Base Ball to Base-Ball to Baseball

This article was written by Charlie Bevis

This article was published in 2006 Baseball Research Journal

Baseball didn’t just develop into the national pastime in the late 19th century. Baseball also developed into one word at that time from its roots as a two-word phrase. The one-word term “baseball” developed into its compound form from its previous spelling as two separate words, the adjective “base” preceding the noun “ball,” and an intermediate hyphenated version as “base-ball.”

Linguists refer to this process as word formation, or the creation of a new word by combining two older words. The formation of solid compound words such as baseball typically follows a pattern. As noted in the American Heritage Book of English Usage, “Many solid compounds begin as separate words, evolve into hyphenated compounds, and later become solid compounds.”

Using the archives of the New York Times, we can easily discern the evolution of how the new word “baseball” developed during the last half of the 19th century. From its first references in 1855 through 1869, the game was spelled as two words, “base ball.” For example, a headline on September 1, 1868, regarding the match between the Athletics and the Atlantics read:

Base Ball
The Grand Match in Philadelphia— the Defeat of the Athletics—An Immense Assemblage of Spectators

Beginning in 1870, the Times switched to hyphenating the two words as “base-ball” rather than treat them as separate terms. Illustrating this is a headline of February 7, 1876, about the formation of the National League, which read:

A Meeting of the Managers of the Professional Nines—the Philadelphia Club Excluded from the Championship Contests—New Rules

Then in 1884, the Times eliminated the hyphen and converted the sport into one word, “baseball.” For instance, a headline on October 24, 1884, about the World Series game between Providence of the National League and the Metropolitan club of the American Association read:

The Baseball Field
The Providence Boys Put a Damper on the Metropolitans

Many newspapers started to print the term “baseball” as one word in the mid-1880s, including the Washington Post and the Atlanta Constitution in addition to the New York Times. Other newspapers adopted the one-word convention in the early 1890s, including the Chicago Tribune in 1891 and the Boston Globe in 1893 (the latter newspaper going straight from two words to one word without the intervening hyphenated step).

Accompanying the change in written form was likely a subtle change in speech pattern in how the term was pronounced. Typically, when the adjective–noun combination is treated as one word, the emphasis is on the first syllable (denoted here by capital letters), i.e., BASEball. When the combination is treated as two distinct words, the stress is usually on the second word, i.e., baseBALL. The classic example here is the pronunciation of greenhouse, a place where plants grow, and green house, a building painted green.

The development of the one-word term “baseball” happened in much the same way as did the modern day terms “online” and “website.” Both of these terms linguistically began as two words, rapidly converted into a hyphenated form, then morphed into a single-term compound. Reflecting the vagaries of word formation, some publications still print these two Internet-related terms in their hyphenated or original two-word format.

The term “baseball” was treated just as inconsistently in the late 19th century as “online” and “website” are today. While many publications had evolved to spelling baseball as one word, others printed the term in its hyphenated and two-word forms. Not until the early 20th century was there general uniformity in the spelling of “baseball.”

CHARLIE BEVIS is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Writing and Literature program at Rivier College in Nashua, NH, in addition to being the author of the book Sunday Baseball: The Major Leagues’ Struggle to Play Baseball on the Lord’s Day, 1876–1934. He lives in Chelmsford, MA.