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The History of Baseball

Historian David Vaught steps up to the plate to discuss the origins of America’s pastime.

By Mia Mercer ‘23

David Vaught, a professor in the Department of History in Texas A&M University’s College of Liberal Arts, researches rural history and baseball. In 2013, he published The Farmer’s Game: Baseball in Rural America which highlights the history of baseball in relation to the rural aspects of America. 

We sat down with Vaught to discuss the baseball origins debate, the sport’s rural roots, and some of Vaught’s favorite moments in baseball history. This interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, may inspire you to grab your own glove, bat, and ball before heading outside this baseball season. 

Baseball historians often debate the true origins of the game. In your professional opinion, what is the origin of baseball in America?
Baseball historians are obsessed with that question. However, it is a nebulous question, because it really depends on how far you’re willing to stretch the meaning of baseball. 

People have found either the word “baseball” or some sort of drawing that looks like somebody holding a bat or something, going so far as prehistoric times. Most people believe the game evolved from two games; rounders and cricket. In the 1840s, there were various baseball-like games that were played. The most well-known was called “townball,” which itself was played by a whole variety of different rules, and it’s debatable whether or not someone today, without going into the details of that game, would recognize it as baseball. I think as to direct connections, there’s one historian who dismissed all this, perhaps rightly, and he said that “Trying to find the origins of baseball is like trying to find the origins of fire.” But that doesn’t stop people from looking.

Most people also agree that the game as we know it was first played popularly in New York City in the 1840s and 1850s, not by the exact same rules as today but we would recognize it. It’s not until the 1880s or so that most of the rules are the sort of uniformly adopted to the game that we know today, which included the geometry of the game; the 90 feet between the bases, and 60 feet 6 inches from the batting plate to the pitcher’s mound, those kinds of things, with a few minor exceptions, the game was in place. 

To me, it’s more important to focus on the development of baseball as a game through the years and decades than it is to somehow locate its exact origin. It’s more important because you can get so obsessed with finding the origin. 

How does baseball reflect the nature of rural and small-town life?
Baseball is seen largely as a city game. And for good reason. That’s where games have been played professionally since the 1870s. I found, almost by accident, that farmers as early as before the Abner Doubleday story adored baseball or baseball-like games before 1839. 

Even today baseball captures the essence of the American rural experience, whether or not people even realize that. People think of baseball today in agrarian terms, Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, Kevin Costner in ‘The Field of Dreams.’ We associate the game with nostalgia, pastoral flights of fancy, that sort of thing. Even today, we live in a virtually non-rural culture, but it is still expressed through baseball. 

Where else other than a major league ballpark does someone sitting in the middle of a row of thirty seats pass a $20 bill down through the many different hands – black, white, brown, male, female, gay, straight – to the hotdog man with the complete and total expectation that they will get back not only the hotdog but every last penny of change? That innate trust and sense of cooperation are rooted in our agrarian heritage, dating back to the days before the market complicated farmers’ lives. It epitomizes what Thomas Jefferson thought a nation of farmers would become. 

Why did farmers play baseball? 
Farmers played baseball on the one hand simply because it was a pleasant way to spend their free time. Farmers work really hard and typically all day Monday through Friday and at least half a day on Saturday and more than that during certain peak periods. So it was a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, to spend time with the family and your neighbors alike. 

There’s also a much deeper and complex reason that farmers enjoyed the game, and I think it’s that the game became an expression of the way that farmers perceive their day-to-day reality.

This was particularly true as market-oriented agriculture became predominant as early as the early 19th century and certainly by the mid 19th century. So as that happened, farmers’ lives became increasingly defined by skill, competitiveness, and chance. With all three of these things, farmers appealed to baseball because the game demands a skill, since one gets better and better the more they play the game; competitiveness, the game is full of rules that players follow in a sort of winner takes all attitude; and also of course chance, you know the game itself and rules and actions all happen spontaneously.

How does baseball relate to agriculture and farm life?
By skill, competitiveness, and chance. Skill in that farmers had to learn not just how to grow their crops, but how to maximize their yields. Competitiveness, in that they had a sort of insatiable appetite for achievement in this modern evolving world to maximize their profits. And then chance in that their lives were just one big gamble every year. They began to gamble on the weather on the yield of their crops and had to gamble on the price they would get on their crops, which was completely out of their control. 

Do baseball’s rural roots help explain its enduring popularity?
Yes. Today, there’s not much ‘rural’ to speak of and farms are corporate-oriented and the like. But again the notion that people still think about baseball in terms of rural imagery, whether they know it or not, still very much persists. 

What is baseball’s role in American cultural history?
It plays an immense role since baseball is so ingrained into American culture. Especially after World War II, baseball was the game. But now the game is losing that popularity as time goes on, for a variety of reasons. The game, even today, has almost an antiquated look to it, and there’s lots of time during the games where nothing really happens in comparison to football and basketball. Baseball doesn’t really work on television as much as football and basketball. Baseball is more of a nap game for television. Since people know it’s losing its popularity every year now, they try to change rules to make the game go faster, have more home runs hit and the like, and real hard-core fans like myself think that these things are ruining the game in that regard. 

Why is it important to know the history of baseball, especially the parts of that history that you explore in your book?
It’s largely American history, and in fact, it’s sort of reversed. Baseball, regardless of what its origins were, is clearly an American game in its development. Now it is enjoyed and played all over the world. So it’s uniquely American but also a worldwide phenomenon. 

How has baseball helped ease the painful realities of the decline in rural American history?
I hit that in my book when I talk about this teeny weeny town called Milroy, Minnesota, in the middle of nowhere. It must be about 200 miles west of the Twin Cities and 200 miles east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In the post-WWII period, this little town of about 200 people had an amateur baseball team, and amateur baseball was a really big deal in Minnesota during this time. In 1950, they won the state championship. 

At the same time as their win, agriculture and rural life in the area were in steep decline. It actually had been since the 1920s for a variety of reasons. These are all farmers who are on the team, and it was clearly the most important thing in their lives. You know when you’re living in a long economic decline, you don’t really know you’re in it. I mean you can tell maybe that things were better 10 or 15 years ago, but you don’t really feel it every year. But from a historian’s standpoint, and this is somewhat reflective of America in general, the rural life was in steep decline and baseball gave these people something to make them feel good about themselves and their lives. 

What are some of your favorite moments in baseball history? 
The easy answer to that is whenever the Giants beat the Dodgers. Those are my favorite moments in baseball history. And I’m talking about every single time. 

I’m from northern California and I grew up a passionate Giants fan ever since I can remember. Two of the biggest moments in that history are in 1951 when the Giants beat the Dodgers in a dramatic home run playoff in the ninth inning and when they also beat the Dodgers again in a national league playoff game in 1962 by scoring four runs in the ninth inning. 

Who are some of your favorite players throughout baseball history?
Well growing up in the 60s, my hero was Willie McCovey who was the first baseman for the Giants and a hall of fame player. I tried to walk like him, swing like him, do everything like him. I also really like Gaylord Perry, the notorious spitball pitcher for the Giants. In fact, I’m writing a biography about him that will be out soon.