PICTURING BASEBALL: THE NATIONAL PASTIME

By Bill Dobbins
www.billdobbinsphotography.com

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Baseball has been played in the US for a very long time – at every level from the sandlot, to local amateur teams, to semi-pro and then the big leagues.

While baseball is still a very important sport of US culture, there was a time when there were fewer major types of athletic competitions to attract the attention of the American public and attendance at baseball games was huge.  For much of its history, baseball has indeed been The National Pastime.

Baseball as an ideal sport for the 19th century.  Like soccer (international football), at its basic level baseball requires very little in the way of equipment or infrastructure.  A bat, a ball, a field in which to play, and any group can come together and play a game of baseball.  Kids could play baseball, small towns and companies could form baseball teams.  All of this was relatively inexpensive and uncomplicated.

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The most expensive baseball card in history features Honus Wagner and sold for more than a million dollars.
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The actual Honus Wagner.

This is true in cities, in the country or even among troops in far away places like Iraq or Afghanistan.  The same was true in WWII, WWI and probably during the Civil War as well.  Troops have gotten together to play baseball in just about every combat theater almost since the beginning of US history.

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Soldiers playing baseball in France during WWI. Go anywhere the troops are, from Pacific islands to the Iraqi desert, and you’re likely to see a game of baseball being played.
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Baseball cards have always been an important part of American culture: 28 Aug 1965, USA — Brothers Paul (left) and Mike (center) Arms admire their prize baseball card collection with fellow card collector Robert Trupathy. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Wikipedia on baseball:

The earliest mention of baseball in the U.S was a 1791 Pittsfield, Massachusetts, ordinance banning the playing of baseball within 80 yards (73 m) of the town meeting house.[1] In 1903, the British sportswriter Henry Chadwick published an article speculating that baseball derived from a British game called rounders, which Chadwick had played as a boy in England. But baseball executive Albert Spalding disagreed. Baseball, said Spalding, was fundamentally an American sport and began on American soil. To settle the matter, the two men appointed a commission, headed by Abraham Mills, the fourth president of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The commission, which also included six other sports executives, labored for three years, after which it declared that Abner Doubleday invented the national pastime. This would have been a surprise to Doubleday. The late Civil War hero “never knew that he had invented baseball”. But 15 years after his death, he was anointed as the father of the game”, writes baseball historian John Thorn. The myth about Doubleday inventing the game of baseball actually came from a Colorado mining engineer.[2][3][4][5] Another early reference reports that base ball was regularly played on Saturdays in 1823 on the outskirts of New York City in an area that today is Greenwich Village.[6]

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There has been a lot of mythology about the early origins of baseball, but according to History.com much of his lore is simply not true:

You may have heard that a young man named Abner Doubleday invented the game known as baseball in Cooperstown, New York, during the summer of 1839. Doubleday then went on to become a Civil War hero, while baseball became America’s beloved national pastime. 

Not only is that story untrue, it’s not even in the ballpark. 

Doubleday was still at West Point in 1839, and he never claimed to have anything to do with baseball. In 1907, a special commission created by the sporting goods magnate and former major league player A.J. Spalding used flimsy evidence—namely the claims of one man, mining engineer Abner Graves—to come up with the Doubleday origin story. Cooperstown businessmen and major league officials would rely on the myth’s enduring power in the 1930s, when they established the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in the village.

As it turns out, the real history of baseball is a little more complicated than the Doubleday legend. References to games resembling baseball in the United States date back to the 18th century. Its most direct ancestors appear to be two English games: rounders (a children’s game brought to New England by the earliest colonists) and cricket. 

By the time of the American Revolution, variations of such games were being played on schoolyards and college campuses across the country. They became even more popular in newly industrialized cities where men sought work in the mid-19th century. 

READ MORE: Oval Office Athletes and the Sports They Played

In September 1845, a group of New York City men founded the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club. One of them—volunteer firefighter and bankclerk Alexander Joy Cartwright—would codify a new set of rules that would form the basis for modern baseball, calling for a diamond-shaped infield, foul lines and the three-strike rule. He also abolished the dangerous practice of tagging runners by throwing balls at the

Cartwright’s changes made the burgeoning pastime faster-paced and more challenging while clearly differentiating it from older games like cricket. In 1846, the Knickerbockers played the first official game of baseball against a team of cricket players, beginning a new, uniquely American tradition.

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Baseball has always been a popular – if not the most popular – sport in America, and promotional posters were very common.
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Before the movies, TV or radio, when choices for entertainment were far more limited, the attendance at baseball games was huge and baseball stars were national celebrities to even a greater extent than they are today.  Most of the major baseball players of the 19th century and not well-remembered.  But the 20th century brought with it magazines, newspapers and later radio.  So fans interested in baseball history are well acquainted with the likes of early players like Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, Ty Cobb and certainly Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.  As we entered the era of TV fans got to watch televised games featuring greats like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Joe Dimaggio, Hank Aaron, Roger Maris, Derek Jeter and so many others.
Aside from magazine photos, there have been two major visual representations of baseball available to the public: posters and baseball cards.  Posters were used extensively to promote and publicize baseball, baseball teams and baseball games.  Baseball cards, on the other hand, which often came in the package when you purchased bubble gum or cigarettes, were collected by fans, frequently by kids, often bought, sold and traded and have become in time very valuable collector items.
For example, a rare Honus Wagner 1909 baseball card fetched a selling price of 1.2 million dollars.  And there are many others valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  As these cards become every more rate, their value continues to increase.
Early baseball posters also have increasing collector value as they are retrieved from attics and basements all over the country, or discovered in obscure storage units or archives.
But viewers of baseball posters did not look at them as collector are and collectors of baseball cards were not concerned with the ultimate value of these items.  If you were a kid trying to find a Babe Ruth card to fill out your collection commemorating the 1927 Yankees, to you that card was priceless.

In the modern digital age fans of baseball are much less motivated by seeing posters and the interest in collecting baseball  So it is interest to look back on what these visual representation of The National Pastime were designed and what they looked like.

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Bill Dobbins Sarah Lyons dressing room-SMALL-1

 Bill Dobbins is a professional photographer, videographer and writer based in Los Angeles.  His work has been exhibited as fine art in two museums, a number of galleries, and he has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Taschen)

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Babe-Ruth
By far, the most celebrated baseball player of all time was Babe Rush – featured in countless posters and whose baseball cards are among the most collectable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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