The Globalization of Baseball
With Spring Training in full swing and Japan preparing to host the 5th World Baseball Classic — a showcase of top players from 20 countries — National Sports Museum looks at the origins and eventual globalization of what is nostalgically referred to as America’s national pastime.
by Adam Slocum and Eli Goldstein
March 6th, 2023
Getty Images / NSM Illustration
1840’s: Baseball Breaks Away from Cricket, Rounders, and Town Ball
Many Americans are familiar with the romantic story of baseball being invented by future Civil War general, Abner Doubleday. In 1839, as the story goes, while standing in his neighbor’s cow pasture in his rural hometown of Cooperstown, New York, Doubleday was said to have spontaneously thought up the rules of baseball. While remaining as a memorable tale of American folklore and further solidified by the location of the highly acclaimed National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, this myth was ultimately dispelled due to Doubleday not even living in Cooperstown at that time and the game already having existed in a certain form, or forms. In reality, the great game of baseball, which would eventually become known as America’s “National Pastime”, was not invented but rather developed over many decades.
Baseball was an amalgamation of three different games: cricket, rounders, and town ball, all of which come from British, not American, origins.
Cricket, still revered around the world today, is the second most popular game worldwide with 2.5 billion fans. It began as a ball and stick game played among the British upper class. Throughout the 1850s, cricket had broader popularity in the States than baseball. Organized cricket clubs appeared in at least 22 states, attracted more participants, greater attention from the press, and larger crowds. However, cricket’s popularity in the States was mainly limited to the British immigrant communities as most people born in America began to gravitate toward the similar, but uniquely American, bat and ball game of Base Ball, which borrowed from other iterations of British bat and ball games, namely rounders and town ball.
Rounders had more of a reputation as a childhood game in Britain, rather than the organized nature of cricket. Like baseball, the field was set up in a diamond configuration where there was a batter, pitcher, and fielders confined to a certain area, as opposed to cricket’s configuration of two sets of wickets, facing each other for the batsmen to run back and forth, and the playing field surrounding the pitch on all sides. The game of rounders had a very unorganized nature and a reputation as being playable anytime and anywhere, which was conducive for neighborhood pick-up games.
Town ball, which had been played in North America since before the American Revolution, is another casual bat and ball game that was more of a recreational sport than a spectator sport. There were no set rules and regulations but rather became a very regional game where rules varied depending on geographical location.
Over time, all three of these games eventually morphed into what we now know today as the distinctly American sport of baseball.
Starting in 1845, with Alexander Cartwright’s New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, the official sport of Base Ball was properly codified and emerged over the next several decades into the “National Pastime”. However, when looking at the full scope of history, every baseball fan has the British to thank for inspiring kids and adults alike to pick up a bat and ball and start rounding the bases.
Wiki Creative Commons
1888: World Tour of Base Ball, Organized and Funded by A.G. Spalding
The first officially recorded baseball game in U.S. history took place on June 19, 1846 in Hoboken, NJ between the New York Knickerbockers and the New York Nine. It remained an amateur sport until 1869 when the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first baseball team to pay its players for their services. By 1876, the National League of Professional Baseball (predecessor to Major League Baseball) was formed, comprised of an eight-team circuit consisting of the Boston Red Caps, Chicago White Stockings, Cincinnati Reds, Hartford Dark Blues, Louisville Grays, Philadelphia Athletics, Brooklyn Mutuals, and St. Louis Browns. That very first season also ran from April to October, but only consisted of 70 games as opposed to the grueling 162-game schedule played today.
By 1888, Baseball had been branded “America’s Pastime,” the national game of an up-and-coming nation. While the game initially gained popularity at the amateur level, the professional game was now drawing enormous crowds and media attention. As Mark Twain explained, “Baseball is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.”
One of the most instrumental people in spreading the gospel of baseball was former star pitcher, Alfred Goodwill Spalding, the founder of the highly successful sporting goods company, A.G. Spalding & Bros., and the owner of the Chicago White Stockings. After attaining success with his sports business ventures, Spalding wanted to take the next step to increase the game’s reach and appeal—as well as promote his sporting goods empire internationally. For those dual reasons, he organized the World Tour of Base Ball “to further promote the interests of Base Ball,” as 1888 World Tour journalist Jimmy Ryan wrote. It was undertaken “to establish the National Game of America upon foreign soil.”
Before leaving for Australia, Spalding’s Chicago White Stockings and a group of other professional teams’ all-stars called the All-Americas team, went on a barnstorming tour across America, competing in exhibitions in front of thousands of spectators. The tour sailed across the Pacific Ocean to barnstorm around Australia; then played in the shadows of the Egyptian pyramids; followed by a few Italian cities, Paris, and across England before returning home to the east coast of the US. International spectators were impressed by the athletic excellence and muscular physique of the American athletes. Referring to the strength and fitness of the baseball players, the editor of the Melbourne Argus said, “We could not pick eighteen such men from the ranks of all our cricketers.”
The greatness of the players was evident to these diverse spectators. Though they did not fully understand the rules of the game, they still came out in the thousands to enjoy the spectacle. Spalding’s tour did a stellar job of showcasing the game of baseball to the world, but ultimately the game did not gain great popularity in the countries visited on the tour. Even though the expedition did not achieve all the results that Spalding desired, it was a great attempt to spread the gospel of baseball as a representation of American nationalism and goodwill around the world.
The Spalding Basebal Guide Collection (Library of Congress)
1950’s: Start of Pro Ball in the Dominican Republic and Japan — Leading to Two Elite Sources of MLB Talent
Without a doubt, the Dominican Republic’s (DR) favorite sport is baseball, or “pelota”– as it’s called in the DR. It embodies a limitless passion that encompasses everything: a love of God, country, family, and brotherly camaraderie. For the younger generation, often seen practicing in the streets playing an improvised version of stickball using bottle caps and broomsticks, called vitilla, the game of baseball symbolizes the dream for a better future with the possibility of becoming one of the world’s legendary Dominican baseball players. After all, it worked for Juan Marichal, Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martínez, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Robinson Canó and Nelson Cruz, among numerous others.
Major League Baseball (MLB) is viewed as the Holy Grail, but it isn’t the only forum for Dominicans to showcase their skills. The DR also has six local pro teams to support. The Dominican baseball season runs from mid-October through late January, so it’s truly a year-round passion for both players and fans. Though it’s uncertain as to when pelota was exactly introduced to the island natives, it’s believed that a group of Cubans introduced the game to the residents of San Pedro de Macoris around 1886. When the Americans occupied the island from 1916-1924, the sport’s presence grew. In the 1940’s, tournaments were held in honor of dictator Rafael Trujillo, who was instrumental in building the first baseball stadium, which opened in 1946. Shortly thereafter, the Dominican Republic Professional Baseball League began in 1951. In 1956, the first night game took place. The stadium where it was played was later known as Juan Marichal Stadium in honor of the great Dominican pitcher who played for MLB’s San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers from 1960-1975 and was the first Dominican player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.
Today, from an island of less than 11 million people, more than 10% of MLB rosters consist of players hailing from the DR.
Japan Embraces Baseball
Like the Dominican Republic, baseball was introduced to Japan in the late 19th century, primarily by American teachers and missionaries, then became the most popular national sport (apart from Sumo wrestling) during the time American soldiers were stationed there post-World War II. Its unique appeal is believed to derive from the fact that it was the first sport in Japan that focused on cooperative team play.
After the US occupation following VJ Day, the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league quickly materialized, launching in 1950. Its greatest star was the legendary home run hitter, Sadaharu Oh, who like Babe Ruth was originally signed as a pitcher. From 1959-1980, Oh, with his “flamingo-style” leg kick, had a lifetime batting average of .301 with 2,786 hits and an astonishing 868 home runs.
NPB allowed each team to sign two foreign players (later raised to four), which meant a steady flow of American players have gone to play in Japan since the early 1950’s. In 1964, the first Japanese player, Masanori Murakami, traveled to the States at the age of 20 and had a successful debut as a reliever for MLB’s San Francisco Giants. Incidentally, he was a teammate of the DR’s Juan Marichal at that time.
By now more than 60 Japanese players have competed in the Major Leagues, including Ichiro Suzuki and Shohei Ohtani, 2 of the most talented players ever to play the game.
One of the most phenomenal success stories of an international player entering the ranks of Major League Baseball occurred in 1981 with a young lefty hurler from Mexico. Fernando Valenzuela was born in 1960 in Etchohuaquila, a remote Mexican village about 350 miles south of the Arizona border. The youngest of 12 children, Fernando was the son of poor farmers indigenous to Etchohuaquila, a village with a population of less than 1000 people. Valenzuela showed great skill in baseball at a young age, playing different positions and eventually settling on pitching.
By the age of 16, Valenzuela was earning $80 per month as a pitcher in the Mexican League. By 1979, he gained enough recognition to be signed by a Major League club: the Los Angeles Dodgers. When Valenzuela arrived in the US as a rookie, not speaking any English, he had no idea how much his life was about to change. In 1981, his first full season, Valenzuela’s first 8 starts were all complete games (8-0 record), including 5 shutouts. Over those first 72 innings pitched, he only gave up 4 runs for a microscopic ERA of 0.50 with 68 strikeouts. His immediate success in the Majors led to a frenzy referred to as “Fernandomania.” With his patented screwball, which he threw regularly, and flamboyant pitching motion, including a skyward glance during the middle of each wind-up, Valenzuela’s stunning play turned him into a media icon.
After the season ended, Valenzuela became the first pitcher to win both the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards. He also was the first rookie to lead the NL in strikeouts.
Every time he pitched, he drew large crowds from the Los Angeles Latino community, who gave him the affectionate nickname, “El Toro” (the Bull). Fernando and the Dodgers went on to win the 1981 World Series with Valenzuela going 3-1 in the postseason. Fernando had a very productive 17-season career with a lifetime record of 173-153 and an ERA of 3.54, including 6 All-Star appearances. In more recent years, Fernando continues to be active in the Los Angeles area as the analyst for the Dodgers’ Spanish broadcasts. Above all though, he’ll always be remembered as that unheralded 21-year-old rookie southpaw pitcher hailing from a small town in Mexico that took the league by storm, inciting a craze throughout the strike-shortened 1981 MLB season.
Society for American Baseball Research
Clearly the globalization of baseball has made our national pastime that much more of an exciting and compelling product to watch, as an influx of foreign talent has made the quality of Major League Baseball even more extraordinary. This year, 20 teams (up from 16 in 2017) will compete in Chinese Taipei, Japan, and the United States over a fortnight from March 7-21. All the teams in the competition have representatives who play for Major League organizations at some level.
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