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It is considered America's National Pastime. Far more than just a mere sporting event, baseball has become a major part of the American culture and has often been responsible for bringing people together in times of crisis. During war, following natural disaster and in the midst of economic hardship, the game has always provided an emotional escape for people from every race, religion and background who can collectively find solace at the ballpark. Therefore, it somehow seems fitting that the origins of modern baseball can be traced back to a divided America when the country was in the midst of a great Civil War. Despite the political and social grievances that resulted in the separation of the North and South, both sides shared some common interests such as playing baseball.
Although baseball was somewhat popular in larger communities on both sides of the Mason Dixon line, it did not achieve widespread popularity until after the war had started. The mass concentration of young men in army camps and prisons eventually converted the sport formerly reserved for "gentlemen" into a recreational pastime that could be enjoyed by people from all backgrounds. For instance, both officers and enlisted men played side by side and soldiers earned their places on the team because of their athletic talents, not their military rank or social standing. Both Union and Confederate officers endorsed baseball as a much-needed morale builder that also provided physical conditioning. After long details at camp, it eased the boredom and created team spirit among the men. Often, the teamwork displayed on the baseball diamond often translated into teamwork on the battlefield. Many times, soldiers would write of these games in letters home as they were much more pleasant to recall than the hardship of battle.
Private Alpheris B. Parker of the 10th Massachusetts wrote:
The parade ground has been a busy place for a week or so past, ball-playing having become a mania in camp. Officer and men forget, for a time, the differences in rank and indulge in the invigorating sport with a schoolboy's ardor.
Another Private, writing home from Virginia recalled:
It is astonishing how indifferent a person can become to danger. The report of musketry is heard but a very little distance from us...yet over there on the other side of the road most of our company, playing bat ball and perhaps in less than half an hour, they may be called to play a Ball game of a more serious nature.
Sometimes, games would be interrupted by the call of battle. George Putnam, a Union soldier humorously wrote of a game that was "called-early" due to the surprise attack on their camp by Confederate infantry:
Suddenly there was a scattering of fire, which three outfielders caught the brunt; the centerfield was hit and was captured, left and right field managed to get back to our lines. The attack...was repelled without serious difficulty, but we had lost not only our centerfield, but...the only baseball in Alexandria, Texas.
It has been disputed for decades whether Union General Abner Doubleday was in fact the "father of the modern game". Many baseball historians still reject the notion that Doubleday designed the first baseball diamond and drew up the modern rules. Nothing in his personal writings corroborates this story, which was originally put forward by an elderly Civil War veteran, Abner Graves, who served under him. Still, the City of Cooperstown, NY dedicated Doubleday Field in 1920 as the "official" birthplace of the organized baseball. Later Cooperstown became the home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Doubleday was an 1842 graduate of West Point (graduating with A.P. Stewart, D.H. Hill, Earl Van Dorn and James Longstreet) and served in both the Mexican and Seminole wars. In 1861, he was stationed at the garrison in Charleston Harbor. It is said that it was Doubleday, an artillery officer, who aimed the first Fort Sumter guns in response to the Confederate bombardment that initiated the war. Later he served in the Shenandoah region as a brigadier of volunteers and was assigned to a brigade of Irwin McDowell's corps during the campaign of Second Manassas. He also commanded a division of the I Corps at Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg as well at Gettysburg where he assumed the command of I Corps after the fall of Gen. John F. Reynolds, helping to repel the infamous "Pickett's Charge." Strangely, his outstanding military service has been all but forgotten yet his controversial baseball legacy still lives on. Regardless of really being (or not being) the actual "inventor" of the modern version, Doubleday did apparently organized several exhibitions between Union divisions and was an apparent student and fan of the game. Many of these contests were attended by thousands of spectators and often made front-page news equal to the war reports from the field.
In 1861 at the start of the war, an amateur team made up of members of the 71st New York Regiment defeated the Washington Nationals baseball club by a score of 41 to 13. When the 71st New York later returned to the man the defenses of Washington in 1862, the teams played a rematch, which the Nationals won 28 to 13. Unfortunately, the victory came in part because some of the 71st's best athletes had been killed at Bull Run only weeks after their first game. One of the biggest attended sporting events of the nineteenth century occurred on Christmas in 1862 when the 165th New York Volunteer Regiment (Zouaves) played at Hilton Head, South Carolina with more than 40,000 troops looking on. The Zouaves' opponent was a team composed of men selected from other Union regiments. Interestingly, A.G. Mills, who would later become the president of the National League, participated in the game.
After the war ended, many men from both sides returned home to share the game that they had learned near the battlefield. Eventually organized baseball grew in popularity abroad and helped bring together a country that had been torn apart for so many years. Coincidentally, another Civil War icon, General George Armstrong Custer, was killed along with two hundred and sixty-four Union Calvary troopers after engaging the Sioux tribe at Little Big Horn the same year the first National League was established. Custer had fought at the first battle of Bull Run, distinguished himself in both the Peninsular campaign as well as Gettysburg and was selected as the Union officer to receive the Confederate flag of truce at Appomattox Courthouse. It has been reported that many members of the U.S. Calvary, most of them veterans of the Civil War, also engaged in baseball games to pass the time while protecting the western territories.
Today, over a century later, baseball is still a popular American institution and remains a testament to both "Billy Yank" AND "Johnny Reb" who laid down their muskets to pick up a ball and help establish a National Pastime.
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