Creating Baseball

Baseball: America's Home Run logo

Modern baseball emerged in the northeastern United States during the 1830s and ‘40s but did not become widespread until after the Civil War. As the nation absorbed millions of immigrants and asserted a prominent role in international affairs at the turn of the twentieth century, baseball’s promoters started describing the game as the “national pastime.” In order to present the game as distinctly American, they invented an origin myth that had no basis in real events. In the process, they overlooked baseball’s relationship to the ancient ballgames played by Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztec, Maya, and Zapotec. Indigenous ballcourts flourished in the great city centers of these highly complex societies, and the political and ritual dimensions of their games shaped modern baseball as much as any European antecedent.

Creating Baseball display case in the wood-paneled Postmasters Suite gallery
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Baseball jersey with Mesoamerican-inspired team name, 1930s–1950s
Loan from Kansas City Museum
 
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25¢ Mayan Ballcourt and Player, Mexico, 1954
Scott Catalogue Mexico C222
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35¢ Modern Stadium, Mexico, 1954
Scott Catalogue Mexico C223
 
 
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20¢ Athlete with Sling, Mexico, 1965
Scott Catalogue Mexico 965
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$2 Mayan Ball Court and Spectators, Mexico, 1965
Scott Catalogue Mexico C310a
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40¢ Batter, Mexico, 1965
Scott Catalogue Mexico 966
 

Mexican stamps commemorating participation in regional and international sporting events frequently drew a direct connection between ancient and modern games.

 
 
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Quetzalcoatl Bat by Mauricio Gómez Morín, 2018
Loan from Museo de la Filatelia de Oaxaca, A.C., Mexico
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Detail of bat
 

To create El Quetzalcoatl Bat, Gómez Morín (born 1956) engraved the plumage of Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent-hero revered by Mesoamerican civilizations, onto a U.S.-made baseball bat to represent the sport’s dual American and Latino natures.

Albert Goodwill Spalding (1850–1915), a former major league pitcher who built a sporting goods empire and organized baseball's earliest world tours, was irritated by claims that his beloved game had foreign origins. He formed a committee, called the Mills Commission, whose members birthed the myth of baseball's invention at Cooperstown, New York by Abner Doubleday in 1839.

 
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Albert Goodwill Spalding, June 30, 1910
Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
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America's National Game: Historic Facts Concerning the Beginning, Evolution, Development and Popularity of Base Ball by Albert G. Spalding, 1911
Loan from Smithsonian Institution Libraries
 

Spalding's obsession with proving baseball's "purely American origin" played out in the pages of his own publications. He uncritically incorporated the Abner Doubleday story into his book, America's National Game, because it supported his predetermined views. Although biased and flawed, Spalding's book was nonetheless the first serious attempt at writing baseball's history.

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