One spring day in 1845, New York bank teller Alexander Cartwright suggested to his ballplaying companions that they organize formally into a club. From that humble start grew America’s national game. Versions of baseball had been played long before; varieties of the children’s game known in England as “rounders” and in America as “base ball” or “town ball” were popular throughout the northeastern states. But when the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club was organized that September, Cartwright and his friends transformed the children’s game into an adult sport, chiefly by three innovations still in effect today.
First, they increased the distance between bases to an adult-length 90 feet. This was 50% to more than 100% longer than in earlier versions. Second, they brought the game an adult sense of order by dividing the field into fair and foul territory, narrowing the hitter’s range to the space between the foul lines and reducing the number of defensive players needed. The number of players wasn’t specified in the first rules, but by 1846 the club was playing with nine to a side, and that was later made official. And third, Knickerbocker rules forbade the practice, permitted in earlier versions, of putting out baserunners by throwing the ball at them. This change not only brought dignity to baseball but also made it safe to use a harder ball, which led to faster, sharper play.
This “manly” version of baseball quickly took hold throughout metropolitan New York, and by 1860 was established as far afield as New Orleans and San Francisco. Cartwright himself helped spread the game. In 1849 he left New York to seek gold in California, traveling overland with his baseball and Knickerbocker rules, teaching the game along the way. In California he was taken ill with dysentery and abandoned thoughts of gold for the healthful climate of Hawaii. There he introduced baseball in 1852, even before it had taken hold in Philadelphia.
Cartwright became one of Honolulu’s leading merchants and bankers, founded its library and fire department (he was fire chief for ten years), and managed the finances of Hawaii’s royal family. Although he died one of Hawaii’s most respected citizens, his contribution to baseball was all but forgotten until 1938, when a review of his journals prompted his election to the Hall of Fame.