It’s just not cricket – the old world origins of baseball

Although it perhaps hasn’t made all that much impression in Europe over the years – at least not at the mainstream level – baseball nevertheless remains one of the world’s more popular spectator and participation sports. Frequently referred to as America’s national pastime, baseball is perhaps only second to gridiron in terms of popularity. Massive TV audiences regularly tune in to Major League Baseball games, and the World Series championship is among the most important occasions in the American sporting calendar. But while it may seem more like rounders in pyjamas to those of us on this side of the pond, the origins of baseball are complex and the game has its roots in England.

Of course, even the casual spectator would most likely notice that baseball has certain characteristics in common with cricket and rounders. The origins of these games are themselves tricky to trace, because as folk games they originally lacked codified sets of rules and instead there were myriad local variations in different areas which tended to evolve in different directions over time. In 1801, writer Joseph Strutt claimed in his book The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England that games with some similarity to baseball had been played as early as the 14th century, claiming that the modern game was a direct descendant of stoolball – which, incidentally, is still played at local league level in some parts of England today.

While the links between modern baseball and cricket may appear relatively tenuous, the history of cricket before the mid-17th century remains somewhat opaque. The sport did enjoy some modest popularity in colonial North America, with cricket clubs established in Toronto and New York – both modern-day baseball heartlands – in 1827 and 1838 respectively. The first ever international cricket game was played between Canada and the United States in September 1844, with Canada winning by 23 runs.

The earliest known mention of baseball in the US dates from 1791, but the first team to play the game under modern rules – the New York Knickerbockers – were formed in 1845. The Knickerbocker Rules, laid down by team members led by baseball pioneer Alexander Cartwright, were a crucial milestone in the evolution of the game. Nevertheless, in the mid-19th century the local press in the New York area continued to devote more column inches to cricket than baseball.

By 1857, 16 clubs from the New York region – including the Knickerbockers – formed the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first organisation to establish a championship contest. Membership soared to 400 clubs by 1867, taking baseball from coast to coast for the first time and setting it well on the way to the kind of mass popularity it enjoys today.

Francis Lawson is a freelance writer specialising in sporting tips such as where to find the best cricket insurance and how to apply for hockey club insurance.