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The glorious beginnings of the most beautiful game in the world

Drew Creasman Avatar
March 19, 2020

Baseball’s beginnings are messy.

It would be lovely to believe that one day baseball didn’t exist and the next day it did. It can be tempting to believe a myriad of stories about the game from the early days, especially when you consider you can trace its origins back to the 1830s and even deeper depending on your feelings about a game called Rounders.

But, in the phenomenal documentary, Baseball by Ken Burns, we take the time to pour through all the little details and nuances and learn about how a game of stick and ball became one of the most perfect expressions of our athletic ambitions and our national identity.

Here is what stood out from the first episode, Inning One.

Turning Point – June 19, 1846

It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment the game of baseball was invented. Urban legends surrounding Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown are fun to tell but clearly the game was still in its formulating stages in those early years.

You could argue that the real turning point for this game was when Henry Chadwick of the New York Knickerbockers sat down one afternoon and decided to codify many of the rules that we know today in writing. The biggest change may have been disallowing “plugging” or getting runners out by throwing the ball at them.

But people have been inventing rules to games for as long as there have been people. What made this truly special happened on June 19, 1846, 15 years before the start of the Civil War.

That is where at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken New Jersey, the very first organized baseball game was played. In a true testament to the pain and failure the game would come to symbolize, it’s inventors were beaten 23-1 by The New York Nine.

11 years later, Chadwick and the Knickerbockers helped establish the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first league to crown a champion.

Player of the Episode – Moses Fleetwood Walker

A name that should be known in every household, it was “Fleetwood” who was the first black man to play professional baseball at the highest level in this country. His talent and skill forced him all the way to the top before a concerted effort was made by the leaders of baseball at the time to exclude him and everyone who looked like him.

Walker may not have won his fight individually, becoming the face of the color barrier that besmirched this great game and country for so long. When Jackie Robinson finally broke through that barrier 27 years later, he honored the legacy of Moses “Fleetwood” Walker and all those who came before.

Runners Up: Albert Goodwill Spalding, William Hulburt

Baseball is undoubtedly a kids game but it is also a booming business and we largely have the efforts of these two men to thank for that. In both good and bad ways, Spalding and Hulburt set the tone for how baseball would operate as a money-making venture.

You don’t get your name associated with sportsball the way Spalding has without a grand story to tell. Imagine retiring from the game at 27 years old because you think you’ve got more to offer as a manager and GM. Along with Hulbert, they helped establish the National League and the early concept of buying, selling, and dramatically underpaying players as a part of strategy.

Stat of the Episode – Cy Young 511 Wins

Ain’t no one ever breakin’ that record.

It is a weird debate to have, pitting unbreakable feats against each other, but this may be the most untouchable stat in the history of sports. In the last five years, only six pitchers have managed to win 20 games in a season. In order to catch Cy Young, a pitcher would have to win 20 games in 20 consecutive seasons… and then another 111.

Not only will this never be approached due to the modern way the game is played, especially since rise in relief pitching, but nobody in any era of the game has ever come close to this extraordinary achievement.

There is a reason that at the end of every year, the best pitchers in each league are awarded a trophy with this guy’s name on it.

Final Thoughts

We hope you will join us on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5 PM Mountain Time in order to watch future episodes of the documentary and live Tweet along with us. Make sure you subscribe to the DNVR Rockies Podcast to keep up with our post-episode conversations.

Episodes can be viewed for free here: https://www.pbs.org/franchise/ken-burns/

Join us next time when baseball finds its way into the 20th century.

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