Pilgrim Stoolball and the Profusion of American Safe-Haven Ballgames

With this second of sixteen articles by 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 Brian Turner and Larry McCray, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball.  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. He is also a panelist on Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee, which I chair. Brian Turner works at Smith College and is conducting research on ballplaying in the Colonial, Federalist, and New Republic eras. His past baseball publications include The Hurrah Game: Baseball in Northamption 1823–1953 (co-authored with John Bowman, Historic Northampton, 2002) and articles in The National Pastime and Base Ball.

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 1621.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1621. 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.

1621.1 Pilgrim Stoolball and the Profusion of

American Safe-Haven Ballgames

Brian Turner and Larry McCray

[M]ost of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on ye day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he … left them; but … at noon … he found them in ye street at play, openly; some at pitching ye barr, and some at stoole-ball and shuch like sport…. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.1

On Christmas Day, 1621, the game of stoolball was played at Plymouth Plantation. The “better informed” Plymouth Pilgrims2 regarded Christmas not as a holiday but as just another day of work. Newcomers could mark Christmas according to their “consciences,” but when Bradford discovered that stoolball had broken out, he promptly confiscated the “implements.” In England, for centuries, stoolball had thrown the sexes together, often at Easter, with open flirtation and further personal liberties a predictable result. Such revels were not to be tolerated at Plymouth.

From evidence in hand, English stoolball as played in Pilgrim times bore slender resemblance to what would emerge in about 240 years as America’s national pastime. Stoolball certainly involved fielding (including, probably, the use of the fly rule), throwing, and innings; much less certain is the use of pitching, hitting, or baserunning.3 And the game never enjoyed the popularity here that it had in England; in fact, very few subsequent U.S. references to stoolball play have been found.

The Plymouth stoolball game is the earliest known reference to an English ballgame being played in America. The number and variety of subsequent baserunning games, many also imported from England, is greater than most baseball followers realize. Past baseball histories have pointed to a New England–style baserunning game, to town ball, and to English rounders as early American ballgames. However, recent research points to a score of distinct games, summarized below. More variants will likely come to light, if researchers continue to seek them out.

American Cricket
There is a single reference to American cricket, a game introduced in Chicago in 1870 as a new hybrid of English cricket and baseball.4 The only reported features taken from baseball were a third running base and foul territory, which one assumes was defined in relation to the triangular infield.

Bandy Wicket
In July 1779, an American soldier in Pennsylvania reported playing bandy wicket.5 Bandy wicket was “old-fashioned” cricket played with a “bandy” (a thick, curved club) rather than with the flat cricket bat introduced into English cricket during the 1760s.6 In America, the term bandy wicket was seen in the Mid-Atlantic region until the mid–19th century.

Barn Ball
A batter-runner tries to run to a nearby barn and back before his opponent/pitcher could retrieve the ball and return.

Bat-and-ball has now been identified as a distinct game played along the New England coast from Boston through Maine in the late 18th to early 19th centuries.

A game banned near public buildings in Pittsfield, Mass., and Northampton, Mass., in 1791.7 Pilka Palantowa, a Polish ball game reportedly played at Jamestown in 1609,8 translates as “bat or hit ball.” So, too, German Schlagball translates as “bat or hit ball.” The latter involved pitching, batting, and running to a base, as well as taking players “captive.”9 An 1834 reference likened American “bat ball” to English “bandy,” a game resembling field hockey.10 Whether it was a safe-haven game or a hockey-style game, bat ball produced broken windows, hence those 1791 bans.

Base, or Base Ball (sometimes called goal ball)
A game long played in much of the U.S. Northeast, akin to English base-ball—possibly under rules that varied regionally in ways yet to be discovered.

Played in the Virginia area in the mid–nineteenth century, chermany (sometimes “chumney”) is reported to have had similarities to modern baseball.

This English import was played throughout U.S. history, and was once the most popular adult baserunning game for Americans.

Dutch Long
An 1867 Ohio source describes dutch long as an “out of date” game that resembled baseball,11 but in which a “tosser” stood near the batter and lofted the ball high into the air. If the batter could strike it and then circle the three bases before the ball was fielded and returned to the tosser’s hand, his at-bat continued.

Long Town Ball
We have a handful of pre–1840 references to long town ball in Pennsylvania and nearby midwestern states. This game was described as having only one base other than home. One account has two batsmen running when the ball is hit,12 and if a fielder “crosses” either runner (throws the ball between him and the base he is running toward) the fielder immediately takes his place. This version does not, thus, feature team play. Another variant allowed more than one runner to occupy a base at a time.

Philadelphia Town Ball
This baserunning game was played in Philadelphia from about 1830–1860. A variant was popular in Cincinnati. More generally town ball was played by that name in scattered parts of the U.S. to the south and west of New Jersey. Only retrospectively—considerably after the Civil War—did writers begin to apply the term broadly to games in other regions as a generic term for any pre-modern game thought to resemble baseball.

The old-cat games (one-old-cat, two-old-cat, etc.) likely varied by region, over time, and according to the number of players. One common feature was that the ball was delivered to batter-runners at any of the bases, which were sometimes holes in the ground. Non-running and non-team forms of the game have been found. In the Atlantic Monthly in 1866, a rudimentary description of old cat cites three players, one to throw the cat, one to bat, the other to catch.13

Four-old-cat is sometimes described as essentially equivalent to early baseball and to round ball. This game was reportedly used as a warmup exercise at Elysian Fields by the Knickerbocker Club, was still played at Harvard in 1855, and appeared in boys’ handbooks of games well into the 20th century.

Round Ball/Massachusetts Game
Round ball was fairly common in eastern New England,14 and is thought to have been the basis for the Massachusetts Game as codified in the late 1850s. The plugging of runners, the absence of foul territory, and a smaller/softer ball are among the traits of round ball that distinguish it from the New York game. Round ball appears to have spread to western New York and the upper Midwest, where it was eventually displaced by the New York game.

Round Cat
One account places round cat in Virginia prior to the Civil War, and the game was found in the American South for decades.

Round Town Ball
Accounts of round town ball are associated with Pennsylvania before the Civil War and with Virginia at an unspecified date.15 It evidently used a “gum ball,” a smallish paddle or a clapboard instead of a bat, and an all-out-side-out rule. One version allowed multiple runners to stay at a base, and another employed the bound rule.

Three-Base Ball
Colonel George Oakey recalled playing “many a game” of three-base ball at Erasmus Hall Academy in Brooklyn prior to 1845.16 His spare description of the game mentions the sometimes painful plugging of runners and the fielding positions of pitcher, catcher, outer, and hinder. We have found only one other plausible reference (also in Brooklyn) to this game.17

Games of this category comprised several varieties, including one that bears some resemblance to baseball. A pitcher tosses the cat (a short length of stick) to batters stationed at holes or bases arranged in a circle.18 Batters hit the cat, and then run. (David Block points out that Albert Spalding’s description of American four-old-cat is identical to the four hole version of tip-cat described in 1848,19 with bases arranged in a square.) Tip-cat was also played on Boston Common in the 1850s, according to James DeWolf Lovett.20

Touch Ball
The few scattered references to touch ball do not give a clear picture of the game or games known under that name. One writer in the Fort Wayne area recalled touch ball as “the favorite” local game before the New York game appeared there in about 1866.21 That version featured plugging, and seems to have used only home and a single “field base.”22

Two-Base Town Ball
Writing of ballplaying by Southern troops in the Civil War, B. I. Wiley noted that the game “might be of the modern version, with players running four bases, or it might be two-base town ball. The bat might be a board.”23

This game was played in western New England and in several Northern Plains states into the Civil War years. A baserunning game, this pastime employed two wicket-style bases and a large solid ball that was delivered to a batter wielding a hefty club. It had some resemblance to the very early form of English cricket as played around 1700.

What, No Rounders?
This list omits the game of Rounders, seen by Henry Chadwick, among others, as the direct predecessor to modern baseball. It was the rounders theory that competed with the Doubleday legend in best-forgotten debates about the origins of American baseball. It is missing here because no contemporary reference to rounders play in the U.S. is known—not in the letters, in the civil ordinances, or in the newspaper accounts of the day. In addition, current evidence shows the game called “base ball” was played in the U.S. decades before a game called rounders was written about in Britain.

A Typology of Ball Games?
Discussions of the evolution of ballplaying often founder over matters of nomenclature. Which of the games listed above, for example, should be counted as among baseball’s kin, and which are more distantly related?

In 2010 Richard Hershberger suggested that we might define a subset of ballgames as belonging to “the baseball family” if they meet the following criteria:

An arrangement of bases forming a circuit; two equal sides of players—one side “in” and the other side “out”—the “in” side trying to hit a ball and running complete circuits of the bases while the “out” side tries to put them out, as may be accomplished by catching a hit ball or by putting the runner out (with variation in the details of how this is done); and with the game played in innings of the two sides exchanging places.24

Applying these criteria would define the baseball family to include Knickerbocker-rules baseball, early baseball in the U.S. and England, English rounders, Philadelphia town ball, round ball, the Massachusetts game, and several minor past and present games.25

These criteria also would exclude some of the “safe haven” baserunning games that are collected for the Protoball website: cricket, wicket, later forms of stoolball, barnball, one o’cat and two o’cat, and long town ball (all because they use fewer than three bases), scrub and workup (which are not team games) and hornebillets and tip-cat (which use cylindrical “cats” instead of balls).

1. Bradford, W. 1962. Of Plymouth Plantation (pp. 82–83).
2. In the popular imagination Plymouth Pilgrims and Massachusetts Bay Puritans have merged into a uniform band of prim and joyless New England scolds. The doctrinal differences that made the two groups distinct would require more than an endnote to explain.
3. See Item 1672.1 below.
4. The account, reprinted from the Philadelphia Mercury, appeared in the London Penny Illustrated Paper, Dec. 17, 1870, p. 387.
5. See Protoball entry 1779.2.
6. Collins, T., et al., ed. 2005. Encyclopedia of Traditional English Rural Sports (p. 39).
7. See retrosheet.org/Protoball/Sub.bat-ball.
8. Block, D. 2004. Baseball before We Knew It (p. 101).
9. Gutsmuths, J. 1893. Spiele zur Ubung under Erholung des Korpers und Geiste (p. 84). NB: This later edition of Gutsmuths’ classic was revised and augmented to include the passage cited here.
10. Prospective Missions in Abyssinia (Boston, 1834), p. 74. “[W]hole villages engage in a game, which they call Kersa, similar to the English game of bandy, or ball. I presume it’s the same game we call bat ball.”
11. Daily Cleveland Herald: Apr. 24, 1867.
12. Long, T. 1933. Forty Letters to Carson Long (pp. 30–31).
13. Block 2004, 132.
14. Some accounts imply that the names base, baseball, goal ball, and round ball were used interchangeably.
15. Lambert, J., and H. Reinhard. 1914. A History of Catasaqua in Lehigh County (p. 364). Mason, W. 1954. The Journal of William Franklin Mason, from: ftp.rootsweb.com/pub/usgenweb/ky/elliott/mason/mason29.txt.
16. “Sports in Old Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Oct. 21, 1894, p. 21.
17. Abraham Mills and William Cogswell recalled playing a three-base game at the Union Hall Academy around 1850. This game featured plugging, the use of flat bats, and the imposition of foul territory when players were few. Cogswell letter to Mills, Jan. 19, 1905.
18. Block 2004, 127–128.
19. Ibid., 128–129.
20. Lovett, J. 1906. Boston Boys and the Games They Played (p. 46). Lovett describes only the cat and cat-stick, and celebrates one batter’s ability to hit the cat as far as possible using the “three strokes allowed in this game.”
21. Sihler, E. 1922. “College and Seminary Life,” in Ebenezer, W. Dau, ed. (p. 253).
22. Touch ball was the local name for rounders in the West Riding area of England, and was then a game played without a bat.
23. Wiley, B. 2007. The Life of Johnny Reb (p. 159). It is possible that Wiley here means to refer to long town ball.
24. Hershberger, R., email of Dec. 17, 2010.
25. Among these lesser games we would find “the bat-and-ball,” round cat, three o’ cat, four o’ cat and the later games of stickball, punchball, kickball, and the modern game of Finnish Baseball, pesapallo.

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