Working at Playing: The Culture of the Workplace and the Rise of Baseball

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 1983


Oxford University Press


Baseball emerged as America's first mass popular sport during the period of industrialization. The first organized games in the late 1840's coincided with the initial wave of factory building, and the baseball craze of the decade after the Civil War paralleled the development of a full-blown industrial economy. Baseball was not merely a "mirror of American life," it was an integral part of the cultural matrix of modern business society.1 Baseball expressed and reinforced urban life, business organization, and the values that underlay them.

Some recent sociological and anthropological studies of recreation argue that people extend their work values into their leisure time, while other studies contend that they seek compensatory pastimes. Most historians have ignored this debate, but it must be confronted if we are to successfully discover the sources of baseball's popularity. This article focuses on that debate and attempts to synthesize social scientific and historical studies into a coherent framework to be used as a basis for subsequent analysis of business culture and recreation. In a larger work, currently underway, I will examine both the specific relationships between nineteenth century business society and baseball, and the bachelor subculture of which baseball was such an important part. Preliminary to that study, however, modern empirical work and sports historiography must be examained in light of the historical record in order to develop a theoretical understanding of the relationship between work and leisure in the second half of the nineteenth century.