Taking You Back in History - The Old Ball Game Part 1: Baseball's Beginnings

By Kathy Brown, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum/Southern Tuolumne County Historical Society

America's love of baseball began in the east, with the first teams being formed around 1845 in the New York City area. Alexander Cartwright, a New York City bookseller and round ball player, is generally given credit for initiating it there. In 1849, at age 29, he caught gold fever, left his job and his family, and traveled overland to the Gold Rush. Since the easy gold was gone by the time he arrived he only stayed for five months, so it is uncertain if he is the one who brought the game west. Others arriving from the east in 1850, may have sowed the seeds for the game in California.


The earliest reference to baseball being played in the Golden State is found in the California Courier in 1851, “The Plaza (Portsmouth Square) has at last been turned to some account by our citizens. Yesterday quite a crowd collected upon it, to take part in and witness, a game of ball, money taking a hand. We are better pleased at it than to witness the crowds in the gambling saloons which surround the square.”


Rules of Baseball were drawn up in 1857 and changed, along with equipment and uniforms, as the game developed. Clubs began to form in Sacramento in 1859 and were spread throughout Northern California by 1867. Sandlot baseball, as a form of summer exercise and entertainment, developed apace. As the game became increasingly popular all over the US and the west, the Pacific Baseball League, with Bay Area teams, formed in 1878. The National League was founded in 1876 and the American League formed in 1901 with the first World Series being played in 1903.


The public's early acceptance of the game is evidenced by the popularity of the poem “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Thayer, first published anonymously in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888. Though there is controversy, “Mudville” mentioned in the ballad is thought to be nearby Stockton since Thayer covered the news for Stockton's California League team. Take Me Out to the Ball Game, written for a stage musical and now the unofficial anthem of US baseball, was one of the most popular songs of 1908.


Population decreases in Tuolumne County as mining declined in the 1870s and 1880s could indicate that there were not have enough interested men to field teams in this area. Better technology for hard rock or quartz mining in the 1890s created another mining boom. There was an 83% growth rate in Tuolumne County from 1890 - 1900 as the mines reopened due to improved technology. A few existing photos of uniformed squads and an occasional game score or comment in old newspapers of the 1890s prove that baseball teams did exist in this area at least by 1890s, but records are sketchy. Archived photos of an 1890 Coulterville club and an 1899 Groveland squad prove that competitive ball was played between teams in this area as early as the 1890s.


Look for Part 2 of “The Old Ball Game” which will take you back in history to the “Groveland's Golden Era of Baseball” in a future post.


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