The True Origins of Baseball (Scientifically Speaking)

We all know the outlines of the tall tale … baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York in 1839. To this day, people argue over the true origins of the game. Some trace its roots to the late 1700s in New England, while others claim it is a variation of the British game of “rounders” that may go back as far as the 1400s.

All of these attributions are wrong, at least according to my April, 2014 issue of Scientific American. In the article entitled, “Rise of the Human Predator,” the origins of baseball were revealed to go back millions years to when we diverged from chimpanzees, our closest living relatives on the Tree of Life.

While chimps remained on all fours, we developed the ability to walk upright, which required the development of a mobile waist that we could rotate independent of the hips. We were soon bestowed with the ability travel great distances and throw overhand with speed and accuracy.  And we also learned patience. Baseball enthusiasts will disagree, but anthropologists claim the development of these traits was driven solely by the need to become effective hunters to ensure the survival of our new branch of the tree.

Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man that we “possessed a hand and arm sufficiently perfect to throw a stone with precision.” This ability to throw is not unique to humans. Chimps are well known to hurl feces--of course, so are junkball pitchers. The difference is, humans do it overhand with ease, speed, and accuracy while chimps are submariners with limited targeting ability. With all due respect to softball aces, they can’t throw their stuff nearly as hard as overhand pitchers.

The Scientific American article describes the work of Neil Roach of George Washington University, “Elastic energy storage in the shoulder and the evolution of high-speed throwing in Homo,” published in Nature. Roach explains in great detail the differences between the simian body and the human form as it relates to our ability to throw. He focuses on three main issues.

First, our waist is flexible, allowing us to rotate our upper bodies independently from our hips. In chimps, it all moves together. So, we can get energy into our arm from our abs as well as from hip rotation created by the legs.

Second, we have a larger range of motion in our shoulders. This is mostly due to our shoulder socket facing more toward the side and less upward as it does in chimps. More range means more energy can be put into the arm.

Finally, the shape of our upper arm bone is different. It allows us to couple energy to our lower arm with our elbow bent. So, as we straighten the arm at the end of the throwing motion, we contribute additional energy to the lower arm, wrist, hand, and finally, the ball.

So how did Roach collect the data for his work? By using the some of the most evolved members of our species, collegiate baseball players.

So now we could throw rocks and spears with speed and accuracy to improve our chances at the hunt. However, the ability to walk upright had the added benefit of allowing us to travel great distances at high speeds.

High speeds? A cheetah can run at over 70 mph, and a horse over 50 mph, so what am I talking about? It turns out that we are one of the creatures best suited for distance running. Humans have even beaten horses in a marathon! I’m pretty sure even I can beat a chimp around the bases. Okay, maybe not.

The trick is, we don’t overheat. Humans, with the exception of the Red Sox, have a very sparse coat of hair compared to other mammals. The reduced insulation allows easier cooling. In addition, we cool ourselves by sweating through pores distributed all over our bodies. Okay, Boston did get the memo on that one. Other mammals running in fur coats simply have to stop running to cool off. No hair and the ability to sweat easily are a couple of pretty neat evolutionary tricks, eh?

So our naked ape ancestors could throw spears and run great distances to hunt down substantial beasts. Anthropologists suggest that hunting this way provided plenty of sustenance, but it required the development of teamwork, patience, and self-control.

A hunting party would need to learn the persistence to get close enough to its prey to attack. They also had to build teamwork to complete the task. For example, from a safe distance Clay Buchholz and Koji Uehara could fire spears into a wildebeest, causing injury but not likely instant death. The future meal would attempt to flee, but Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino could chase the beast until it dropped. Finally, David Ortiz could deliver the coup-de-gras, not unlike the 2013 World Series.

So, our collective trip down through the branches of the Tree of Life lead us to be able to throw, run, use teamwork, and have both patience and self-control. Are these not the essential ingredients of the national pastime?

Anthropologists claim this was all about becoming skilled hunters to ensure the survival of our species. However, as a horsehide monkey myself, I am convinced that the driving force behind human evolution was, is, and will always be baseball!

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  1. said...

    This article was good, thanks, it was informative as well as enjoyable. And as a witness to a slinging chimpanzee, I can attest that their “stuff” is not as fast as I see it at MLB games (though my classmates who caused the ruckus to might disagree about the accuracy of the slinging…)

  2. Gyre said...

    “throw overhand with speed” the nearest throwing competitor makes 35MPH, according to the info I heard months ago about this issue. We throw better, we marathon better, and we even invented beer! Life is good in the fast lane.

  3. said...

    One of the co-authors on the study is Mike Rainbow. I knew him from a few years ago when he was a Ph.D. student at Brown. For his thesis, he used high-speed motion analysis cameras in a batting-cage study of youth baseball players swinging different bats, both wood and nonwood. His data were an important input to the process of developing bat performance standards for youth baseball, under the auspices of USA Baseball.

  4. said...

    BTW, in his famous book The Physics of Baseball, Bob Adair remarks (pp. 689 of 3rd edition) that as pitchers age and their fastball velocity falls, it is not because they are not as strong but because of the reduced elasticity of the tendons.

  5. Yehoshua Friedman said...

    Awesome article, serious and amusing at the same time. The article was not about the origin of baseball, however. It was about the origin of baseball SKILLS.

  6. Bill said...

    I coached a team of British female dependents in Kuwait who were eager to play sport of some kind, and actually became quite good at it. They always told me the game must have evolved from Rounders.

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