
The only apparent solution was to win back control of the game, which players did in 1965 by hiring veteran labor organizer Marvin Miller who had experience fighting for the union steelworkers. A collective bargaining agreement would be made in 1968, and the major league players strengthened their union. They filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board in order to have their voices heard, but it wasn't easy. Owners fought back, but players maintained that a reserve clause restricting player contracts was illegal and that they should be free to negotiate with other teams. The Supreme Court ruled against them, but renegotiations eventually gave players free agency, or the freedom to sign on with the team of their choice. But there were certain restrictions. Compensations were modified, but economic battles between players and owners only intensified.
After the 1986 season the free-agent market ended, and players had to submit to lower paying contracts. The court ruled that the owners were in collusion, and players were compensated for damages.
The early 1990s saw further battles among players and business owners, as owners insisted that a limit be placed on player salaries. They claimed that free agency was hurting business, which led to a player strike.
For the first time in nearly a century, the World Series was canceled. President Clinton tried to remedy the problem by appointing a mediator, but unsuccessfully. So one and all, owners came up with a plan to assemble a rogue team of replacement players. But a legal restraining order was placed on the plan. The game had to go on temporarily under an old agreement until a labor deal could be reached, which it was in November, 1996.
Although baseball has taken a bit of beating and its future isn't certain, Americans are still taking themselves out to the ballgame year after year. Please pass the Peanuts and Crackerjacks!