August 17, 2021

"Ball-Playing . . . Is An Innocent And Excellent Recreation But When The Sport Is Carried So Far As It Is At The Present Time, It Becomes A Public Nuisance" (1858)

This is believed to be the oldest known instance of someone complaining in print about baseball having changed for the worse, of not being the proper, upstanding sport it once was, of the current crop of young men not playing the game the right way, or for the right reasons.

It was published 163 years ago – eight years before the first professional team existed and 18 years before the creation of the National League.

Taken from The Happy Home and Parlor Magazine, December 1, 1858:


Ball-Playing has become an institution. It is no longer a healthful recreation in which persons of sedentary habits engage for needful relaxation and exercise; but it is now an actual institution. Young men associate for this object, organize themselves into an association, with constitution and laws to control them, and then plunge into the amusement with a sort of "Young America" fanaticism. In almost every town throughout all this region there is one of these regularly formed and inaugurated ball-clubs, the members of which meet frequently to practice the art, for the sake of being able to worst some neighboring club whom they challenge, or by whom they are challenged, to a hot contest. The matter has become a sort of mania, and on this account we speak of it. In itself a game at ball is an innocent and excellent recreation but when the sport is carried so far as it is at the present time, it becomes a public nuisance.

Our reasons for this conclusion are the following.

1. It has become a species of gambling. One club challenges another to a trial of their skill, and sometimes the victorious party are to be treated by the vanquished, to a dinner or supper. What would be the difference if the two parties should institute cards and ten-pins for the ball?

2. On these occasions a large collection of people are usually present. There is no objection to crowds, provided they meet for a worthy object. But if the object be evil, or is not an elevated one, the gathering usually becomes more or less censurable. Is it a very elevating scene to witness – the trial of skill at ball-playing between two parties of young men? We think not. It is about the same as rope-dancing, and certain equestrian amusements, that some low-bred performers perpetrate through the country for money. Then there is betting on these occasions, as there was at one of which we have had a description, where two thousand people were assembled. There is much confusion, too, even where intoxicating drinks are not to be had, and more when they are carried clandestinely upon the grounds, as they have been in certain instances. There is evil in all this, without any counterbalancing good.

3. Much profanity appears to be incidental to this way of playing ball. One club played for some weeks so near our studio, that every oath came right into the window like black, smoking cinders from the pit. A neighboring ball-club met them on their grounds several times, and then the swearing was awful. How young men could contrive to use so dexterously the worst words in the English language was really surprising. They would not have sworn more lustily if profanity had been necessary to propel the ball. The name of the club was "Base Ball Club." We asked a young man, why they call it "Base" remarking that once it was called Round Ball. Before he had time to reply we said, "Is it because they have so much swearing?" He saw that the name was rather significant, so that he had not much to reply. We understand that some clubs have introduced laws against the use of profane language, which is well, if the laws can be enforced. But we apprehend that they will not avail much for two reasons. One is, that a large majority of the members are swearing young men. They are in the habit of using this language, and it will take more than the rule of such an association to break them of it. The second reason is, that, as this amusement is now sustained, it provokes profanity, so that moderate swearers in other places will become immoderate on these exciting occasions.

4. It is a great waste of time and money. Two or three times a week many young men spend a part of the afternoon in this sport, and then occasionally a whole day in trying their skill with a neighboring club. Attending this there is the expense of their organization, the price of dinners and suppers, of horses and carriages to convey them to adjoining towns frequently, together with the loss of their time. If they were compelled to spend as much time and money to support preaching in the community, they would pronounce it an onerous tax.

5. It is physically injurious. Playing at ball in a moderate way for exercise is healthful for sedentary people. But this long, violent and exciting way of playing wears and tears the system. It is excessively wearisome and exhausting, much more so than tilling the farm, or making boots.

6. It absorbs the mind to the neglect of imperative duties. We are confident that employers will bear witness, that those young men, who become most absorbed in this sport, take less interest in their daily labor. This is a natural consequence. We heard an excellent school teacher complain this summer, that ball-laying had destroyed the interest of her male pupils in their school. They had caught the mania, and formed a club after the manner of the older persons, and all they seemed to think of was getting out of the school-room to enjoy the sport. For these reasons we class ball-clubs, as now existing, with circus exhibitions, military musters, pugilistic feats, cock-fighting, &c; all of which are nuisances in no small degree.

(h/t to Richard Hershberger, author of Strike Four: The Evolution of Baseball (2019))

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