Early Baseball Prints

The widely told story that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839 has been debunked for some time. The first known mention of baseball is in a children’s book from the late eighteenth century. A small illustration of three boys playing is accompanied by a poem:

Base-Ball
The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin’d Post,
And then Home with Joy

The first known organized baseball game took place in 1846, by within about a decade a formal set of rules had developed. By the late 1850s, some baseball wood cut prints appeared in the illustrated newspapers of the day. The development of the wood cut for use in newspapers allowed for the publication of images of many aspects of American history and social life which didn’t warrant the production of more elaborate. This image is from the July 24, 1858 issue of New York Clipper

About the same time, a number of baseball images began to appear as music sheets, including this beautiful colored cover for “Live Oak Polka,” which was printed by Endicott & Co.
By 1860, the game was well-known enough to be used by Currier & Ives in a political print related to the Presidential election. In their “The National Game. Three ‘Outs’ and One ‘Run.’ Abraham Winning the Ball,” the four candidates are holding baseball bats and are dressed in baseball uniforms, with their belts giving the names of their “teams.” Lincoln stands on “Home Base,” indicating he is likely to win.

Image from collection of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Baseball was popular enough that Union troops played it during the Civil War, helping spread the game around the country, including to the South as the Union prisoners played the game when they could. This print is stated as being as based on a drawing by Acting Major Otto Boetticher “from nature,” indicating he was perhaps a prisoner or at least a visitor. The camp looks quite clean and the players and spectators look quite relaxed.
By the end of the war, Charles Peverelly wrote:

The game of Base Ball has now become beyond question the leading feature of the out-door sports of the United States. (Book of American Pastimes, 1866)

The popularity of the game inspired Currier & Ives, “America’s Printmakers,” to decide to produce one of their top quality, expensive, large-folio prints. “American National Game of Base Ball: Grand Match for Championship at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, N.J.” A notice in an 1860 edition of New York Sunday Mercury reported, concerning a game between the Excelsior and the Atlantic teams for the championship, that:

Messrs. Currier & Ives, the well-known print publishers, had a corps of artists on the ground last Thursday, taking elaborate sketches of the immense field, and of the players. They propose publishing a handsome colored lithograph, which will present an accurate view of the interesting scene.

Likely because of the war, Currier & Ives didn’t produce the print until 1866, when they revisited the idea, using some of the 1860 sketches as well as later photographs, to produced this terrific print. [An excellent analysis of the print and the game it was meant to represent can be found on the “Our Game” blog.

More baseball prints followed and I think my favorites are those which continued to appear in the illustrated newspapers, such as “Thrown Out on Second” published in Harper’s Weekly, September 10, 1887. These prints were drawn first hand by some of the newspaper’s many reporters, and they wonderfully capture this part of American life with graphic immediacy.
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