Baseball History, American History and You

We play it as kids, we watch it and listen to it as adults, and we pass down our love of the Game through generations. Baseball is an American family tradition.

This Game is closely tied to us in a very personal way, but what you may not realize is how much it is also tied to history. Often referred to as America's National Pastime, baseball has had a very active role in the shaping of this nation.

From the Civil War to Civil Rights and all points in between and beyond, the game of baseball supports and reflects many aspects of American life, from culture to economics and technological advances. It inspires movements, instills pride and even heals cities.

This story is told at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, where the plaques and artifacts all have something to say about the special place baseball holds in the hearts of Americans.

These are just a few of the places where the history of our National Pastime and American history have crossed...

Opening days like this one at the Polo Grounds have been a community tradition for well over a century. (B. J. Falk/Library of Congress)

The Civil War

The first professional baseball games were played in the wake of a young nation's darkest days. The amateur version, however, has roots that reach back decades before the war began.

Reporters described baseball as a mania back in the 1840s; the sport was already established as a popular pastime when Civil War soldiers on both sides played it as a diversion. Many veterans took the game home after the war and it became a great unifier in the years that followed the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history.

Though since disproved, the invention of the sport was originally believed to have occurred in Cooperstown and was credited to Civil War hero Abner Doubleday. Doubleday was at Fort Sumter in South Carolina when the first shots were fired in defense of the Union. He went on to rise to the rank of Major General and served with distinction during the Battle of Gettysburg.

World Wars I and II

During World War I, 227 major leaguers served in various branches of the military. Among them were several future Hall of Famers, including Christy Mathewson, Branch Rickey, George Sisler and Ty Cobb, who all served in the Chemical Warfare Service, commonly referred to as “The Gas and Flame Division.” These baseball icons were instructors, training U.S. troops and conducting drills.

One of these drills sent soldiers into an airtight chamber into which actual poison gas was released. During one of these training exercises an accident occurred, causing Cobb and Mathewson to be exposed to the gas. Cobb recovered, but Mathewson was exposed to a much larger dose of poison, which damaged his lungs and contributed to his death from tuberculosis eight years later at the age of 45.

In World War II, more than 500 major leaguers – and 37 Hall of Famers – served in the armed forces, with many of them sacrificing prime years of their careers. At the same time, though, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued what is now known as the "Green Light Letter" to encourage play to continue. He deemed the game a necessary morale booster during the difficult times.

The War years also saw the founding of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, established in part to compensate for the loss of many of the best major league players to the war effort.

Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson made American history when he broke the "color barrier" in 1947. (Library of Congress)

Civil Rights

African Americans played baseball on Southern plantations during the 1850s. A century later, Jackie Robinson became the first since 1884 in the big leagues. There were numerous strides and setbacks in between.

An unwritten agreement barred Black players from professional leagues from the late 1800s and into the 20th century. Before that, the professional game had bucked the trend, as Bud Fowler – a native Central New Yorker – played in the 1870s and '80s despite the proliferation of Jim Crow laws.

Within the African-American community, baseball was a great source of pride as dozens of barnstorming teams traveled from town to town to entertain crowds. The Negro leagues fielded outstanding players, many of whom have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Baseball led the way on integration, as Jackie Robinson became a key symbol of equality during the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. Hank Aaron made history as a symbol of African-American progress in the 1960s and '70s. In 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates fielded MLB's first all-Black lineup, and a little more than three years later, Frank Robinson became the majors’ first African-American manager.

There are three things that America will be known for 2,000 years from now: the Constitution, jazz music, and Baseball. They’re the three most beautifully designed things this culture’s ever produced.

Dr. Gerald Early, Washington University

The Modern Days

Throughout history, baseball has not only entertained, but has also offered a sense of comfort during difficult times.

President George W. Bush showed the nation's strength as he threw out the first pitch of World Series Game 3 in New York City just seven weeks after the tragedies of 9/11. The 2013 Red Sox proved "Boston Strong" with a World Series win in the shadow of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Again in Houston, baseball served an important purpose. As the region crawled back from the destruction of Hurricane Harvey, the 2017 Houston Astros claimed their first-ever World Series championship.

The Museum documents these moments and more – moments in which baseball and our culture have intersected in powerful ways. The Museum’s collection of artifacts extends far beyond the baseball's greatest players, and includes many items that tell the stories of our nation.

Political figures have long used baseball games as an opportunity to meet and sit among their constituents. (George Grantham Bain/Library of Congress)


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