Modern Baseball Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Knickerbocker baseball club of Manhattan came up with radical changes to earlier versions of the game, setting the stage for the beginnings of modern baseball. The club devised new scoring rules, limited the game time to nine innings, marked foul territory, and limited each team to between eight and eleven players. The changes remain in most forms into the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

According to popular interpretation, sometime around 1845 the Manhattan-based Knickerbocker Club developed a set of rules for a revised baseball-type game that within a few years became predominant. Styled the “New York” game, the Knickerbocker version replaced a variety of older forms of baseball that dated back to the eighteenth century, if not earlier. There are two agreed-upon explanations for the emergence of baseball during the 1840’s: First, that the game was invented by Abner Doubleday, a claim that has become almost legend; and second, that the Knickerbockers invented the game. Baseball New York City;baseball in Doubleday, Abner Knickerbocker baseball club [kw]Modern Baseball Begins (c. 1845) [kw]Baseball Begins, Modern (c. 1845) [kw]Begins, Modern Baseball (c. 1845) Baseball New York City;baseball in Doubleday, Abner Knickerbocker baseball club [g]United States;c. 1845: Modern Baseball Begins[2350] [c]Sports;c. 1845: Modern Baseball Begins[2350] [c]Organizations and institutions;c. 1845: Modern Baseball Begins[2350] Adams, Daniel L. Cartwright, Alexander Joy Wheaton, William

Since the Mills Commission report was issued in 1907, most Americans have accepted the story that Doubleday—who later became a Union army Civil War hero—invented the game of baseball in Cooperstown, New York New York State;Cooperstown , in June of 1839. This fable started with baseball star Albert Spalding Spalding, Albert , who wanted to prove that baseball was American in origin. By the late 1930’s, as the Baseball Hall of Fame Hall of Fame, Baseball was coming to accept the Doubleday claim, historians conclusively disproved it. Recent historians have described a rich array of pre-1845 baseball games in the colonies and in the early United States as well as on the European continent. No longer can either the Doubleday legend or the equally simple version of the rule-drafting Knickerbockers explain adequately or accurately the origins and development of baseball.

Historian David Block has shown that the Knickerbockers produced an evolving set of rules that were a composite of rules extracted from previous versions of baseball. Nevertheless, even though that club did not invent modern baseball, the Knickerbockers enjoy a special place in the story of its development. Rather than reconcile to the complicated and somewhat confusing lineage of baseball, many Americans have stuck to the simpler stories, whether it be the Doubleday saga or the story of the Knickerbockers in 1845, as they try to pinpoint the moment when baseball became baseball.

Currier & Ives print of the 1846 baseball championship game played in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Alexander Joy Cartwright, Cartwright, Alexander Joy a bank clerk, is most often credited with devising the Knickerbocker game rules. His plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame Hall of Fame, Baseball in Cooperstown declares him the founder of modern baseball, the person who came up with the idea of ninety-foot base paths and definitive rules. Recent historians, however, have downplayed Cartwright’s contributions. John Thorn attributed much of the club’s energies to Daniel L. Adams, Adams, Daniel L. a New Hampshire-born physician who had established a practice in New York in the 1830’s. Knickerbocker Club member Duncan Curry later remembered a Mr. Wadsworth drawing up the now familiar diamond design for the field. Historian Randall Brown discovered an 1888 interview with Knickerbocker William Wheaton Wheaton, William , who maintained that the club adapted an earlier set of rules and that he had played baseball with other New York players as early as 1837. Cartwright, thus, probably did not formulate the New York rules by himself, nor design the field. His later move to California during the gold rush in 1849 undoubtedly helped spread knowledge of the game westward, however.

Regardless of who fashioned the rules, the Knickerbockers had certainly accelerated the movement away from the older versions of baseball such as town ball—the “Massachusetts” Massachusetts;baseball in game. Considering that game too slow-paced and “rural,” the New Yorkers sought to speed it up and make it more stylish. Instead of waiting for one side to tally one hundred runs, the new game would finish when a team scored twenty-one times. Later, in 1857, rule refinements established the nine-inning framework. The rules that developed in the 1840’s and 1850’s did away with the custom of throwing at a runner to put him out. The Knickerbockers also introduced the concept of foul territory, a radical break from previous styles of baseball, which utilized the whole field. Open land was scarcer in New York City, so the Knickerbockers envisioned a game in which fewer players (eight to eleven) took the field instead of the multitudes that covered town-ball expanses. Although it is inaccurate to credit the Knickerbockers with the efficiency of ninety-foot base paths, they did set up something approximating that later standard dimension, helping to streamline the sport.

The Knickerbockers also figured in another one of the cardinal events of early baseball history. In June, 1846, they crossed the Hudson River to Hoboken, New Jersey, to play against another New York baseball club at Elysian Fields. The Knickerbockers suffered a 23-1 defeat, but later, a famous Currier & Ives Currier & Ives[Currier and Ives] print commemorated the event and cemented the club’s reputation as being central to baseball’s development. The Knickerbockers would meet only sporadically thereafter to play the game. Despite their symbolic importance, they lost influence in the game, which moved away from pure amateurism to a semiprofessional status, beset by gambling scandals and less-than-sophisticated play. As with many social clubs of the day, baseball was only one of a variety of brotherly activities.


Perhaps as important as the rules associated with the Knickerbockers was the club’s important role in modeling the image of baseball as a genteel sport ideal for middle-class professionals seeking a masculine, yet gentlemanly, form of recreation in mid-nineteenth century America. Baseball, as the Knickerbockers shaped it, provided social opportunities for young middle-class men such as Cartwright. Cartwright, Alexander Joy Cut loose from the confines of small towns and rural areas, urban residents of the pre-Civil War era founded and joined clubs and associations to develop a sense of identity and camaraderie that family, church, and other social groups earlier supplied. Foreign visitors remarked that America was a nation of joiners, and the Knickerbocker Club was one of many such associations that sprang up in the 1830’s and 1840’s.

Even though a much more aggressive form of baseball, professionalized by 1869, supplanted the amateur ideals of the Knickerbockers, the club remained in existence into the 1870’s. The club never regained the status and significance it had around 1845, but its timely contributions to the evolving rules of baseball helped propel the sport into national prominence. Insofar as baseball became the “national pastime,” a term linked to it by the 1850’s, the development of the modern rules was crucial to its breaking away from previous versions of the game and from competing sports such as cricket.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Altherr, Thomas L. “’A Place Level Enough to Play Ball’: Baseball and Baseball-Type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early Republic.” NINE 8, no. 2 (Spring, 2000): 15-50. A detailed look at pre-1839 baseball-type games in North America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alvarez, Mark. The Old Ball Game. Alexandria, Va.: Redefinition Books, 1992. A useful survey of the early trends of the game.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Block, David. Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. The definitive and comprehensive study of baseball’s origins.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Randall. “How Baseball Began.” National Pastime 24 (2004): 51-54. A discussion of William Wheaton’s connection to baseball and the Knickerbockers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldstein, Warren Jay. Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. A sociological and historical study of the amateur period in early baseball.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henderson, Robert W. Ball, Bat, and Bishop: The Origin of Ball Games. 1947. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. A classic study of European and early American ball games that disproved the Abner Doubleday story.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thorn, John. “The True Father of Baseball.” In Total Baseball, edited by John Thorn and Pete Palmer. 3d ed. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993. A discussion of Daniel L. Adams’s crucial roles with the Knickerbockers.

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William Gilbert Grace. Baseball New York City;baseball in Doubleday, Abner Knickerbocker baseball club

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