Baseball: From Child's Play to America's Pastime In But Didn't We Have Fun?, author Peter Morris explores America's pastime even before it was America's pastime — and long before the days of big clubs, big stadiums and big crowds. He looks at how baseball evolved in the fields across America.
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Baseball: From Child's Play to America's Pastime

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Baseball: From Child's Play to America's Pastime

Baseball: From Child's Play to America's Pastime

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.

Major League Baseball gets off to its spring start next week, and if you're standing in the beer line and want a lighthearted argument try this one. Abner Doubleday - forget about him. The writer Peter Morris disposes with Doubleday very quickly in his new book, it's called "But Didn't We Have Fun?" It's the story of how baseball began in America. 1862, for example, was an important year - Brooklyn built an enclosed field. That meant you could charge admission, pay the players. Before that, Morris says baseball was just in the air and out in the fields.

Mr. PETER MORRIS (Author, "But Didn't We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870"): The really fascinating story that doesn't get talked about enough is that baseball was understood as an American pastime in the 1820s and 1830s, but it was a child's game. And by 1870, it's a professional sport.

If I'd were to tell you that hopscotch was going to be a professional sport in 30 years and men would earn a living playing hopscotch, you would laugh and you would say, well, that's ridiculous. But that's exactly what happened with baseball, and to me that's really a more fascinating story than the more conventional one in which, you know, somebody invents baseball one day and it grows in popularity.

ADAMS: They called it round town in different places. I like the idea of - in the old days you used to hit the runner with a ball to make him out?

Mr. MORRIS: A lot of people thought that was the best part of early baseball was that what the fielders did is instead of throwing to some baseman or tagging a base, they would throw the ball at the base runner. And if they hit him, he was out. And if they didn't, they'd just keep pegging at him, until they hit him. And probably the biggest problem with that and the biggest reason that had to change is that in order to play that way, they had to use a really soft ball and it kind of reinforced the idea that this was a child's game.

ADAMS: Right. And then you have the very elegant men of the Knickerbockers' social club in New York City. They're wearing white flannel shirts, blue wool, pantaloons so they can run more easily. They're wearing straw hats and they figure that you're going to have to have some rules. This would be in 1845, do I have that right?

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah. They were really a social club having fun. And they had no thought that their game would spread. And most of their rules, when you look at them carefully, you can deduce that they were just worried there were too many people who are showing up and it was hard to fit them in.

So a lot of their rules were not with any intention of forming a professional sport, but just so that the fun wasn't ruined by having people who felt like they've been left out and should be playing or who felt that they could show up late and just start playing at any point.

ADAMS: Kind of a hero here, Daniel Adams of Knickerbockers who said, I went all over New York to find somebody who would undertake this work, the work being making a baseball - making a real baseball. He finds a Scotch soldier to do it, to sew it up and then he uses a shoemaker and later on to make what is, I guess, the precursor of the modern baseball.

Mr. Morris: Right. And those are the people who should be heroes in the history of baseball, not Abner Doubleday but Daniel Adams who really worked on the practical necessity of having a good baseball that would stay together. And there really should be a monument in some ballpark to the unnamed Scotch soldier who helped him put together a baseball that could actually last and be used.

ADAMS: Now, how does the game get out of Manhattan and out to the countryside out to the other states?

Mr. MORRIS: It really follows, you know, a period where America's going through this dramatic transformation from being a rural society to a modern industrial country where people are moving about and so - first of all, New Yorkers start taking their game.

And then the second big transmitter of the new rules, the new way of playing baseball were college students. They'd go off to college and they'd find this new game being played at their college campus. And they'd come home at the end of their education or they'd come home for the summer, and they'd bring the game back with them.

ADAMS: Yeah, but you posed this as a question. Why give up this freedom, freedom they have to play their own way in order to conform to some rules, formulated by a bunch of New Yorkers?

Mr. MORRIS: All of a sudden, you could play games against the team in the next city over. You could challenge them and you could make it a huge expedition. The whole community would go to this town 30 miles away. Now, 30 miles away doesn't sound a lot now, but in the 1860's that was a big trip and it was exciting to be able to go that far.

The other major reason was that once they started, once they got rid of the rule where you could throw the ball at the base runners, they were able to play with these lively, rubbery balls, and batters started to realize they could hit the ball out of sight.

You know, people think that Babe Ruth started the home run era. Well, actually he brought it back. And in the 1860s, this is when Americans first discovered, wow, they could hit the ball out of sight, and so many of the accounts that I found for this book were of people talking about the guy who hit the home run over the church steeple, the guy who hit the home run into the river, the famous home run hit over the creek and into the woods.

And one of my favorite accounts was in 1906. A distinguished professor of Greek at the University of Michigan passed away, and he had all these accomplishments as a professor. He had helped to hire Fielding Yost as a football coach at Michigan, had been part of the athletic department. He'd done all these things. And his obituary - one of the main things in his obituary was he hit the longest home run ever seen at the University of Michigan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADAMS: That's great. So it's pretty exciting back then. The - I want to ask about this issue, and that is the first enclosed field. This was in Brooklyn.

Mr. MORRIS: Mm-hmm.

ADAMS: And you had the first luxury box. What was that luxury box?

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah. The first enclosed stadium in Brooklyn. They had a very novel type of luxury box, and it was right actually out in center field. It was a little pagoda - out behind the center fielder - and it was far away that only a few batters would ever hit the ball out there. But it was actually in the field of play. And so these first spectators who paid a little extra got a meal for their luxury box. They were actually in the field of play. Theoretically, the ball could come out and do it. It was a novel experience.

ADAMS: Sounds like something you could try today.

Mr. MORRIS: It does. It sounds remarkably like something that might - somebody might do today.

ADAMS: You quote a sportswriter named Henry Chadwick, who I believe is the only sportswriter still in the Hall of Fame - Baseball Hall of Fame?

Mr. MORRIS: That's correct. Yeah.

ADAMS: He wrote this in 1889 about a club that played 30 years earlier before admission was charged and before people got salaries from - just back when people were having fun with baseball. Would you read, please, what Mr. Chadwick wrote, sort of, nostalgically about something that happened before?

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah. That was about a team called The Pastime Club that he was very fond of. And he wrote: What jolly fellows they were at that time, one and all of them, and how fully they entered into the sport of the game. And truly, were those meetings on the ball field in those days, occasions well adapted to inspire good humor and gay spirits. For if there is any one thing, more than another, calculated to produce this kind of natural, happy feeling among kindred spirits, it is to take to bright-green fields of a warm spring day and enter into a lively game of baseball just for the fun of the thing, you know.

ADAMS: That's Peter Morris reading the words of sportswriter Henry Chadwick from 1889. Mr. Morris has written a book "But Didn't We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870."

Thank you, Peter Morris.

Mr. MORRIS: My pleasure, Noah.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: And to hear how clumsy teams of amateur players that are called Muffins, saved the spirit of baseball, go to the Web site

(Soundbite of music)

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