Stick-and-ball games were in existence as far back as ancient Egypt. However, modern baseball developed from variations of the English game of rounders, from related regional and local games, and from children's games like "one old cat," all of which had evolved through centuries. The traditional story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, N.Y. has been discredited. Rather, in the 1840s and 50s Alexander Cartwright and Louis Wadsworth of the New York Knickerbocker Club standardized many of the features and field dimensions still in use today, with Cartwright modifying rules used by older clubs to codify fundamental rules for the game in 1845. It is widely thought that the first game of modern baseball was played by the Knickerbockers in the fall of 1845 in a park called Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J. During an 1857 convention Wadsworth established the modern standard regarding the number of players and innings. Sportswriter Henry Chadwick wrote (1858) the first rule book, and though the rules continue to change by small degrees, by 1900 the game was essentially that of today.
In the mid-19th cent. baseball was primarily popular among local clubs in the Northeast, often made up of members of the same occupation. Eventually, competition broadened, and an organization to promote standardized rules and facilitate scheduling, the National Association of Baseball Players, was formed in 1858. The movement of Union soldiers during the Civil War helped to spread the game, and increased opportunities for leisure, improved communications, and easier travel after the war fostered a wider competitive base and increased interest.
In 1869, Harry Wright organized the Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball's first professional team, and took them on a 57-game national tour, during which they were unbeaten. Seeking to expand on the Reds' success, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players in 1871 chartered nine teams in eight cities as the first professional league. In the 1870s a number of competing leagues were formed, including the National League, which soon became the predominant association.
Financial hardships, gambling-related scandals, and franchise upheaval plagued all the leagues, and a players' revolt in 1890, which resulted in a short-lived Players Association, weakened the National League. A competing league, the Western Association, changed its name to the American League in 1900 and placed clubs in several eastern cities. In 1903 the champions of the American and National leagues met for the first time in what became known as the World Series.
Both leagues fought off the challenge of the Federal League in 1914–15, but baseball's popularity and stability were threatened when the 1919 Chicago White Sox conspired to lose the World Series. Club owners then hired Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first baseball commissioner (1920–44) and charged him with resolving the crisis. Landis banned eight members of the "Black Sox" for life (despite their acquittal in a court of law), helping to lift suspicion from the professional game.
The years between 1920 and World War II were the heyday of Babe Ruth, the game's preeminent legend. Other stars made their names as well: Ruth's durable New York Yankee teammate, Lou Gehrig; the contentious batting champion Ty Cobb; outstanding pitchers like Lefty Grove, Dizzy Dean, and Walter Johnson; graceful Yankee center fielder Joe DiMaggio; and sluggers Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx, among others. Fans flocked to the large stadiums built in the 1920s.
When the Depression threatened spectatorship in the 1930s, night baseball, experimented with a half century earlier, became reality. Beginning in Cincinnati in 1935, organized baseball gradually became primarily an evening event. A network of minor league teams, scattered across the nation in smaller cities and towns, supported the two major leagues with developing talent and fan interest.
During World War II, many major league stars served in the armed forces. By the mid-1940s most had returned to their teams, but major league baseball continued to exclude black players, who, barred by a color line drawn in the 1880s, showcased their skills in separate leagues, especially the Negro National League (1920, folded late 1920s, revived 1933), the Eastern Colored League (1923, folded late 1920s), and the Negro American League (1936). Black players like Satchel Paige, Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson, and Judy Johnson, among the best in baseball, often played before large crowds, "invisible" to the white public. In 1947, Branch Rickey, Brooklyn's general manager, began the integration of the major leagues by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers. Weathering great pressure and the hatred of many players and fans, Robinson became one of the most electrifying performers in the game, paving the way for other black stars like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. Integration became a fact of baseball life so quickly that by the mid-1950s there were more African-American players on major league teams than there had been in the Negro leagues at their height of popularity just a decade earlier.
The locations of major league franchises, stable for 50 years, became unsettled in the 1950s. The Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, and other teams joined a westward migration made feasible by the expansion of air travel and attractive by population shifts (and, ultimately, by the promise of regional television coverage). The 1957 exodus of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants for California jarred New Yorkers but helped cement the game's nationwide base. In 1961, the two major leagues entered into a period of expansion, gradually adding new teams.
In the 1960s and 1970s, however, baseball's popularity was challenged by disillusionment of the young with established institutions, by the television-spurred boom of the National Football League (television was also presumed largely responsible for shrinkage of the minor-league system), and by divisiveness within the sport over new artificial playing surfaces, indoor stadiums, and rule changes like the American League's 1973 introduction of a designated hitter to bat for the pitcher (the National League never adopted the measure).
Player-club relations were tumultuous in the 1970s. The Major League Baseball Players' Association, formed in 1966, pushed for an end to the reserve clause, a contractual stipulation that bound a player to a club unless he was traded, released, or retired. The clause existed because of baseball's exemption from federal antitrust laws, and it be used to bind a player, against his will, to one team for his whole career; it also served to hold down players' salaries. Although the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the clause three times (1915, 1922, 1953) in 50 years, a mid-1970s arbitrator declared several players "free agents," and thereafter the sport was obliged to allow freer player movement among bidding teams. The Players' Association continued to strengthen the bargaining positions, salaries, and pensions of players through the 1970s and 1980s. Conflict between team owners and players represented by the Association resulted in numerous work stoppages after 1972, the worst of which canceled the final third of the 1994 season, including the World Series.
Despite these distractions, however, the major-league game continued to flourish. As Babe Ruth was held to have carried the game through the post–Black Sox era, the breaking of Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games-played record in 1996 by Cal Ripken, Jr. and the assault on the single-season home-run record by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 were seen as "rescuing" the game from its self-inflicted troubles. By the late 1990s there were 30 teams in six divisions in the major leagues (limited interleague play was introduced in 1997), and attendance and television revenues were high.
In 2001 several records fell once again, as Barry Bonds broke the single-season home-run record and other marks and Rickey Henderson crowned his other accomplishments by setting the career record for runs scored. At the same time, however, a growing anabolic steroid scandal tarnished the game, tainting the achievements of some of baseball's biggest stars (eventually including McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds) and forcing the leagues to introduce testing for steroids in 2003 and to suspend players for their use in 2005. In 2007 the Mitchell report detailed information regarding past use of steroids and human growth hormone by 89 current and former players, and suggested changes in how the major leagues test for performance-enhancing drug use.