Every October, as World Series drama unfolds, parents lament that their kids don’t care about baseball.
Their concern is hardly unfounded: Baseball has, indeed, lost its edge with young people, and the usual suspects—video games and competition from faster-moving sports—bear some of the blame. But there is another culprit, one that takes us back to the roots of the modern game. Baseball became our national pastime when its early pioneers turned a wild game into a demonstration of their diligent efforts and sober respectability.
No wonder kids today think it's a drag.
In its primitive, pre-19th century forms, baseball was literally child’s play, and it had more in common with today’s kickball games than with the modern game. Rudimentary bat-and-ball games such as “town ball” were highly participatory, with no foul lines and little distinction between players and spectators. They were governed by the playful impulses of children and pleasure-seeking adults.
Adult men started playing what we would now recognize as baseball (initially designated “base ball”) in the decades before the Civil War. Many of these were ambitious clerks and dedicated craftsmen—small manufacturers of clothes, furniture, shoes, etc. They were men with middle-class ambitions who saw their futures irrevocably tied to hard work, discipline, and the mastery of patiently acquired skills. Almost as soon these young men began playing the game regularly, they began changing it to suit their desire for respectability; for these early ballplayers, baseball was a respite from the demands of work, but it was also a form of recreation through which they could demonstrate the qualities of intense concentration and attention to detail that men with proper vocations needed to succeed.
The upwardly mobile adults who created modern baseball initially had a hard time convincing their Victorian contemporaries that they weren’t spending their time indolently, that this exhibition of batting, catching, and uninhibited running was a “manly” and wholesome pastime. Pruning away the less competitive and more playful aspects of traditional bat-and-ball games made their case easier. In doing so, they also made baseball into a serious game, which could be won through honest and devoted toil—and perhaps a little Providential favor.
As sectional strife peaked and Civil War guns blazed, baseball’s founding fathers systematized the sport, imposing standardized rules and uniform dimensions. They organized associations of baseball clubs and jettisoned “unmanly” features such as the rule that allowed un-assisted catches for outs even after the ball had bounced. Pegging runners for an out had already been eliminated. By 1876, the first permanent professional league, the National League, was established.
Eventually, in a little-known but significant turn away from the children’s game from which it emerged, baseball’s leading tinkerers sanctioned fast, overhand pitching. This change deprived hitters of the fat, stiff-wristed underhand tosses on which they had once feasted. Fielders became more expert as well, and began donning gloves for the first time. So no more tallies of 100-63. Winners defeated their opponents by scores we would recognize today, like 7-5, 5-2, and even 1-0.
The move to overhand pitching and carefully measured strike zones meant that the action would turn on innumerable judgment calls—the fraction of an inch separating ball and strike—in a way that traditional bat-and-ball games did not. As the modern game shifted attention to the compressed channel between pitching mound and batter’s box, pitchers and hitters adopted techniques that were increasingly exact and dauntingly esoteric, and many of the game’s participants (i.e., those in the field) were marginalized.