The Spread of Base Ball, 1859 - 1870

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[[Original Analytics by Bruce Allardice|By Bruce Allardice]]
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Some New Data on the Spread of Base Ball in the United States (Version 1.0, 9/26/2013)

by Bruce Allardice, September 2013


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William Ryczek’s “Baseball’s First Innings” deals with the impact of the Civil War on baseball by asserting “there is no question that the Civil War had a serious dampening effect on the sport(p. 162)." Similarly, George Kirsch’s “Baseball in Blue & Gray” (p. 51) quotes an 1861 New York newspaper noting that the conflict “has knocked sports out of business.” Kirsch’s book ends by claiming a post-war baseball boom. These distinguished authors back up these claims with varied and scattered evidence, ranging from the decline in games played by the famed Atlantics of Brooklyn (Kirsch, p. 51), to a decline in attendance at the yearly convention of the National Association of Base Ball Players.(Ryczek, p. 159).

Ryczek, the New York newspaper, and Kirsch had strong anecdotal evidence for their conclusions. Inspired by the new information available at Protoball and elsewhere, I’ve tried to find the hard numbers for the early growth of baseball.

My study starts in 1859, a year picked because that year marks a growth of baseball outside the New York City metropolitan area. The study ends in 1870, because the next year the first league of professionals was formed, a development that would forever change the spread of baseball. In the future, I plan to do further post 1870 studies, and also study baseball’s geographic growth.

First off, the figures from Protoball show that the growth in the number of cities with teams, with large increases in 1859 and 1860, came to a screeching halt in 1861, only to explode again in 1866 and 1867:

Chart 1—Spread of baseball to “new” cities, by year

1859 90
1860 106
1861 20
1862 11
1863 4
1864 16
1865 53
1866 174
1867 223
1868 87
1869 48
1870 60

From Protoball database, Sept. 16, 2013. This is a count of baseball’s spread to new cities, and does not include “new” clubs formed in cities that already had a club. Games played by armies in the field are not included.

The pattern of wartime decline followed by explosive growth is validated by studying the number of newspaper mentions of baseball each of those years:

Chart 2—Total hits on the phrase “base ball” in the four major online newspaper databases, by year (See the accompanying Graph for a visual presentation of these numbers)

1859 501
1860 949
1861 351
1862 272
1863 275
1864 473
1865 2018
1866 4987
1867 9408
1868 7460
1869 8037
1870 10025

The four major databases are GenealogyBank, Newspaper Archive, 19th Century Newspapers, and Chronicling America. To eliminate as much as possible the newspaper mention figures being too influenced by one newspaper or one database, I ran the figures for all four, and combined them.

Due to the varying quality of the newspapers at the time of microfilming (many over 100 years old!), character abnormalities, misspellings and abbreviations in the original text, the use of phrases other than “base ball,” and the vagaries of the Optical Character Read employed by the databases, not every incidence of a specific key word, or phrase can be found in searches. The idea here was and is to make a consistent search to detect trends, and not necessarily to come up with a hard count of every possible mention of a baseball game.

The figures for each database are below. As can be seen, the trends are consistent in all:

Chart 3—Total hits on the phrase “base ball” in the four major online newspaper databases, by year

Chronicling America 19th Century Newspaper Genealogy Bank
1859 29 83 61 328
1860 39 131 179 600
1861 17 29 37 193
1862 18 29 32 268
1863 7 34 20 214
1864 15 47 16 395
1865 95 238 141 1544
1866 586 508 539 3354
1867 1278 972 1502 5656
1868 1079 905 917 4559
1869 1028 995 1174 4840
1870 955 1151 1993 5926

This lists the count for each of the four databases used. As can be seen, while there is some variation from the trend for an individual database for a particular year, the overall trends are consistent for each (in all four, a wartime dip, followed by a rapid rise), and thus are not the product of an individual database’s coverage.

A fourth search was done in order to explore the possibility that the reports of wartime games dipped solely because the number of newspapers, or newspaper pages, dipped during the war. The search was a proxy search for the number of times an ordinary word (in this case, “become”) is used. As can be seen, there’s only a slight dip during the war—nothing like the dramatic dip in wartime baseball mentions and the subsequent postwar rise.

Chart 4--Count of Newspaper Pages, per year

1859 42,656
1860 45,095
1861 48,127
1862 38,405
1863 42,236
1864 39,448
1865 45,206
1866 50,795
1867 50,164
1868 52,429
1869 57,915
1870 56,647

Taken from Genealogy Bank, the database that usually had the most hits, Sept. 2013.

The number of published pages in these newspaper databases rose from 1859-70, with only a slight turndown during the war. It's NOT the case that many newspapers folded during the war--at least, very few in these databases.

I did a search specifically of a northern newspaper published all these years, the Chicago Tribune, to make sure the turndown wasn't a product simply of southern newspapers not having wartime local teams to report on. The dip for the Tribune was just as pronounced as the national dip.

To make triply sure the decline was a product of the war, I did a search of Newspaper Archive for mentions of “base ball” Jan.-June 1865 (June 1865 is about the date most soldiers returned to their homes) versus July-Dec. 1865. The spread is 36 mentions for Jan.-June versus 105 for July-Dec.—clearly indicating that hometown baseball resumed only with the end of the war.

While base ball's spread--in the forms of clubs and formal games--slowed down during the war, the game's spread among individuals (via army games) may not have slowed. We simply don’t have enough data to draw definitive conclusions as to army baseball. What can be shown by the data is a postwar boom, peaking in 1866-68, then plateauing 1869-70.