Friday, April 25, 2008

The National Pastime?

Even though football has long surpassed baseball as the most popular team sport in America, some people still refer to baseball as "the national pastime." Have you ever wondered when that term was first applied to baseball? Here's what my research shows:

Although baseball evolved in the mid-19th century from the British games cricket and rounders, people almost immediately began to consider it a quintessentially American game. Probably the first journalist to call it "America's national pastime" was William Trotter Porter, who ran Spirit of the Times, a leading sports journal, in the mid-1800s. If it wasn't Porter, the next likely candidate is the famed writer Henry Chadwick, who wrote: "Undoubtedly, the most popular summer pastime of America is the now national game of base ball."

Chadwick is an important figure in the history of the game. A true baseball pioneer, Chadwick was the first reporter to cover the sport regularly for major newspapers. He developed the box score and the first scoring system, and he wrote the first books and guides on the sport. Many called him the “Father of Baseball,” and he had strong ideas about how the game should be played, preferring “scientific” baseball—spray hitting, aggressive baserunning—over slugging; these strategies dominated baseball until the 1920s.

Regardless of who first coined the term, it was poet Walt Whitman who cemented baseball's place in mid-century America with this famous phrase: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game—the American game. It will take our people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair losses and be a blessing to us.”

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