Celebrate Major League Baseball’s Opening Day by Reading about Baseball in Blue and Gray

Today is THE day baseball fans. Major League Baseball is back in action. Over at the New York Times, they are celebrating by looking back at the early days of baseball. Specifically, they have posted an article from Princeton University Press author George B. Kirsch on baseball during the Civil War.

Compare Kirsch’s description of “spring training” and “opening day” in 1861 to the great hullabaloo today:

In late March and early April 1861, ballplayers in dozens of American towns looked forward to another season of play. But they were not highly paid professionals whose teams traveled to Florida or Arizona for spring training. Rather, they were amateur members of private organizations founded by men whose social standing ranged from the working class through the upper-middle ranks of society. There were no formal leagues or fixed schedules of games, although there were regional associations of clubs that drew up and enforced rules for each type of bat and ball game. Contests between the best teams attracted large crowds (including many gamblers), and reporters from daily newspapers and weekly sporting magazines wrote detailed accounts of the games.

While much has changed in American baseball since 1861, what hasn’t changed is the anticipation, excitement and pure sport of the game. Unfortunately, this spirit wasn’t enough to hold the reality of the Civil War at bay according to Kirsch. He writes:

As military action between the North and the South loomed, sportswriters highlighted the analogy between America’s first team sports and warfare. Yet they were also aware of the crucial differences between play and mortal combat. In March 1861, The New York Clipper anticipated the impending crisis:

God forbid that any balls but those of the Cricket and Baseball field may be caught either on the fly or first bound, and we trust that no arms but those of the flesh may be used to impel them, or stumps, but those of the wickets, injured by them.

But three months later sober realism replaced wishful thinking. A Clipper editor remarked:

Cricket and Baseball clubs … are now enlisted in a different sort of exercise, the rifle or gun taking the place of the bat, while the play ball gives place to the leaden messenger of death. Men who have heretofore made their mark in friendly strife for superiority in various games, are now beating off the rebels who would dismember this glorious “Union of States.”

Click over to read the complete article and peruse the Disunion feature at the New York Times. Disunion is tracking, day-by-day, the course of the Civil War in America through terrific articles from experts in a variety of fields. While there is certainly a lot of military history, the editors are also focusing on cultural and social issues (like baseball!) which make for truly compelling reading.