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  • Writer's pictureLloyd Brown

Baseball in Blue and Gray

Baseball in Blue & Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War is a great read for history buffs and sports fans alike. The author, George B. Kirsch, is a history professor whose area of interest is the impact of sports on life during historical times. This book addresses how the early days of baseball impacted life on both the battlefield and the home front. He also studies how baseball’s popularity had everything to do with surging American nationalism, resulting in making it America’s pastime.

The earliest portion of the book addresses the origins of the sport in the US. The author rejects the theory of Abner Doubleday creating the game as strictly a legend. Instead, he theorizes that the sport’s origin was in several early games played that resembled some aspect of the game of baseball as we know it today.

These games went by the names of rounders, the New York game, the Massachusetts game, cricket, townball and round ball, and base ball. Each of these games contains the elements of pitchers, catchers, bats, outs, and running the bases. As they became popular, the teams and players involved sought ways to improve the games by adapting rules to shorten the lengths of games, regulating the numbers of innings and players on each side, and adopting rules that would become standardized across the country. These rules eventually were adopted in 1857, shortly before the Civil War.

In the beginning, the sport was most popular in the north, as it was seen more as a “city” game. This was due in part to the large cities of the north having more organized sports clubs than in the more rural areas of the south. However, as time went on the sport became more popular in the south as port cities on the coast and along rivers became involved due to their interaction with travelers and businesses from the north.

The author also points out that in the early days of baseball, the clubs often featured patriotic names such as the Americans, the Eagles, and the Nationals. These clubs often had a club flag or pennant, and it was not unusual to also see the Stars and Stripes at the ballgames.

Soon the drums of war began, and both sides began to organize armies and training camps, as the nation had not been at war since the War of 1812. These training camps involved a great deal of tedious tasks such as marching, learning different formations, etc. resulting in boredom among the troops.

Another issue was creating a sense of teamwork amongst the troops, as many soldiers were thrown together with other troops of another social class or ethnic origin. During lull times in these training camps, many soldiers would play baseball as an escape from the dreariness of camp life. Soon the camp commanders saw the game as a way to build team spirit amongst the regiments and to get the soldiers in good physical condition.

Soon active hostilities began, and baseball even traveled to the battlefield. Some of the early skirmishes resulted in soldiers fighting acquaintances who had chosen the other side due to their beliefs about slavery. The deep hatred that developed later in the war had not yet set in. The author relates a true story of northern and southern troops having encampments on opposite sides of a river. The southern troops were taking a break from the action and were playing baseball. The troops on the northern side applauded when a southern player made an excellent play on the field.

As the war started, both sides took prisoners from the other side. Early in the war, these prison camps were well run, as they had a small number of prisoners, and they had good rations and decent housing. The prison commanders saw sports as a means of keeping the prisoners occupied and not looking for ways to escape. Each set of barracks would have a team to compete in a league or tournament. Unfortunately, the camps eventually swelled in size and could not keep up with the medical and nutritional needs of the prisoners, and as a result, became death camps for the incarcerated.

Baseball also became popular on the home front, especially in the North. While the first years of the Civil War brought the battles close to home, they left the large cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York untouched. Wartime spending brought affluence to these areas, as factories produced uniforms and armaments for the conflict. Workers at these plants would play ball during their free time. Often tournaments were scheduled, with proceeds going to the Sanitary Commission, an organization that dealt with sick and wounded soldiers.

Baseball also enjoyed an enthusiastic response on the college campuses in the north. Colleges in New England and the northeast saw leagues develop, and competitive rivalries formed amongst the participating schools. This ensured that the younger generations were supporters of the game.

Another aspect of wartime baseball was the development of sportswriters in area newspapers. These periodicals often sought ways to distract the populations from the carnage on the battlefields. Accounts of games and league standings were usually published in each edition. This also helped to broaden the knowledge of the game among the masses.

As the war ended, baseball was truly America’s pastime, as the sport was popular at all levels of society. It also saw new growth for the sport in the Southern and Western states. African American teams were formed in cities such as Camden, NJ, Chicago, and New Orleans.

Baseball was in its infancy when the Civil War began. It had been strictly a regional game played by elites. At the war’s conclusion, teams were playing at all social levels throughout the country. It brought sectional reconciliation between the North and South and was incorporated into Reconstruction efforts.

Baseball also was a major influence on American nationalism. It was now a part of foreign policy, as baseball was introduced to the Far East and the Caribbean. The National Anthem was played before games throughout the world. Missionaries, diplomats, businessmen, soldiers, and sailors would teach foreigners the rules of the game.

America’s greatest tragedy had only strengthened America’s pastime.

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