History of Baseball in 100 Objects


By Josh Leventhal

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The only book of its kind to tell the history of baseball, from its inception to the present day, through 100 key objects that represent the major milestones, evolutionary events, and larger-than-life personalities that make up the game

A History of Baseball in 100 Objects is a visual and historical record of the game as told through essential documents, letters, photographs, equipment, memorabilia, food and drink, merchandise and media items, and relics of popular culture, each of which represents the history and evolution of the game.

Among these objects are the original ordinance banning baseball in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1791 (the earliest known reference to the game in America); the “By-laws and Rules of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club,” 1845 (the first codified rules of the game); Fred Thayer’s catcher’s mask from the 1870s (the first use of this equipment in the game); a scorecard from the 1903 World Series (the first World Series); Grantland Rice’s typewriter (the role of sportswriters in making baseball the national pastime); Babe Ruth’s bat, circa 1927 (the emergence of the long ball); Pittsburgh Crawford’s team bus, 1935 (the Negro Leagues); Jackie Robinson’s Montreal Royals uniform, 1946 (the breaking of the color barrier); a ticket stub from the 1951 Giants-Dodgers playoff game and Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” (one of baseball’s iconic moments); Sandy Koufax’s Cy Young Award, 1963 (the era of dominant pitchers); a “Reggie!” candy bar, 1978 (the modern player as media star); Rickey Henderson’s shoes, 1982 (baseball’s all-time-greatest base stealer); the original architect’s drawing for Oriole Park at Camden Yards (the ballpark renaissance of the 1990s); and Barry Bond’s record-breaking bat (the age of Performance Enhancing Drugs).

A full-page photograph of the object is accompanied by lively text that describes the historical significance of the object and its connection to baseball’s history, as well as additional stories and information about that particular period in the history of the game.



Baseball has a long and storied history, its evolution affected by pioneering executives and managers, legendary players, milestone moments, and changes to the rules of this tradition-loving pastime. While many of the sport’s basic tenets have held strong for more than 150 years, each new era has seen signature developments that have altered the very experience that is baseball.

This book traces that evolution by examining the objects that represent game-changing moments and individuals from the sport’s history. While equipment and objects, from bats to balls to uniforms, are very much central to baseball and have been transformed in many ways through the years, this book is not a history of those objects. Rather it is an exploration of the game of baseball as told through the equipment, documents, and other artifacts that illustrate its key eras and events.

We encounter a wide range of objects—from the well-known to the obscure, from equipment used on the field of play to documents penned in corporate offices, from rewards of triumph to symbols of disgrace. Each has its own story to tell and each one takes us further along the chronological unfolding of the sport’s history.

The journey begins, perhaps surprisingly, in medieval Europe, centuries before Abner Doubleday, Alexander Cartwright, Henry Chadwick, Albert Spalding, or any of the other so-called fathers of baseball walked the diamond. A document from early fourteenth-century Flanders shows us that bat-and-ball games, baseball’s distant ancestors, have been part of childhood recreation since long before words like “runs batted in” or even “innings” entered the vocabulary.

Leaping ahead nearly half a millennium, to the very earliest years of nationhood for the United States, another document, this one from late-eighteenth-century Massachusetts, reveals the first known appearance of the term “baseball” on these shores. By this time, the game was commonplace enough as to elicit town bylaws to limit when and where it could be played.

The next object on the path through baseball’s history represents the role that legend plays in the national pastime. A ball believed (dubiously) to have been used by one Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839, helped to fuel the mythology of Doubleday as the game’s inventor. Although the story was widely disputed from the moment it was presented in the early twentieth century, Doubleday’s place in the baseball pantheon was cemented with this rendition of baseball’s origin story.

The codified rules compiled by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1845 provide a firm foundation from which the sport evolved over the next 170 years. While some of the principles laid out in this document have long since been dropped from the rule book, the basic procedures and guidelines will be very familiar to baseball fans of subsequent generations up through today.

From there we find key documents establishing organized leagues and further defining the rules of play. A game ball from the first contest played within an enclosed ballpark, where tickets could be sold, takes us on a first step on the inevitable path toward baseball as commercial business.

Professionalism in the game was first introduced by the Cincinnati Red Stockings, whose 1869 game ball represents the dawning of the new era. The flip side of that era is seen with a political cartoon from the 1880s depicting baseball players as chattel to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The ongoing battle between owners and players finds its roots in the earliest days of the sport.

Baseball’s maturation was not just about economics; it was also about developing new equipment, such as gloves for fielders and masks for catchers. The continuing expansion of organized league play brought a need to honor championship teams. The “World’s Series” trophy of 1888 and the Temple Cup of 1897 tell the story of the precursors to our modern World Series.

With the turn of the twentieth century came new leagues, new dynasties, and new stars. Awards given to Cy Young and Ty Cobb show the dominance of those players during the Dead-Ball Era, while Joe Jackson’s shoes take us back to one of baseball’s more shameful moments. Off the diamond, we experience the birth of new traditions with the original lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” a bucket used to sell hot dogs at the ballpark, and the first ball pitched by a U.S. president at a major league game. Honus Wagner’s tobacco card of 1909—today worth millions of dollars—exemplifies the phenomenon of baseball-card collecting through the decades.

The agreement that sent Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1919, and the mighty Ruth’s home run crown of 1921, bring us to the birth of the lively ball era and the emergence of the long ball as baseball’s ultimate thrill. Technological advances, from radio and television broadcasts to lights illuminating ballparks for night baseball, further hastened the explosion in baseball’s popularity in the years between the two world wars.

Objects representing the remarkable 1941 seasons of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio introduce a new generation of stars, and a War Department identification card belonging to Hank Greenberg reminds us of the impact that World War II had on the American pastime, not to mention the nation as a whole. The postwar years, in turn, brought baseball’s ultimate progressive action, when Jackie Robinson first donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in 1947. Two of the most dramatic on-field moments are on display with a ticket stub to the 1951 Giants-Dodgers playoff game and the glove used by Willie Mays to make one of the most memorable catches of all time.

In the following decade, a historic home run ball hit by Roger Maris and a Cy Young Award belonging to Sandy Koufax join the continuous narrative of heroic achievements on the field. And, once again, decisions made in owners’ and commissioner’s offices—from teams relocating across the country and new franchises coming into existence, to changes in the physical appearance of the playing field and the creation of a new position—illustrate the continuing evolution of how, where, and by whom the game is played.

The bat that Roberto Clemente used to reach the 3,000-hit milestone is about more than the accomplishment of one individual. It is a symbol of the changing face of baseball and a new generation of stars emerging from foreign lands and thriving at the major league level. The floodgates to a new economic structure were opened, as well, when Catfish Hunter used a 39-cent ballpoint pen to ink a contract worth more than $3 million. Big stars would earn big bucks, and one—Reggie Jackson—would even get a candy bar named after him.

Two of baseball’s all-time greats—Pete Rose and Roger Clemens—would use a bat and a ball, respectively, to establish new records in the 1980s, but both would later leave the game with a cloud of disgrace hanging over them. The ultimate disgrace came in 1994, when the failure of the owners and players to settle on a new collective bargaining agreement led to the cancellation of the entire postseason. It is the absence of an object that tells the story there.

Ever-resilient, baseball bounced back in the second half of the decade. Cal Ripken Jr.’s name was written into a lineup card for the 2,130th consecutive game, as fans everywhere followed his incredible chase of the “iron man” record. Derek Jeter put on a Yankee uniform with the number 2 on the back and helped resuscitate the franchise, propelling it back to dynasty status. Another record-setting home run ball, this one hit by Mark McGwire in 1998, represents both fans’ renewed exhilaration for the game and, subsequently, their renewed exasperation with it, thanks to the tainted nature of that record-setting performance.

A new century brought new heroes and new dynasties. Ichiro Suzuki’s Seattle Mariners jersey and the Boston Red Sox’s World Series ring of 2004 define the brilliance and beauty of baseball of the past 15 years. Alex Rodriguez’s Texas Rangers jersey and the “Bartman Ball” from the 2003 Chicago Cubs playoffs represent the darker times that continue to capture a share of the headlines.

Following additional objects from inspiring players and awesome feats, the book concludes with an object that illustrates how far the sport has come on a global scale over the course of two centuries. No longer just one country’s national pastime, baseball has truly caught on as a worldwide phenomenon. Although the competition has not reached the status of soccer’s World Cup, the battle for the World Baseball Classic championship trophy is being waged by players from every continent and truly exemplifies the sport’s global identity in the twenty-first century.



The Ghistelles Calendar, circa 1301


The question of who invented the game of baseball and when has fascinated generations of experts and fans. Despite the propagation of the Abner-Doubleday-as-the-father-of-baseball story line for decades before it was fully debunked as engineered myth (see Object #4), the long search to pinpoint a moment, a place, and/or a person to credit with inventing the game has not produced a clear-cut moment of origin. Indeed, the sport has undergone a continuing evolution that makes it difficult to even define with certainty when baseball became baseball. What characteristics allow us to say this is baseball?


For centuries, millennia even, people have been engaged in games of throwing balls at other people who tried to knock said ball with an object of their own, such as a stick or a club. Bases of some kind entered the picture along the way, and the concepts of outs, runs, and innings followed various evolutionary paths as well. So while most experts agree that the fundamental tenets of the modern game took hold sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century, one can find glimpses of baseball-like sports long, long before that, and in some rather unexpected places.

References to ancient Egyptians playing stick-and-ball games can be traced to about 2400 BCE as part of religious rites and also simply for fun. Egyptologist Peter Piccione describes a scene depicted on a wall at the temple of Deir et-Bahari as an ancient precursor to baseball. The inscription, which dates to about 1460 BCE, shows pharaoh Thutmose III and priests playing seker-hemat (“batting the ball”) as the goddess Hathor looks on. Other archeologists and anthropologists point to stick-and-ball games being played in ancient Mesoamerica as far back as 1500 BCE.

But without the basic structure of four bases and other rudimentary elements of the game that we have come to know and cherish, it is difficult to call these activities “baseball.”

Nevertheless, most people today would look at this fourteenth-century Flemish illustration and say, “Hey, those kids are playing baseball!” The familiar swing of the bat, the fielder (or pitcher?) in position to field (or throw?) the ball—in many ways, this image represents the core of what we recognize as baseball.

The image dates to about 1301 and is the earliest known extant illustration of people playing a game that clearly evokes the modern game of baseball. It appears in the Ghistelles Hours or Calendar, a monthly calendar of saints’ days that, according to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (which houses the piece), was produced for John III, Lord of Ghistelles and Ingelmunster, in a monastery in what is today northwest Belgium. This page represents the month of September.

Although the scene conjures up baseball, it is most likely an early form of a game known as “stoolball.” Many variations of this folk game were played in England beginning around the eleventh century. The basic premise was for a pitcher to throw a ball at a target, such as a stool or a stump, while another player attempted to defend that target by striking the ball away with a bat or a stick. The earliest incarnations of the game simply required the batsman to prevent the ball from hitting the target, but later versions introduced bases. If the batsman succeeded in striking the ball, he or she—and it was traditionally a coed game—would run between the batter’s stool and the pitcher’s stool until the fielders got him or her out by throwing the ball at the batter’s stool.

Stoolball was commonly played at Easter festivals, and some believe it originated among milkmaids, who used their milking stools for bases.

Other mentions and illustrations of stoolball can be found in documents from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries. In his 1947 book Ball, Bat and Bishop: The Origins of Ball Games, Robert W. Henderson points to several such references, including one in the Domesday Book, a survey of life in England completed in 1086. Here the game is referred to as “bittle-battle,” which is believed (though not confirmed) to be a primitive form of stoolball. Henderson also cites a fourteenth-century poem penned by a vicar in England advising parish priests against the playing of bat-and-ball games in churchyards.

In 1964, baseball writer and historian Harry Simmons cited an image of a bat-and-ball sport on a genealogical roll of the kings of England from the late thirteenth century. And A. F. Leach’s The Schools of Medieval England (1915) includes a drawing from about 1310 that shows a student holding a large ball and a stick reminiscent of a bat.

References to stoolball became more commonplace by the sixteenth century, and the game continued to be played by a dedicated following in England well into the twentieth century. The National Stoolball Association was formed in 1979 and, renamed Stoolball England, is the official governing body of stoolball in that country.

Stoolball’s development in England from the late Middle Ages into the Renaissance can be loosely traced through many documents and drawings of the period, and representations of different baseball precursors can be found in other European lands as well. The esteemed baseball scholar and official historian of Major League Baseball, John Thorn, wrote in 2006 about a small tableau in Corn Harvest (1565) by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder that appears to show “a man with a bat, a fielder at a base, a runner, and spectators as well as participants in waiting.” In addition, a fresco at the Casa Borromeo in Milan, Italy, depicts women from the nobility engaged in some sort of game consisting of a bat and a ball; it dates from about 1400. And German physician Guarinoni Hippolytus described, in 1600, a game being played in Prague that involved a ball, a club, and running back and forth between bases.

Because baseball has no clear or universally accepted origin story, direct connections between the modern sport and ancient stick-and-ball games are difficult to track. Stoolball appears to be a close ancestor of cricket, with the stools evolving into that sport’s wickets. But the illustration from this early fourteenth-century Flemish Book of Hours undoubtedly brings our familiar baseball to mind and represents one step in the journey from the game’s earliest precursors to America’s national pastime. The evolution that took place over the next five and a half centuries underwent numerous twists and turns before the formalization of the “Knickerbocker Rules” in 1845 (see Object #5), codifying many of the fundamental rules of the modern game.



A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, 1744


A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, first published by John Newberry in England in 1744, was a collection of rhymes accompanying woodcut illustrations of children playing different outdoor activities. Bearing the rather wordy subtitle “Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly; with Two Letters from Jack the Giant-Killer; As Also a Ball and Pincushion; the Use of Which Will Infallibly Make Tommy a Good Boy, and Polly a Good Girl; To Which Is Added, a Little Song-Book, Being a New Attempt to Teach Children the Use of the English Alphabet, by Way of Diversion,” A Little Pretty Pocket-Book is considered the first English-language children’s book and—more notably for the purposes of this volume—contains the first known printed reference to the term “base-ball.”


The book came packaged with a ball or a pincushion, depending on whether it was being purchased for a boy or a girl. No copies of the original 1744 publication survive, and the earliest extant Newberry edition dates to 1760. Pirated or imported editions of the book began appearing in the American colonies by the early 1760s, and the first major edition of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book for the American market was published by Isaiah Thomas in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1787. This is the edition illustrated here.

With a letter of the alphabet topping each page, each activity featured in the book includes a woodcut illustration and accompanying verse describing the activity, followed by a “Moral” or a “Rule of Life.” In addition to pages devoted to such bat-and-ball games as cricket, stoolball, trap-ball, and tip-cat, among the rhymes found in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book is the following:


The Ball once struck off,

Away flies the Boy

To the next destin’d Post,

And then Home with Joy.


Thus Britons, for Lucre

Fly over the Main,

But, with Pleasure transported,

Return back again.

(For the American edition, “Britons” was changed to “Seamen” in the opening line of the Moral.)

The woodcut image for “Base-Ball” shows three boys stationed at different posts. One player is poised to pitch the ball to another, who stands ready to strike the ball. Evidently, it is the goal of the latter boy to hit the ball and run to the “next destin’d post” (posts commonly served the role of bases in ball-and-base games well into the nineteenth century). No bat is visible in the scene, however, so this form of “baseball” may have been a version of handball with bases, as suggested by John Thorn.

Whereas this little children’s book is significant because it represents the first time we see the term “base-ball” in print, it is not at all certain what game is being described as such, nor how the rules of this form of base-ball relate to our sport of today. As with many children’s folk games of that time, activities involving a ball and base running developed in many different ways in different regions of England and America, and it’s likely that the somewhat generic term “base-ball” was used to describe these diverse childhood pastimes. In some variations, a bat would have been involved, further connecting the game to the long journey toward modern baseball.

Discussions of a game or games called “base ball” continued to appear in booklets, or “chapbooks,” about childhood games during the 1800s. William Clarke’s The Boy’s Own Book: A Complete Encyclopedia of All the Diversions, Athletic, Scientific, and Recreative, of Boyhood and Youth, published in London in 1828 and in Boston a year later, provides the earliest known printed account of the rules of the related English game of rounders. Robin Carver of Boston reprinted Clarke’s rules in his 1834 publication The Book of Sports and featured it under the heading “Base, or Goal Ball,” explaining, “This game is known under a variety of names. It is sometimes called ‘round ball,’ but I believe that ‘base’ or ‘goal ball’ are the names generally adopted in our country.” Accompanying Carver’s description was an engraving of boys “playing ball” on the grounds of Boston Common.

The following year, The Boy’s Book of Sports: A Description of the Exercises and Pastimes of Youth made the leap from “Base, or Goal Ball” to, simply, “base ball” in describing the game that was on its way to becoming the national pastime. David Block, author of Baseball Before We Knew It, calls The Boy’s Book of Sports “one of the two most historically important American baseball books to come forward in the first half of the nineteenth century” (along with Carver’s earlier Book of Sports). Published by S. Babcock of New Haven, the 24-page chapbook featured “base ball” as the first game under the heading “Games at Ball,” an indication of its popularity at the time. The book also reprinted the woodcut of boys playing ball on Boston Commons that had appeared in Carver’s book, but this time it featured the caption “A Game of Base Ball.”

The rules printed in the Babcock publication are similar to those in Carver’s, but with a few key revisions. Whereas Carver (and Clarke before him) explained that the batter (or “striker”) runs clockwise around the bases (“posts”), The Boy’s Book of Sports has the runners heading counterclockwise—as they do in the game as we now know it. This is also the first time we find the term “innings” used in the context of baseball, and the first use of “diamond” to describe the arrangement of the goals or bases. The three-strikes-and-you’re-out concept is present here, whereas other rules, such as requiring that the batting team takes its turn until all its player are out, are vestiges of other bat-and-ball games that would soon fade from the game on its way to becoming baseball.


Although there is no neat and clear-cut evolutionary path from eighteenth-century childhood folk games to twenty-first-century baseball, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book provides a significant bridge in the journey: A game called “base-ball” was not only known in England in the mid-eighteenth century but was a popular and familiar enough pastime to be featured in this landmark children’s book, one that was printed and reprinted on both sides of the Atlantic for decades. The game’s use of multiple bases, the implicit stand-off between pitcher and batter, and perhaps most tellingly, the goal of reaching “Home with Joy,” all ring true with our national pastime more than 270 years later.


Pittsfield Meeting House Bylaw, 1791


On September 5, 1791, the following bylaw, proposed “for the Preservation of the Windows in the New Meeting House,” was presented at an assembly of the inhabitants of the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts:

Be it ordained by the said Inhabitants that no Person, an Inhabitant of said Town, shall be permitted to play at any Game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Batball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other Game or Games with Balls within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House — And every such Person who shall play at any of the said Games or other Games with Balls within the Distance aforesaid, shall for any Instance thereof, forfeit the Sum of five shillings to be recovered by Action of Debt brought before any Justice of the Peace to the Use of the Person who shall sue and prosecute therefor.

This bylaw, uncovered at the Berkshire Athenaeum library as a result of research by John Thorn in 2004, represents the earliest written reference to baseball that originated in the United States. As with other early uses of the term, it is difficult to know exactly what form of the game is being referenced and whether it is the same sport we would recognize today. But this mention of baseball—distinguished here from the related games of cricket, wicket, batball, cat, and fives—shows that the playing of a game under this name was common enough in western Massachusetts of the late 1700s to be considered a threat to the town’s meeting-house windows.

The Pittsfield ordinance also sheds light on the variety of bat-and-ball games that were prevalent during this time, in a relatively remote rural locale of Colonial Massachusetts. Most of the games mentioned have rich traditions in Colonial America and the early decades of the new nation.


Originating in England in the sixteenth century (possibly earlier), the game of cricket had established itself as the unofficial national game of that country by the time the residents of Pittsfield were seeking to limit its play near their meeting house. Cricket had been transported across the Atlantic by early British colonists by the beginning of the eighteenth century, and it was widely played here well into the next century. It was one of the first organized team sports in the American colonies, and leagues and newspaper coverage were especially prevalent during the Colonial Era. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin brought over from England a copy of the first official rules of cricket (published in England in 1744); Franklin’s city of Philadelphia would prove to be one of the last holdouts of cricket in the United States, with matches attracting large crowds even into the 1900s. Cricket and baseball are often compared to each other, and the games do share some common lingo and rules, but the latter sport overtook its older British cousin in popularity on this side of the ocean by the time of the Civil War. In 1790s Pittsfield, however, cricket was likely the greater threat to the safety of the meeting-house windows, given its popularity at the time.


On Sale
May 5, 2015
Page Count
496 pages

Josh Leventhal

About the Author

Josh Leventhal is an editor and the author of the best-selling book Take Me Out to the Ballpark, The World Series: An Illustrated History of the Fall Classic, and Baseball Yesterday & Today, among others. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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