Play Ball! The Rise of Baseball as America's Pastime

In partnership with
Instructor Bruce Markusen, Manager of Digital and Outreach Learning
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
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Course No. 8629
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn how early baseball clubs helped form the rules of the game.
  • Explore the impact of the railroads and World War I on baseball.
  • Uncover the origins of popular baseball songs and traditions.
  • Learn how statistics came to be such an integral part of the game.

Course Overview

Take a time machine back to the days of pre-industrial America and you’ll see youths, both in the city and in the countryside, playing informal bat-and-ball games. In many ways, these simple activities looked a bit like our modern game of baseball, but they also differed from the now familiar sport in various and significant ways. When you return to the present and head to a local ballpark, you’ll see a very formalized game, one with rigorous rules (both written and unwritten) and also played by adults. And yet the sport captivates our nation’s consciousness and reflects our rich and varied culture, long since having earned the title of “America’s Pastime.”

Every spring, Americans of all ages and backgrounds watch baseball games at their local stadiums or on television. It’s a sport that has become a ritual for millions of fans and participants. Its features—from bunts and home runs to stolen bases and diving catches to popular chants and trading cards—are inextricably linked to American culture. Since the 19th century, baseball has held a celebrated and important place at the heart of the American spirit.

Every time you watch baseball, whether it’s at a youth league field or a major league stadium, you’re watching more than just a game—you’re participating in the latest chapter of a compelling story. What began as the earliest bat-and-ball games became the favorite American pastime of the first 19th-century baseball games. Knowing the history of how baseball came to be what it is today will add levels of enjoyment, respect, and appreciation to any game you watch.

The Great Courses has collaborated with the esteemed National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, to offer a baseball course to fans devoted to baseball and to the public, at large, for those who are curious about the story of American baseball. In 24 lectures that paint a portrait of the sport’s remarkable past, taking you from the decades before the Civil War to the pivotal year of 1920, Play Ball! The Rise of Baseball as America’s Pastime offers a well-rounded, historically rich look at this most distinctive slice of Americana.

Written by famed historian Peter Morris and presented by Bruce Markusen of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, these lectures guide you through decades of experimentation, change, controversy, and triumph. You’ll encounter early baseball giants, including Albert G. Spalding, Harry Wright, and Harry M. Stevens. You’ll learn the origins of everything from catcher’s masks to batting averages. You’ll consider the true stories of how women, African Americans, and others overcame adversity on and off the diamond. And all of this with the help of remarkable artifacts, images, and footage from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s vast holdings.

The story of baseball is one of resourcefulness, entertainment, patriotism, bravery, and grit. It is, in many ways, the story of America itself.

Explore Baseball’s Relationship with National Events

The cultural history of the United States can be explored through many avenues: through its wars, its social movements, its political philosophies, and many others. At first, you might not think that America’s favorite pastime, baseball, would have much to offer in the way of understanding American history, but the truth is that the sport of a nation can shape the culture of a nation—which, in turn, can be shaped by national events.

Striking the perfect balance between sports lore and cultural history, Play Ball! charts the movement of baseball from an amateur sport to a professional enterprise. Mr. Markusen takes you back to a time when children’s bat-and-ball games were first adapted by grown-ups looking for exercise and fresh air. From there, you proceed through several decades of experimentation and change, when: rules were first written (and rewritten), clubs and leagues were first organized, and fan bases grew. Your journey ends in the pivotal year 1920, when a sense of uniformity in the game was finally achieved.

Along the way, you’ll discover how the larger forces at work in America played their own part in shaping how baseball was played. You will look at the relationships between:

  • Baseball and Transportation. Why was there no standard version of baseball before the Knickerbockers’ version was widely adopted in the 1850s? Americans didn’t travel enough for there to be a need for such uniformity. After the Civil War, however, the rapid expansion of railroad networks (which helped people escape cities) allowed for more frequent baseball tours and a greater need for standardized rules.
  • Baseball and War. Initially, major league ballplayers were given a temporary reprieve from enlisting in World War I. Ultimately, baseball was classified as a “non-essential occupation” and ballplayers who didn’t qualify for an exemption faced the prospect of being sent to the front lines. They put their baseball careers on hold to take jobs in munitions factories and shipbuilding plants.
  • Baseball and Business. Part of baseball’s story is its evolution from exercise to business. At the start of the 20th century, Major League Baseball teams began showing an appreciation for brand identification by placing a greater emphasis on logos, team colors, and standard team nicknames. And we can’t forget the concessions business, built on the shoulders of a man named “Hustling” Harry Stevens.
  • Baseball and the Press. In baseball’s early years, most reporters devoted little space to the action of the game, and instead focused on pre-game and post-game festivities. Eventually, newspapers began to experiment with more compelling techniques, including using the box score as a way to encapsulate each player’s contribution without having to summarize every at-bat.

Unearth the Roots of America’s Pastime

As you’d expect from a course dedicated to unearthing the roots of the favorite American pastime, Play Ball! is packed with details and insights that just might cause you to rethink what you thought you knew about nearly every aspect of the game.

  • Post-season matchups of the champions of the National League and American Association ended in 1891, when the two rival organizations merged into a single 12-team league, initially dubbed the “Big League”—a nickname that soon came to be used as a synonym for the major leagues.
  • The terms “infield” and “outfield” are borrowed from farming, the former described in a glossary of agrarian landscaping as “the best land … usually near the farm buildings” that received all the fertilizer and the latter described as “no man’s land,” so any fielder stationed out there had to contend with all sorts of impediments.
  • Early umpires were typically local men hired by the home team who knew any call that went against them would bring hoots of derision from the crowd and make future assignments less likely, so visiting teams learned not to expect favorable rulings on any play that was remotely close.
  • Ballparks in the 19th century, in light of the limited funds owners were able to spend on them, were regarded as temporary structures built on pieces of land nobody else wanted, and groundskeepers crafted clever ways to create home-field advantages such as sloping the baselines so bunts wouldn’t roll foul.
  • The tobacco industry took advantage of baseball’s broad cultural appeal by including baseball cards in packages of cigarettes; and the strategy worked, resulting in increased sales and inspiring other companies (such as CRACKER JACK©) to produce baseball cards, as well.

Get Unprecedented Access to Baseball History

Filmed entirely on location at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Play Ball! offers unprecedented access to baseball treasures, including some artifacts not currently on exhibit.

Among the hundreds of objects featured, you’ll encounter historically significant items such as a copy of Dewitt’s Base Ball Umpire’s Guide: A Complete Book of Instructions to Umpires of the Professional and Amateur Arena, published in 1875; illustrations from a rare 19th-century baseball scrapbook; early designs for baseballs; and much, much more.

Mr. Markusen presents this in-depth study of baseball and American history with the knowledge of a consummate historian—and the excitement of the proudest fan.

“This was a dynamic era,” he said of the decades covered in Play Ball! “It was filled with larger-than-life personalities who didn’t always agree on what was best for the game they loved. But on the whole, the spirit that carried the day has breathed life and excitement into our springs, summers, and falls ever since.”

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Ground Rules: Baseball before Babe Ruth
    The year 1920 is considered a pivotal year in baseball, when a sense of uniformity in the game was finally achieved. But what about the decades before? Travel back to the years before 1920—a time when changes in the game were rapid, dramatic, and often surprising. x
  • 2
    Early Bat and Ball Games
    Take a look back at the very beginnings of baseball and discover how and why the early version of the game evolved in the middle of the 19th century. Learn how early clubs like the Gothams and the Knickerbockers helped repurpose a familiar child's game so it could be played by urban adults. x
  • 3
    The Era of Amateur Baseball Clubs
    Explore the rise of amateur baseball clubs in the United States. The tour starts with Brooklyn's Eckford Club, whose outings primarily served as refreshing countryside excursions. Then, go back still further to follow the rise of the Knickerbocker Club of New York City and the significance of their 1845 decision to write down the rules of the game. x
  • 4
    The Dawn of Professional Baseball
    In this lecture, learn how the game of baseball moved toward professionalism—and what made professionalization so polarizing. Central to this lecture is future Hall of Famer Harry Wright, who helped pave the way for professional baseball’s success by assembling a talented group of players (and touting their refinement and decorum). x
  • 5
    Baseball's Many Leagues and Associations
    Learn how, after a tumultuous three decades, baseball finally found a formula for 20th-century success: leagues and associations. Topics include the transformations of minor leagues into major ones, the competitive relationships between leagues, and the national agreement of 1883 that paved the way for what became known as “organized baseball.” x
  • 6
    How Baseball Created the World Series
    One effective way to increase public confidence in the outcome of competitive baseball? Offer a valuable prize to the winners. Chart the turbulent evolution of the post-season series: a story filled with controversy, sabotage, peace agreements, and injuries, culminating in the first World Series between the Boston Americans and the National League Pirates. x
  • 7
    Baseball Grows by Hitting the Road
    In the second half of the 19th century, advancing technology offered greater access to faraway places, which opened new avenues for baseball. From national to world tours, take a closer look at how baseball's popularity continued to spread, and how men like Jimmy Ryan and Albert Goodwill Spalding helped set it all in motion. x
  • 8
    Sacred Ground: Baseball's Early Ballparks
    In this lecture, survey the history of ballparks from the Elysian Fields in Hoboken to Wrigley Field to Fenway Park and beyond. You’ll learn how ballparks were defined by their surroundings, the rise of “infields” and “outfields,” the idiosyncratic dimensions and sizes of 19th-century ballparks, the state-of-the-art architectural elements of 20th-century ballparks, and more. x
  • 9
    The Development of Baseball's Rules
    Here, Mr. Markusen helps you make sense of the litany of rule changes that took place in the 75 years between 1845 (when the Knickerbocker Club of New York City framed the first written rules) and 1920 (when it became customary to replace the baseball on a regular basis). x
  • 10
    The Evolution of Protective Equipment
    Face masks, chest protectors, catcher’s mitts, fielder’s gloves—explore how protective equipment became more and more a part of baseball (after much tinkering and adjusting). Also, consider complaints by “old-time” baseball fans that the proliferation of protective equipment robbed the sport of two crucial elements: skill and courage. x
  • 11
    The Role of Women in Baseball's Early Days
    First, examine the role of women in baseball as spectators whose presence was expected to prevent coarse behavior by male fans. Then, explore how colleges like Vassar allowed a select number of 19th-century women to play baseball without scorn. Finally, consider the changes that the “new woman” brought, both in the stands and on the field. x
  • 12
    Black Baseball before the Negro Leagues
    After Emancipation, hopes of baseball becoming a vista of racial harmony were quickly checked. Explore the intersection of baseball and race, from the success of Minor League Baseball players like Frank Grant and George Stovey to the Negro Leagues, which became one of the largest industries to be predominantly owned and operated by African Americans. x
  • 13
    Prejudice and Diversity in Early Baseball
    Turn to another form of injustice in baseball: a prejudice against minority groups that contradicted the idea of the baseball diamond as a beacon of equality. Investigate the setbacks and triumphs of Irish Americans, Jewish players, Native Americans, and those with physical handicaps as they fought (and continue to fight) for inclusion. x
  • 14
    Baseball Grows through the Press
    How did early newspaper editors cover baseball games and decide what, exactly, to write about? What makes Henry Chadwick such a monumental figure in early baseball writing? How did the introduction of the box score help baseball reporters with their jobs? How did post-game access to players change the nature of reporting? x
  • 15
    Baseball Becomes a Game of Numbers
    Most baseball fans take batting averages for granted. But there was a time when statistics were new enough to baseball that they were considered glamorous. Explore everything from how early spectators tracked scores to the professional problems with emphasizing stats to how these numbers began to appear on baseball cards. x
  • 16
    Baseball: A Game for the Fans
    Mr. Markusen reveals how baseball grew to become the national pastime it is today. You’ll learn about the origins of both “fans” and “cranks”; the increased emphasis on baseball as a wholesome family experience; and the magic ability of souvenirs, keepsakes, and autographs to preserve the ballpark experience. x
  • 17
    Baseball and Our Common Culture
    In this lecture, learn to better appreciate baseball’s longstanding ties to American culture. Get the story behind baseball’s connection to poetry and fiction (“Casey at the Bat”), music (“Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), food (CRACKER JACK®), collectibles (baseball cards), and even language (terms such as “bush league” and “home run”). x
  • 18
    The Business behind the National Pastime
    There's a business side to baseball that goes back to the amateur clubs of the game's earliest years. In this lecture on the economics of America's pastime, explore early resentment about paying for tickets; the rise of advertising and promotions to increase fan allegiance; and the emergence of brand-empowering logos, colors, and nicknames. x
  • 19
    Players, Owners, and the Reserve Clause
    The reserve clause (or the “five-man rule”) played a crucial role in every labor war that took place during the first half-century of professional baseball, and was standard practice until the 1970s. Trace the events that would lead to a fight against the right of teams to reserve players—a struggle to which today’s big leaguers are indebted. x
  • 20
    American Politics and Early Baseball
    For over a century, U.S. presidents have regularly rung in the new baseball year by throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day. From President Taft (the first to throw a pitch) to President Eisenhower (who initially underestimated the game's cultural importance), learn about the relationship between presidents and baseball. x
  • 21
    Baseball's Rituals and Traditions
    Why do fielders throw the ball “around the horn” after a strikeout? Why do fans perform “the wave”? When did the “seventh-inning stretch” become a thing? Why do managers wear uniforms? Uncover the roots of these and other rituals and traditions, and the powerful roles they play in baseball. x
  • 22
    The Impact of War on Baseball
    Examine how World War I encroached upon the comparatively tranquil national pastime. You’ll discover the talents of baseball-playing military companies, including one group of “Buffalo soldiers,” as well as a growing emphasis on physical fitness on the field and patriotism in the stands (exemplified by the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”). x
  • 23
    Scandals and Deception on the Diamond
    The 1919 Black Sox scandal (often thought of as “baseball’s original sin”) marked a turning point in how Americans thought about the right way to play baseball. Join the debate over the complexity of this and other baseball scandals, and the moral quandaries of both deception and the appearance of deception. x
  • 24
    How Changing Baseballs Changed the Game
    Today, we take for granted the idea that every ball used during a game is essentially identical, but this wasn’t so prior to 1920. In this final lecture, explore early variations of baseballs (including the “lemon peel ball”), the evolution of batting orders and the foul strike rule, and more. x

Lecture Titles

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What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Instant Video Includes:
  • Ability to download 24 video lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 200-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 200-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Diagrams
  • Bibliography

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Your professor

Bruce Markusen

About Your Professor

Bruce Markusen, Manager of Digital and Outreach Learning
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
Bruce Markusen is the Manager of Digital and Outreach Learning in the education department at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, in Cooperstown, New York, where he teaches students through virtual field trip technology. He has also worked in the Hall of Fame’s research and programming departments, and he was formerly a teacher at The Farmers’ Museum and the Fenimore Art Museum. Mr. Markusen has extensive media...
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Reviews

Play Ball! The Rise of Baseball as America's Pastime is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 17.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from AMERICA'S PAST TIME COMPARED TO THE VISIT TO THE HALL OF FAME, THIS COURSE WAS JUST LIKE I WAS THERE AGAIN. ONLY WOW EXPRESS MY APPRECIATION!
Date published: 2019-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Play ball I’ve always been a big baseball fan. It’s still America’s pastime. Baseball is much like life. It lasts a short span of time for some and it is perpetual for others. There are no four quarters, or periods. This lesson tells us of the beginnings of baseball and how it began . The critical course and evolution determines the degree of what we’re viewing today.
Date published: 2019-08-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Stuff Bought this last week. Been a baseball fan for 65 years. Finally learned how the game developed, where many terms came from, and reviewed many of the early great players. Next Course: How bout a thorough explanation of the rules. Many are so vague and/or subjective that they are very hard to understand. Another Course: 1920 to last expansion to 30 teams.
Date published: 2019-08-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Deficient Director So far I've viewed only the first three programs. The director is to be chastised for his continuing side views of the speaker. In my choral directing and teaching of math and computing, eye contact with my charges is emphasized as of paramount importance. It is a shame that such (so far) interesting material is undermined by this directorial shortcoming.
Date published: 2019-08-16
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Poor video quality Awful video quality, poor choice for narrator, didn’t know it had permanent closed captioning. BORING
Date published: 2019-08-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Good material, poor presentation There's no other way to put it -- the lectures are boring.
Date published: 2019-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My husband loves the book. A birthday gift for a baseball fan! He loved Ken Burns' videos, so this is additional info on baseball.
Date published: 2019-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I'm going to miss it I enjoyed Play Ball! so much that I will really miss the half hour in the Hall of Fame learning the history of the game. There was so much that I never knew and other facts that I no a bit about - and all delivered in a relaxed but knowledgeable manner. Braxo!
Date published: 2019-08-02
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