The sport we know today as baseball grew in the early-to-mid 19th century in various forms across the United States. The sport had evolved from two English games brought to the colonies in the 18th century: rounders and cricket. As industrialization began to take hold and cities grew, the game became increasingly popular as a pastime for the men flocking to the cities for work. By 1845, the first base ball (it was two words back then) club formed in New York, codifying the rules of the game and laying the groundwork for the sport as it exists today.
The primary effect of these rules was to make the game both more distinct from its ancestors such as cricket, and also more fast-paced and challenging. The first official game of baseball was played in 1846 in Hoboken, New Jersey between that first club – the New York Knickerbockers – and a team of cricketers.
While the “New York” game was crazily popular in the areas in and around Manhattan by the mid-1850s, similar games were rising in popularity in Philadelphia and Boston, among other places. The New Yorkers had created a National Association of Baseball Players in 1857 with 16 member clubs. The onset of the Civil War in 1861 greatly helped spread the popularity of the New York version of the game as soldiers from across the country played together, leading to a more unified and national version of the sport. At the close of the war in 1865, there were 100 member clubs in the NABBP – four years later there were 400 including clubs in faraway California.
Professional players and teams were the next logical step in the game’s evolution and in 1869, the first professional club was formed in Cincinnati. An abortive attempt at a professional league was floated in 1871, but arguments over rules, membership fees and scheduling resulted in the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs failing before a single game was played.
It took another five years before a man with a vision stepped forward and created the forerunner of today’s modern professional baseball leagues. His name was William Whitney and his league was called the Century League.
Whitney’s idea was a simple one: the emphasis would be on the ‘club’ and not the players. Whitney saw that the failure of previous professional endeavors was that it was based on the player and therefore promoted divisizeness as the players were more concerned with themselves than the club. Whitney’s plan would make the players employees of a business unit (the team) and therefore bind them to the club. The club itself would be owned by a businessman and run as a business – something the players had heretofore not shown themselves able to manage.
Whitney, a native of Boston, sought like-minded businessmen in other large cities. By the fall of 1875 he had lined up seven other men with the financial wherewithal to field a club. Along with Boston, clubs would be located in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Brooklyn and St. Louis. Not surprisingly, those cities represented the eight largest metropolises in the United States.
The last order of business was a name for the new circuit. With the U.S. celebrating it’s one hundredth birthday in 1876, the circuit would be known as the Century League.