Polish Workers Play Ball at Jamestown, Virginia in 1609

With this first of sixteen articles by several scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by David Block, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. Larry McCray, the guest editor for this Spring 2011 publication, is the founder of the invaluable Protoball Project, a website where many of the early game’s top scholars have shared their finds. McCray is also a panelist on Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee, which I chair. So is Block, author of the pathbreaking Baseball before We Knew It (University of Nebraska, 2005), a research-intensive investigation of the game’s English roots. These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1609.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1609.

As the journal’s editor over its first five years, I encourage you to consider purchasing the “Special Origins Issue” or, better yet, subscribing to the semiannual. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/baseball.html.


1609.1 Polish Workers Play Ball at Jamestown, Virginia

An Early Hint of Continental Europe’s Influence on Baseball 

David Block

“Soon after the new year [we] initiated a ball game played with a bat…. We rolled rags to make balls…. Our game even attracted the savages who sat around the field, delighted with this Polish sport.”1

At the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in the year 1609, a handful of Polish craftsmen took a break from their work to engage in a bat and ball game called pilka palantowa, or “bat ball.”2 Among the spectators (according to one of the Polish players who wrote about it later in a memoir), were “the savages,” “who sat around the field, delighted with this Polish sport.”3 One wonders whether the Indians were truly enjoying the ball game, or sharing smiles over their secret plans to launch attacks against this settlement of intruders. Whatever the case, this first recorded instance of Europeans importing a bat and ball pastime into the New World did not become an immediate trendsetter. The Poles would soon pack up their tools and ballplaying equipment and return to Europe; it would fall to later generations of immigrants to implant the seeds of bat and ball play that would evolve into modern American baseball.

Still, as it turns out, that early–17th century appearance of pilka palantowa in America may have anticipated an influence on American baseball not previously recognized. Palant, as the old folk game is more commonly called today in Poland, is linked to an ancient family of northern European bat and ball pastimes that the Danish historian, Per Maigaard, broadly categorized as “longball.”4 In a 1941 article, Maigaard wrote that longball (he spelled it as one word, but it often appears as “long ball”) was played in many variations throughout Scandinavia, as well as in Germany and Poland. In broad terms he described it as a game with two bases (called a “batting home” and a “running home”), in which a batter situated at the batting home was served a ball from a pitcher, and then struck it as in baseball. After hitting the ball, the batter ran to the running home where he could remain, but could also reverse direction and return to the batting home if it was safe to do so. Multiple players were permitted to rest at the running home at the same time. Outs were recorded by fielders catching batted balls on the fly, or by “soaking” the runners between bases.5

In my 2005 book, Baseball before We Knew It, I paid little attention to long ball beyond acknowledging Maigaard’s theory that the game was ancestor to the “modern” ball sports of cricket, rounders, and baseball. I elected not to research the sport myself, believing that most potential source material would be written in languages I didn’t understand. Besides, my focus at the time was on the little-known game of English baseball and its likely role as the immediate predecessor of American baseball. While recognizing that long ball and other continental pastimes might have had some (as yet undefined) influence on the evolution of cricket and baseball in England, I did not at the time give any serious consideration to the notion that long ball might have crossed the ocean and played a role in the development of baseball over here.

Early baseball is a fluid field of study, however, and recent findings have inclined me to reexamine my thinking on the origins of baseball-like play in 18th century America. Because a game called baseball was already established in England by the 1750s, I had long assumed that similar activity on this side of the ocean was mostly, if not entirely, the result of its importation by English children. But this may not have been the full story, given that a growing body of evidence now suggests that the original English version of baseball was not played with a bat (the batter struck the ball with his or her bare hand).6 If I am right about this, it then raises the questions of how American baseball came to employ the bat, and whether European influences other than English ones played a role.

In following this line of inquiry I thought it would be useful to see how long ball might have fit into the picture. A Wikipedia search reveals the following definition for the game: “Danish Longball (sometimes called Swedish longball) is a bat-and-ball game founded in Denmark. It is popular in British secondary schools, and is played recreationally by scouts and by the British Navy and Australian Navy. It is also a popular sport at U.S. summer camps.”7 The Wikipedia article makes no mention of long ball’s antiquity, but does describe briefly how it is played; although a bit simplified, the modern game appears to be the same as the one described by Maigaard. Another website, True-Knowledge.com, adds that “Danish longball” today is “now played regularly in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.”8

That last point is interesting, because a further web search shows a surprising second claimant for long ball. Several sites, including that of the Iroquois Museum, imply that the game of long ball is not European at all, but a traditional Iroquois pastime.9 Can it be more than a coincidence that the Adirondack Mountains, mentioned above as a hotbed of Danish long ball, lay within what was once the territorial homeland of the Iroquois Six Nations? Adding to this curious confusion are some claims from a 2002 article by Dan Ninham that appeared in The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation& Dance. According to Ninham, “Long Ball began among the Iroquois people of New York and continues to be played among the Iroquois in Wisconsin, New York, and Canada.”10 He went on to describe how the game is played, characterizing it as a two-base, bat and ball sport—complete with soaking—that matches closely the various other descriptions of Danish long ball that have appeared in print from Maigaard onward.

I have to say that I am dubious of the Iroquois claim to long ball. Certainly, most American Indian tribes, including the member tribes of the Six Nations, were highly skilled at ballplaying, and practiced a wide variety of traditional ball sports. None of these, according to my own research and to that of the ethnographer Stewart Culin, have been shown to bear any resemblance to baseball, or to related bat and ball games like long ball. Still, you have to wonder how a legend like this took hold.

Whether Danish or Iroquoian, the unexpected presence in modern American society of the ancient game of long ball led me to start digging backwards into history to see how this situation came to be. Was long ball recently reimported to these shores, or has it been here all along? Has it been stealthily creeping along beneath our notice for centuries, quietly influencing the evolution of American baseball, and even, as unlikely as it seems, the possible source for our use of the bat?

Surprisingly, evidence of long ball was not too hard to find. In the early decades of the 20th century it was often mentioned as an excellent game for playgrounds and gymnasiums, with one school official in Dallas gushing that “the game of longball is probably the best of all ball games for a large number of players in a limited space.”11 It is obvious that the pastime being discussed in these references is essentially the same two-base, bat and ball game described above, minus any mention of Danish or Iroquoian roots.

Turning back the clock a little further, I found an 1863 letter from a soldier in the 6th Massachusetts Regiment that appeared in his hometown newspaper. In it he wrote: “Our regiment indulged in various games, including foot and long ball.”12 Evidently, the pastime was bipartisan in those days, because I found another reference to it in an Alabama newspaper published in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War.13

In the inaugural issue of this journal four years ago, Joanne Hulbert educated us about the New England tradition of playing baseball on Fast Days. The game of long ball apparently joined in on this practice too, as the following clip from an April 30, 1847, issue of a New Hampshire paper reveals:

“FAST. This time-hallowed, if not time-honored occasion, was observed in the usual way. The ministers preached to pews exhibiting a beggarly emptiness…. The b-boys smoked cigars, kicked football, payed [sic] round ball, long ball, an [sic] old cat, and went generally into the outward observances peculiar to the occasion.”14

But the earliest evidence of long ball in America that I was able to find associates it with another holiday: Election Day. An 1831 article appearing in the National Aegis of Worcester, Massachusetts, excoriated the state legislature for moving Election Day from May to January. The article detailed the traditional enjoyments of the holiday that would be lost by moving it to winter: “Then amusements were planned; then were hunting matches and fishing parties made; then was the quoit hurled in the air; then were cricket, base and long-ball played; then were sports of every kind, appropriate to the season, sought after and enjoyed with peculiar zest.”15

So it would seem that the game of long ball has been with us in the United States for at least the better part of two centuries, mentioned in the same phrases as the more familiar names of cricket, baseball, and round ball, and yet, to the best of my knowledge, unknown or ignored by all of us who purport to be historians of these pastimes. For the past century we have descriptions of long ball in this country that, more or less, agree with each other. And, it should be noted, such descriptions are consistent with the way European sources describe various forms of the game, whether they be Maigaard’s general description of long ball from 1941, or modern Polish accounts of palant, or the description of a German version of long ball, das deutsche Ballspiel, that author J. C. F. Gutsmuths provided way back in 1796 in his pioneering book on games and sports.16

If, as this suggests, long ball has always, more or less, been long ball, the question is: How did it get here? If the Poles initially brought their version here in 1609, they may well have brought it again at some later date. Certainly, German immigrants to North America in the 18th century were plentiful, and one eyewitness account from 1753 described boys at a German–Dutch settlement in upstate New York playing a bat and ball game.17 Could this have been a version of long ball? There is no dispute that the pastime was played in Denmark, but Danish settlers in colonial America were few and far between, and it is therefore unlikely that they were responsible for implanting long ball over here.

But, wait a minute. There were some earlier Danish visitors, weren’t there? Way, way earlier. You don’t suppose Leif Ericson and that crowd had anything to do with bringing long ball here? In a way, that could explain how after a thousand years the Iroquois could reasonably have come to believe that the game was theirs. Just a thought.

The final question is a big one: Could long ball have been the source for the bat in American baseball? For this, like so many other questions about the early history of baseball, we have no definite answer; yet it does give us something new to cogitate about. Long ball was here in America, apparently all along. It is a game played with bat and ball, and one that is far more baseball-like than cricket. Given that early English baseball was played without a bat, what better candidate than long ball to supply the missing ingredient that transformed the simple English game into its more robust American counterpart?

Notes

1. Block, D. 2005. Baseball before We Knew It (p. 101). Translated and excerpted in: Waldo, A. 1977. The True Heroes of Jamestown (p. 128). The original volume: Stefanski, Z. 1625. Memorialium Commercatoris (Amsterdam: Adreasa Bickera).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Block 2005, 97–98. Maigaard, P. 1941. “Battingball Games,” Genus 5.1–2, 57–72.

5. Block 2005, 261–264.

6. My findings regarding the absence of a bat in English baseball are summarized in the accompanying essay in this issue of Base Ball (“Item 1744.2—A Little Pretty Pocket-Book Published”).

7. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danish_longball

8. http://www.trueknowledge.com/q/facts_about_danish_longball

9. nativevoices.org/articles/tribal_gifts.htm (see also: http://www.iroquoismuseum.org/edprog.htm).

10. Ninham, D. 2002. “The Games of Life: Integrating Multicultural Games in Physical Education,” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance 73.

11. “School Girl Officers Instructed in Games,” Dallas Morning News: Jan. 30, 1910 (p. 40). See also: Mero, E. 1908. American Playgrounds: Their Construction, Equipment, Maintenance and Utility (pp. 158–159).

12. “Letter from the Sixth Regiment,” Lowell Daily Citizen and News: Jan. 2, 1863, p. 2.

13. “Letter from an Old Man in the Country,” The Daily Confederation (Montgomery, Ala.): Mar. 3, 1860, p. 2 (originally from the Huntsville Advocate).

14. New Hampshire Statesman and State Journal (Concord, N.H.): Apr. 30, 1847, col. B (originally from the Nashua Telegraph).

15. “’Lection Day,” National Aegis (Worcester, Mass.): June 15, 1831, p. 1 (originally from the New York Constellation).

16. Block 2005, 72–73. Gutsmuths, J. 1796. Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes, für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden (pp. 57–77).

17. Block 2005, 310. “A Letter from Rev. Gideon Hawley, of Marshpee, containing a Narrative of his Journey to Onohoghgwage in 1753,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society for 1794 1.4.

From Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring 2011) © Edited by John Thorn by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. www.mcfarlandpub.com.

4 Comments

I love this. I love the project. It’s a fantastic look, not just at base ball, but the history of the country and the cultures that arrived at her shores from overseas.

Thanks, Maury! I’ll appreciate your spreading the word.

Utterly fascinating. Thank you, John.

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