Archival Mysteries: The Origins of Maryland Baseball

Baseball is America’s great past-time and one of the few professional sports that was born here on American soil. The first organized baseball game ever played took place in Hoboken, New Jersey on June 19, 1846, under Alexander Joy Cartwright’s rules, also known as the “knickerbocker rules.” The rules we have in Major League Baseball today are still modeled after this structure. Shortly after this original contest, professional and college clubs began to spring up all over the country. Baseball was on its way.

But when exactly did competitive baseball start here on the University of Maryland campus? The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and the Baseball Almanac both state that the baseball program at Maryland began in 1893. This information conflicts with University of Maryland history sources that claim variations of the game have been played informally around campus since Civil War times, but the first official competitive baseball game took place in 1888 when Maryland Agricultural College (now the University of Maryland) took on St. Johns and the Naval Academy. This information was obtained from the Athletic Number of the Maryland Agricultural College Bulletin, published in 1915, so 1888 is the year that the university recognizes as the start of the baseball program. This had been unchallenged for some time until we recently found two articles in the Baltimore Sun recounting much earlier exploits on the diamond for the Maryland Agricultural College nine.

Maryland Agricultural College baseball team, 1887. Click to enlarge
Maryland Agricultural College baseball team, 1887. Click to enlarge

 On June 5, 1869, students at the college, under the name “Vernon Club” took on the “Star Club” of Laurel in front of “quite a number of ladies and gentlemen present to witness the friendly struggle.”  Unfortunately the students lost by over 20 runs.  Seven days later, the Aggies traveled to Annapolis to take on St. John’s College, suffering another drubbing, 34-4.

This earlier date reinforced the suspicion that the actual beginnings of baseball at the MAC occurred much earlier than 1888. In the mid-1990s, the Archives uncovered a collection of old baseball rule books in the attic of the Inn and Conference Center at the edge of the campus, amongst the records of the University of Maryland’s President’s Office. The earliest rule book is in extremely fragile condition and dates to 1871. Other rule books range from 1877 to 1910. This find implies that the cadets on campus were playing some form of organized ball at least as early as 1871. The rulebooks include sections such as a “league constitution,” “playing rules,” and “treatment of umpires.” They feature elaborate field and equipment diagrams and explain many rules that are still in effect today.

Baseball game near the Rossborough Inn, Farmers Day, 1923
Baseball game near the Rossborough Inn, Farmers Day, 1923

So this brings us back to the original question. When exactly did competitive baseball start on campus? The answer proves to be both very ambiguous and complicated. The rule books suggest that by 1871, organized baseball was being played at Maryland. In addition, the Baltimore Sun article certainly proves that the college was fielding an organized competitive team in 1869. Did it really take 19 additional years to form the start of the program that the university recognizes today? While it certainly seems that the date of our first organized game should be changed, the full story of our baseball program’s development may never be fully understood.

Click the link to check out some very early Major League baseball rule books: http://www.lib.umd.edu/univarchives/baseball 

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