This fantastic image is identified only as “Baseball, 1890.” I wish I knew more about the team! Their uniforms have a large W on the front, but that could be anything from Washington to Woonsocket. Baseball was really well developed by the 1890s, having started out prior to the 1850s with local teams each having some variation of their own rules. In 1860, the National Association of Base Ball Players unified all the local rules into one set, and these were published and distributed throughout the US and beyond, enabling teams to travel more and play clubs farther away from home with confidence in the rules.
Early baseball used a black or brown leather ball stitched with white thread – unlike our modern white leather with red stitching. The men also didn’t use gloves, but caught the ball barehanded. Can you imagine catching one of those screaming line drives with your bare hands!? Me neither! There is great similarity between vintage and modern baseball, but also some nuances that really make a difference. Until 1884, pitchers had to keep both feet on the ground and pitch underhanded. Early on, a ball that was struck and bounced inbounds before going out of bounds was considered fair regardless of where it left the field. In the 1870s, the umpire might ask a bystander if a ball was caught fairly before making a ruling! Until 1892, a bat could have a flat side. After that time, all bats had to be round.
Although Abner Doubleday (1819-1893) is credited as the inventor of baseball, he was well unaware of that during his lifetime! The myth came about after a dispute between Henry Chadwick, a British journalist, and Albert Spalding, an American baseball player. When Chadwick (correctly) asserted that baseball had evolved out of many ball and bat games, in particular rounders, Spalding took great offense and helped establish the Mills Commission in 1905. The Commission searched far and wide for someone who could identify any American person who might have had an early knowledge of the game. Well, out came an elderly fellow who claimed to have seen drawings made by Doubleday back in 1839. It did not matter that the “witness” had been five years old, while Doubleday was in West Point at that time, they took his assertion that he had attended school with Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY as factual. The false identification was published in newspapers and Spalding forever linked Doubleday to baseball. Spalding, by the way, was the originator of a little sporting goods company in 1875…you may have heard of them?
Today there are vintage baseball clubs that play by their favorite year’s rules, be they before the Civil War, the Knickerbocker rules, the Union Association rules, etc. These clubs dress much as our fellows above, in bibbed shirts and knickers, and there is a definite emphasis on gentlemanly behavior among players. Early on, a base ball player could be fined for using coarse language in front of fans.
There are many wonderful resources available to learn more about the history of baseball. Click the links below for more reading.
19th Century Baseball
Vintage Base Ball Association
The Society for American Baseball Research
For other vintage sports photos, click on the category “sports.”