Baseball and the Civil War

As I watched the Yankees C.C. Sabathia dominate the Los Angeles Angels last night, it got me thinking how the great game of baseball spread itself coast to coast and beyond. One war that caused the deaths of over 600,00 Americans also changed the fortunes of our modern world. Amidst the carnage, devastation and doldrums of the marches, one little game emerged that would spread across the country as soldiers took it back home and it became America’s past time. What you had in the Civil War was people from all different parts of America coming into contact with each other. Things were passed along and taken back home. What TV, movies, and radio would do for American Culture in the 20th century, the Civil War did the same in the 19th century.

Baseball has always been, and will always be, the great American game.Walt Whitman stated long before the Civil War:

“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses and be a blessing to us.”

Just as WP Kinsella so eloquently stated in Shoeless Joe, baseball has been, and always will be, an important part of America. It is a barometer of our times; past, present and future. But it was the Civil War which brought baseball across the continent. Expansion of the US started when Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Jefferson envisioned an America stretching from coast to coast. Over the next fifty years, Americans slowly moved westward leaving behind their loved ones and the game that would soon be born in the East. Baseball too, moved slowly with Manifest Destiny in the years before the war. As Americans moved towards war in the 1850s, baseball moved with it.

Author Michael Aubrecht states:

Although early forms of baseball had already become High Society’s pastime years before the first shots of the Civil War erupted at Fort Sumter, it was the mass participation of everyday soldiers that helped spread the game’s popularity across the nation. During the War Between the States, countless baseball games, originally known as “townball”, were organized in Army Camps and prisons on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. Very little documentation exists on these games and most information has been derived from letters written by both officers and enlisted men to their families on the home front.

Baseball played during the war was very different than the game we know today. Some rules included: The Striker (batter) gets to choose where he wants the pitch. The Pitcher must throw underhand. No leading off the bag. No base stealing. No foul lines. All balls are fair.
Other key facts:

  • The name of the game itself varied from community to community – some teams played “round ball,” while others played “town ball,” “goal ball,” “baste ball,” “old cat,” and “barn ball.” Early versions of the sport required the pitcher to throw underhanded.
  • Outfielders or “scouts” did not use gloves and the baseball itself was softer.
  • Batters were called “strikers” who eagerly wished to hit “aces” or home runs.
  • Outs were called “hands out.”
  • A pitcher stood on the “pitcher’s point” and threw toward the “striker’s point” where the striker (or batter) stood poised above the “plate” or what is now referred to as home plate.
  • The plate itself was a white iron disk, tin plate turned upside down, or whatever could be found as a substitute.
  • Fielders could retire batters by either catching the ball in the air or on one bounce.
  • The more controversial practice of actually aiming the ball at runners to get them out was eventually banned.

Although the rules have changed, the things that make baseball great have not – a sweet single, a great catch, a well thrown ball, a ball hit in the gaps. These elements have been there since the beginning. It was the war that spread it across the nation which now spread from coast to coast. Just as America sped up after the Civil War, so too did baseball. The National League was formed in 1876 with 8 teams. The coming industrialization of America created more leisure time for a growing nation and baseball seamlessly fit into the new day. But it all got going near a battlefield far, far away…

For Further Reading:

6 thoughts on “Baseball and the Civil War

  1. I loved you post — and your blog. I did not know about the connection between baseball and the civil war. I will link to this post.

    Great job!

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