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Stuff I learned about...19th century baseball!

Until I started writing historical fiction, I had no idea research was so much fun. Some research was specific – I needed to know when it first became possible to travel by railroad from St. Louis to Austin, Texas. Other research familiarized me with subjects I didn’t know much about, but needed for the story to feel real – for instance, the Civil War, or commonly used firearms between 1845 and 1873.

I also discovered how easy it is to meander down historical byways and get so lost in fascinating facts, events, and people that I’d forget where and why I started in the first place. Now that GALLOWAY’S GAMBLE is done and published, I thought I’d share some of these history nuggets with readers.

First up: baseball! I knew the sport had a long and murky history in America, and I wanted to use baseball here and there in the book. I’ve already written about how Ken Burns’ epic 13-hour 1990 Civil War documentary series saved me from reading 65,000 books about the war. Burns also did a monumental 18-hour documentary in 1994 about baseball. Since I’m a lifelong baseball fan anyway, nobody had to force me to sit down and indulge; I didn’t have time to re-watch the whole thing, so I reviewed the first episode about baseball’s early days. I knew the sport had a long and murky history in America, and I wanted to use baseball here and there in the book.

Here are 10 things I learned about old-time baseball:

1- Although Abner Doubleday (below) served ably as a Union Army general in the Civil War, he didn’t invent baseball in an upstate Cooperstown, New York cow pasture in 1839, as the legend goes (and the 1939 Newsweek cover below claims). However, early versions of a baseball-like game may have been played by somebody there; nobody knows for sure.

2- Baseball is likely descended from British bat and ball games including rounders and cricket.

3- A game called “town ball,” which became popular in the early 1800s, included a pitcher and “striker” (batter). Once a batted ball was in play, if a fielder threw the ball and hit a base-runner the runner would be out.

4- Lewis and Clark played ball with the Nez Perce Indians they met during their 1804-1806 Corps of Discovery Expedition. Since box scores hadn’t yet been invented, nobody knows who won.

5- In the 1840s, baseball became popular in New York City, including some of the rules we know today – if a batter swung and missed 3 times, he was out. And runners now had to be tagged with the ball or thrown out by the ball beating them to a base rather than thrown at. The premier New York club was the Knickerbockers.

6- A Knickerbocker player and baseball pioneer named Alexander Joy Cartwright, Jr. went west in 1849 to join the Gold Rush and spread the gospel of baseball – and didn’t stop until he reached Hawaii (where he may or may not have introduced the game to natives).

7- In 1857, the "Laws of Base Ball" (written by agreement between 15 New York-area clubs) established baseball’s familiar 9 innings, 9 players per team, and 90 feet between the bases.

8- During the Civil War, soldiers on both sides played the game, helping baseball become even more widespread.

9- The National League – the sport’s first major league – was established in 1876, with teams in 8 cities.

10- With baseball booming, 8 million bats were sold in 1878!

So, with the current season down to its climactic final weeks, and the post-season just ahead . . . "Play ball!"

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