Since the 1870s, amateur baseball has existed in various forms as a reaction to the professionalism of the game. Generally referring to players over seventeen years old who have never been paid to play, amateur baseball has been managed nationally within the context of college athletics, various baseball organizations, and summer baseball leagues, and internationally with the goal of becoming part of the Olympic movement.
Amateurism has been positioned as "pure sport," as athletes do not receive payment for playing, and the concept has been associated with notions of fair play and character building. However, despite claims that the amateur ethos was a legacy of ancient Greek sport, it was a tradition invented in England by members of the upper class in the early nineteenth century as a manner to reinforce their social superiority. According to Steven Pope, amateurism in the United States was a reaction to an already-established professional tradition, against which members of the middle and upper classes developed sporting institutions and ideologies designed to strengthen class boundaries.
Baseball's Early Years: Amateurism vs. Professionalism
Players during baseball's formative years of the 1840s and 1850s did not necessarily consider themselves amateurs because playing baseball was a social activity, not a commercial enterprise. As such, many early baseball players were members of the middle class, or tradesmen who had disposable free time; they joined clubs to play for health or camaraderie. However, as the game became increasingly popular as a spectator sport and grew more competitive, clubs began to induct and pay expert players for their skill rather than social standing. In 1858, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) was formed to govern the game, and, shortly thereafter, the organization banned the practice of paying players for their services. However, the rule had little effect at curbing professionalism; it was frequently disregarded and rarely enforced, and increasing numbers of working-class players were paid.
Following the successful tour of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first openly all-professional team, the rift was irresolvable between amateurs who sought to play the game for fun, social interaction, and physical improvement, and professionals for whom baseball was a career. As Warren Goldstein discusses in Playing for Keeps, the leading professional and amateur clubs formed their own leagues by 1871, with the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players (NAABBP) seeking to return the game to its previous status as a pastime. Mirroring the terms used to denote status in English cricket, newspapers distinguished professional "players" from amateur "gentlemen." However, the NAABBP lasted only until 1874, when it dissolved for lack of fan interest and poor governance.
As amateur baseball failed as a commercial enterprise, attention of those who rejected professionalism within the game moved toward college athletics. However, the college game was not immune from frequent controversies surrounding amateurism and professionalism and the issue of "summer baseball." Starting in the 1880s, many collegiate players were paid by elite eastern summer resorts to provide baseball as entertainment for guests. The issue remained unresolved for several decades, even following the 1906 establishment of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which could not reach agreement among its members to ban the practice. Despite the NCAA Committee on Summer Baseball determining that "the playing of baseball in summer for gain is distinctly opposed to the principles of amateurism," dissent among university faculty and staff and popular opinion supported baseball as reasonable summer employment. The controversy was resolved during the 1950s when the NCAA developed more rigorous mechanisms to enforce amateurism.
With effective control of college baseball players, the NCAA began to sanction summer baseball leagues during the 1960s. Reviewed annually by the NCAA and partially subsidized by Major League Baseball, ten sanctioned summer leagues played in 2003, with the Cape Cod League (established in 1885), Central Illinois Collegiate League (1963), and Valley League Baseball (1962) among the oldest.
Other Amateur Organizations
The NCAA has not been the only organization governing amateur baseball throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as other groups have organized amateur competition and championships on a national basis. The National Baseball Federation (NBF—now the National Baseball Amateur Federation) was founded in 1915 and included semipro teams for several years while maintaining a classification for amateur teams. The American Baseball Congress (ABC—now American Amateur Baseball Congress, or AABC) was started as an explicitly amateur organization in 1935, in part with dissatisfied NBF members. By 1937, the ABC had grown larger than the NBF, with more than 25,000 teams taking part in 350 tournaments to qualify for its national championship. The AABC remains the largest amateur baseball association in the United States, sponsoring competition in seven divisions, ranging from subteens to adults. The National Baseball Congress also formed during the 1930s as a semipro alternative to the AABC but, with the resurgence of the minor leagues during the 1980s, now organizes a wholly amateur tournament.
International Amateur Baseball
Efforts to organize amateur baseball were not limited to the United States. In 1938, an international governing body was established following the first "Baseball World Cup." The International Baseball Federation (FIBA) resulted from the efforts of Leslie Mann, and was supported by groups such as the NCAA and ABC. As of 2004. FIBA includes 112 countries as members and sponsored international competitions ranging from junior baseball to the Olympics. USA Baseball, which was created in 1978 under the Amateur Sports Act, represents the United States in FIBA and organizes national teams for international competitions.
One of FIBA's main efforts has been in establishing baseball as a competitive sport within the Olympic movement. Baseball first appeared as an exhibition sport at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, a status it would repeat five times through 1964. Full competition as a demonstration sport occurred in 1984 in Los Angeles and 1988 in Seoul, with baseball becoming an official medal sport in the 1992 Barcelona Games. Amateur players, mostly collegians, represented the United States in Olympic competition through the 1996 Atlanta Games, with professional minor leaguers playing in 2000 in Sydney
Goldstein, Warren J. Playing the Field: A History of Early Baseball. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.
International Baseball Federation. Home page at http://www.baseball.ch.
Pope, Steven W. "Amateurism and American Sports Culture: The Invention of an Athletic Tradition in the United States, 1870–1900." International Journal of the History of Sport 13 (1996): 290–309.
Smith, Ronald A. "History of Amateurism in Men's Intercollegiate Athletics: The Continuance of a 19th-Century Anachronism in America." Quest 45 (1993): 430–447.