Our Ancestors and a National Pastime, by Mary Penner

First Nine of the Cincinnati (Red Stockings) Base Ball Club, 31 July 1869“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” Rogers Hornsby, the great hitter whose playing career lasted from 1915-37, voiced that sentiment about baseball.

Many other baseball lovers, like Hornsby, pine for spring and the beginning of the season. For me, though, October is the real showcase for baseball. Sure, we sweat it out all summer long with our favorite teams, but when October rolls around, things get serious. The playoffs, the World Series–there is great drama wrapped up in our national pastime.

Pinpointing baseball’s beginnings is a perpetual problem. Despite his colorful name and respectable military accomplishments, the dubious Abner Doubleday didn’t invent baseball as popular culture has enticed us to believe.

Baseball historians continue to uncover references to baseball-like games dating back more than two centuries. Who knows when our ancestors first started playing the game? Perhaps various forms of baseball have been played ever since cave-dwelling kids hit rocks with sticks, and that was a long time ago. The modern game, however, traces its roots to Hoboken, New Jersey where a group of upper-middle class New Yorkers came to play their games on the Elysian Fields in the 1840s.

Like most sports that we play today, baseball has evolved over the years. Back then pitchers threw underhand; the first team to score twenty-one runs or “aces” won; and, each team was allowed only one out per inning.

When you’re watching the playoffs and the World Series this month, remember the boys of summer in the 1800s who sweated it out on unmanicured fields, without gloves or helmets, without trainers, managers, and multi-million dollar salaries.

And, remember that baseball played a role in many of your American ancestors’ lives. They played in vacant city lots and on plowed country fields; they played in their Civil War camps and prisons. They played in Little League, on town teams, on club teams, and on high school and college squads. And a few lucky ones made it to the big leagues.

There are a number of resources for family history researchers who want to scout out their ball-playing ancestors. Here are a few:

  • Check out the ultimate baseball shrine, the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center at the Hall of Fame houses the largest collection in the world of all things baseball. You’ll find information on all professional players, not just Hall of Famers, as well as others associated with the sport such as scouts, umpires, coaches, and sports writers. If you can’t make it to Cooperstown to conduct research, you can submit a research request. Full details of research services are on their website.
  • Ancestry members can search the Professional Baseball Players, 1876-2004 on Ancestry.com. (There is another database that includes the players whose entries contain images.)  These two databases catalog more than 15,000 players. 
  • Be sure to peruse the website for the Society for American Baseball Research. They have some great ongoing baseball research projects. 
  • The LA84 Foundation headquartered in Los Angeles has the largest sports library in North America. Check out the online catalog for resources. They will also conduct research for you. Plus, there are more than 5,000 digital images of documents and essays related to baseball on its website, including images of “Baseball Magazine” from 1909-18.
  • Historical newspapers provide good coverage of teams and their efforts even before the first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, formed in 1869. Search historical newspapers at Ancestry and you’ll find game summaries and box scores of early amateur clubs. For example, an 1860 New York Times column noted that Springsteen (Bruce’s ancestor perhaps?) manned third base for the Jefferson club in “excellent style.” He made one out and scored four runs.
  • Check local newspapers for stats on major and minor league players, for collegiate and high school squads, for American Legion teams, and even for Little Leaguers.
  • Don’t forget to look at college and high school yearbooks for stats and pictures of ball players. The first intercollegiate baseball game dates back to 1859 when Amherst and Williams slugged it out. Amherst won 73-33! 
  • To learn more about Negro League ball players, check out NegroLeagueBaseball.com. Visit the Negro League Baseball Museum website for more research clues.
  • We saw a snapshot of the professional women’s league in the movie “A League of Their Own.” Get the full story at their official website along with a list of every woman who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Despite the notion that our ancestors’ lives were all work and no play, many of them did find time to play or watch baseball. For example, in 1862, reportedly 15,000 spectators turned out in New York City to see their home teams play against teams from Pennsylvania. Even if you can’t pinpoint your ancestors in uniform, read some of the thousands of books about the game’s history. Then ponder the sport back then and what it may have meant to your ancestors.

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Genealogist Mary Penner writes “Lineage Lessons,” a weekly genealogy column, for the “Albuquerque Tribune.” She can be reached through her website.

Image: First Nine of the Cincinnati (Red Stockings) Base Ball Club [dated July 31, 1869]

3 thoughts on “Our Ancestors and a National Pastime, by Mary Penner

  1. One of my distant relatives was Don Padgett, a major leaguer from 1937-1948. Because of my genealogical research, I found him. Because I love baseball, I learned all I could about him and, as a result, was able to get him inducted into his college sports hall of fame at Lenoir-Rhyne College, Hickory, NC earlier this month. Don and Emma are both deceased and had no children so my wife and I traveled to NC from Texas to accept the Hall of Fame honor on his behalf. I firmly believe that I was meant to do this for him.

  2. Roy, thanks for doing this. I heard a little about the honor last fall, but found the details while watching the Davidson Kansas NCAA game today. Don was my uncle and I can tell you he and my aunt Emma truly loved baseball.

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