The History of Olympic Baseball: (1904-1952)
This October, the IOC announced baseball will return to the 2028 LA Olympics. This week I'll be looking at Olympic baseball history!
The History of Olympic Baseball:
While the modern Olympic games have featured baseball just 6 times as an official (or medal-able) sport, of the 28 summer games that have been held, baseball has been a part of the Olympics 14 total times. The first instance of baseball being included in Olympic pageantry was during the 1904 games in St. Louis, and the most recent being the 2020 Olympics that were delayed until 2021 and held Tokyo.
The Early Demonstration Years (1904-1952)
During the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis- which was the 3rd Modern Olympiad and the first to introduce the Gold-Silver-Bronze medal format- baseball was featured as a demonstration sport, which is to say that while there was competition, there were no medals awarded. (Interestingly enough, Olympic Basketball and American Football were both also first time demonstration sports during the 1904 Olympic Games.) Unfortunately, very little is known about the baseball played during the 1904 Olympics outside of it being met with little fanfare.
Baseball would not be featured in the 1908 Olympics, but would return again for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm as part of 1 official exhibition match (and a second unofficial match). The first match was made up of mostly American track and field athletes against members of the Vesteras Baseball Club (the first baseball club in Sweden), though the Swedes were accompanied by 4 American athletes to pitch and catch due to inexperience. In that match included runner John Paul Jones who is known for having the first ratified American mile time by the IAAF (he went 1-3 with a run and 2 stolen bases) while the American team won 13-3 in a 6-inning affair, during which the US team forfeited batting in the top of the 6th inning and gave Sweden 6 outs in the bottom of the 6th to end the game.
In the second match- which appears to have not been sanctioned by the Olympics- the US team split up into two sides: US East "Olympic" and US West "Finland" (why they chose Finland, I have no idea considering the games were held in Stockholm, Sweden) during which a man by the name of Jim Thorpe played for the US East team and went 1-2 in a 6-3 victory over US West.
Baseball would sit out for the next 4 Olympic games and return in 1936 for the Berlin Olympics. Just one sanctioned match would take place between teams called the "World Champions" and the "US Olympics". As far as my research has let me know, and much like the 1912 Olympics, the teams were chosen at random and featured mostly (if not only) American athletes. The "World Champions" would win the game 6-5 over 7 innings in front of a crowd of 90,000 at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.
Of note, one player on the "World Champions" side did go on to play in the MLB: Bill Sayles, who pitched in 28 total games over 2 seasons (1939 and 1943) for the Boston Red Sox, New York Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers.
After Berlin, the Olympics took a 12 year break until 1948 and baseball would return again- in spirit- during the 1952 games in Helsinki Finland. The sport would see just one exhibition match played, between two teams of Finnish players between the Finish Baseball Federation (Pesäpalloliitto) and the Finnish Worker's Athletic Federation (Työväen Urheiluliitto). The Pesäpalloliitto would win a shortened game 8-4.
The interesting part of this Olympic demonstration is that, while officially connected with baseball, the sport being played was actually the Finnish sport of Pesäpallo (the Finnish version of baseball). Just last year, MLB Europe put out this great video about Pesäpallo. You can also learn more about the rules from this video by Nihn Ly (Nihn Explains).