July 16th, 2011
John Newbery Publishes A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, and with It Our First Glimpse of the Game of English Baseball
With this fourth 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 David Block, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. David is the author of the pathbreaking Baseball Before We Knew It (University of Nebraska, 2005), a research-intensive investigation of baseball’s English roots. He is a member of the MLB committee on baseball’s origins chaired by the editor of this blog.
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 1744.2, reflects that it is the second Protoball entry for the year 1744.
1744.2 John Newbery Publishes A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, and with It Our First Glimpse of the Game of English Baseball
“Away Flies the Boy”1
We know, beyond a reasonable doubt, that American baseball derived from an earlier 18th century English game that was also called baseball. True, we don’t have any smoking-gun proof of this; no diary entry from, say, the 1750s, detailing how little Johnny settler brought baseball over here from England and introduced it to his chums on the village green. Such a discovery would be lovely to find, and I’m still on the hunt for it, but even without it we have a strong case based upon circumstantial evidence alone. The game in England was called baseball and here it is called the same.2 In both countries, a pitcher serves a ball to a batter, baserunners circle the bases, and fielders do what they can to catch the ball and get the runners out. In my view, the inherent similarities between American baseball and its earlier English namesake negate the possibility that our game could have somehow sprung up all on its own.
Once implanted in North America, we pretty much know how things turned out. Baseball eventually evolved from being a rustic folk game to becoming the fullblown American national pastime. But the story of English baseball is another matter. Its history was never carefully recorded, and to this day remains largely elusive. Yet, in recent years, researchers including myself have uncovered a modest number of new references that have added to our pool of knowledge about English baseball. These findings have prompted me to reappraise some of my previous assumptions about the game.
Our earliest evidence for English “base-ball” dates from 1744, when the iconic children’s book A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was first issued. Publisher John Newbery devoted a full page of his pioneering juvenile work to the game, giving us our first clues of how it looked and how it was played. Newbery’s page includes a simple engraving of the pastime that depicts three young gents at play, one holding a ball in his hand and another waiting to strike it with his bare hand. The bases, three of them, are shown as posts in the ground. An accompanying snippet of verse reads as follows:
The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin’d Post,
And then Home with Joy.3
Three other references to English baseball from the 1740s and ’50s add texture to Newbery’s introductory lesson on the game. The first of these, Lady Hervey’s letter of 1748, describes the family of the Prince of Wales enjoying the pastime. She wrote that they played it “in a large room,” and that “the ladies, as well as gentlemen, join in this amusement.”4 Another work from Newbery’s press, The Card, published early in 1755, refers to “the younger part” of a family retiring to play “base-ball,” an activity that the author described as an “infant game” when compared to either fives (a form of handball) or tennis.5 Also from 1755, an entry in the diary of 19-year-old William Bray notes he played “base ball” at a friend’s home as part of a mixed party of young men and women.6
These four sources give us a glimpse of what English baseball was like in the mid–18th century, a time, presumably, not many decades removed from when the pastime first came into being.7 Baseball of that era appears to have been more of a social diversion than an athletic sport, and quite clearly an appropriate activity for both sexes. As to what the game looked like, we don’t really know for sure. But it is difficult to deny that those four little lines of verse in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book conjure a mental image that is uncannily familiar. Even now, 250 years later, one would be hard pressed to come up with a more charming and economical allusion to baseball, save for the fact, of course, that there’s no indication of a bat.
Following 1755 we enter the “dark ages” of English baseball history. No further references to the game can be found in English writings until the late 1780s, and thus we lack any evidence telling us of the progress of the pastime, who was playing it, or what changes it might have been undergoing during those decades. But then the 19th century dawned, and with it a steady stream of fresh sightings of English baseball in books and newspapers. Most of these mentions of the game are brief and provide little detail about how it was actually played, but taken together they provide important new insights into its role in the nation’s culture.
English baseball back in the mid–18th century may have been a suitable activity for mixed company, but by the early 19th century that was no longer the case. Baseball had become a girls’ game, a reality that was demonstrated in the literature of the era. Jane Austen wrote in Northanger Abbey, published in 1818, that baseball was one of the favored diversions of her heroine Catherine Morland.8 The following year baseball appeared in a science textbook for girls called Conversations on Natural Philosophy. In it, a female student explains the principle of inertia: “In playing at base-ball, I am obliged to use all my strength to give a rapid motion to the ball; and when I have to catch it, I am sure I feel the resistance it makes to being stopped.”9 It is unlikely the author would have used baseball in her example had she not been confident it would be familiar to her female readers. In 1820, another girl-oriented book, entitled Early Education, mentions “base ball” among a footnoted list of appropriate “old-fashioned” amusements that also includes “hunt the slipper” and “my lady’s toilette.”10
The novelist and short story writer Mary Russell Mitford referred to baseball on at least four occasions in her writings of the 1820s and ’30s. In each of these instances her ballplayers were girls. Boys, in Miss Mitford’s stories, pursued cricket, marbles, and other pastimes, but never baseball. William Newnham, in his Principles of Physical, Intellectual, Moral and Religious Education of 1827, recommended cricket and football as suitable activities for boys, and added: “with regard to girls, these amusements may be advantageously supplanted by bass-ball [sic], battledore and shuttlecock.”11
Further references to English baseball in books and newspapers continued to appear throughout the 19th century before finally fading out in the 1890s.12 Of particular note is a substantive explanation of the pastime that appeared in a children’s book, Jolly Games for Happy Homes, written by Georgiana Clark and published in 1876. Curiously, the book contains not one but two detailed accounts of how English baseball was played. The two are written in very different styles and include different particulars about the game, but seem to agree on its basic makeup. Both begin by saying that the players divide into two equal parties and choose which is “in” and which is “out.” The first description continues as follows:
The one who is “out” throws the ball, which the one who is in receives “in” her hand as if it were a bat, bats it away and starts for the first base, or station. The garden or field has previously been divided into bases or stations, duly marked at convenient distances.
The business of the followers of the leader who is “out” is to act as scouts, to catch up the ball thrown—after which, they can all start if they like—and hit the runner with it as she passes from base to base. If she is so hit she is “out,” and must remain dormant till there is a change in the ministry of the game. Her business is to make good her passage from base to base without being hit, and for this purpose to keep an eye on the enemy and the flying ball. If she is hit on reaching, or whilst stationary at a base, it counts for nothing. Each member of a party runs in turn. When all the members of a party are out, the game recommences, passing into the hands of the other party, and so on.13
The second description adds further details about “base-ball,” and provides a diagram of a diamond-shaped infield. It mentions that the striker “receives the ball on the flat of the palm of her hand, as with a bat.” She is out “if she misses three times,” if the ball falls behind home plate, if it is caught by any of the “out” party, or if she is struck while running.14
Both of these accounts include the practices of soaking and the “all-out, side-out” method of play, and in many respects are not unlike other portrayals of early baseball-like pastimes, such as those of the English game of rounders or of pre–1845 games played in the United States. Two notable exceptions to these stand out, however. The first is that the players in Jolly Games for Happy Homes are girls, a fact strongly suggesting that this twice-described form of baseball is none other than what Jane Austen, Mary Russell Mitford, and other authors of the early 19th century had in mind when they mentioned their characters playing the game.
A second exception is of greater significance. Both descriptions in the book make clear that when a player at the plate strikes the ball she does so without using a bat, utilizing only her bare hand. Then again, this is not really an exception at all. Of the nearly forty authentic references to English baseball to appear in English books, newspapers, diaries, or letters during the recorded lifespan of the game, from 1744 to the 1890s, not one mentions the presence of a bat.15 From this it seems natural to conclude that, contrary to previous thinking, use of a bat was never an essential element of the game.
Of course, there is a fly in this ointment. Astute readers will recall that evidence does, in fact, exist suggesting that English baseball was played with a bat. This is evidence I uncovered myself nearly a decade ago, when I came across a German-language book from 1796 that purports to explain how a pastime called das englische Base-ball was practiced. The author, J. C. F. Gutsmuths, somehow managed to obtain this information despite being situated in a small town in central Germany more than 500 miles from London. Gutsmuths not only specified that English baseball was played with a bat, he explicitly described its shape and dimensions.16
So, how do I account for these seemingly contradictory indications? Since we don’t know how Gutsmuths came to learn about English baseball, it is hard to evaluate the accuracy of his description, especially since his assertion that the game included a bat is not corroborated by a single English source. But, if he was correct, and some form of baseball was being played with a bat in England in the 1790s, it could mean one of several things. One possibility is that English baseball utilized a bat for at least part of its history, and that it is just coincidental that Gutsmuths happened to be the only one ever to mention it. A more likely interpretation, in my view, is one that delves into the complicated relationship between English baseball and a related pastime that may have been entering its embryonic stage at the same time that Gutsmuths was writing—the English game of rounders. Stay tuned, because I will be exploring this very question—the relationship between baseball and rounders—in another essay (Item 1796.1) next.
1. Newbery, J. 1763. A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly (11th ed.).
2. Actually, in England, the early game of baseball was usually spelled with a hyphen: base-ball.
3. Newbery 1763.
4. Letters of Mary Lepel, Lady Hervey (1821) (pp. 139–140). The letter containing the baseball quote is dated November 13, 1748. The whereabouts of the original letter are unknown, and it may not have survived. An archive in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk County, England, holds a hand copy of the letter dating from the late 18th century.
5. Anon. (John Kidgell). 1755. The Card (1.9). This book may be the oldest surviving baseball artifact. No copies of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book earlier than 1760 have been located; nor has the original Lady Hervey letter of 1748. Evidence shows that The Card was in print several months prior to the William Bray diary entry.
6. Handwritten diary of William Bray, entry for Easter Monday, March 31, 1755. Privately owned.
7. No one knows for sure when baseball first materialized, but my analysis of evidence from the period leads me to guess it was sometime between the 1690s and 1730s.
8. Austen, J. 1818. Northanger Abbey: and Persuasion (1.7).
9. Mrs. Marcet (Jane Haldemand). 1819. Conversations on Natural Philosophy (p. 13).
10. Appleton, E. 1821. Early Education (2nd ed.) (p. 384).
11. Newnham, W. 1827. Principles of Physical, Intellectual, Moral and Religious Education (1:123).
12. It has long been believed that English baseball reached extinction by 1870, but I have found new evidence showing that the game endured into the 1890s. For more about this see note 3 in my essay in this issue “Item 1796.1—German Book Describes das englische Base-ball; but Was It Baseball or Rounders?”
13. Clark, G. 1876. Jolly Games for Happy Homes, to amuse our girls and boys; the dear little babies and the grown-up ladies (p. 110).
14. Ibid., 247.
15. One questionable source, a mock letter published in the humor magazine Punch in August 1874, suggested the possibility of bat use in English baseball, but it is difficult to know whether the information is valid or invented.
16. Gutsmuths, J. 1796. Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden (p. 78).