July 22nd, 2011

Das englische Base-ball in 1796: Was It Baseball or Rounders?

With this fifth 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 1796.1, reflects that it is the second Protoball entry for the year 1796.

1796.1 German Book Describes das englische Base-ball: But Was It Baseball or Rounders? 

David Block

One plays the game with two teams, of which one is serving the ball and the other batting…. Likewise the process is as in the German ball game: hitting, running, etc.

It was one of the most satisfying moments of my hunt for the roots of baseball, and one of the most unexpected. In 2001, while searching for other pastimes within an old German book on games and sports, I came across seven pages describing a game called das englische Base-ball.1 Written by the physical education pioneer J. C. F. Gutsmuths, the 1796 book offers the earliest known detailed explanation for how baseball was played.

In my own book, published in 2005, I cited Gutsmuths’ description while making my case that the 18th century game of English baseball was the immediate forerunner of American baseball.2 At the time, I interpreted Gutsmuths’ use of the term English baseball as an indication that he was describing the same form of baseball that occasionally appeared by name in English works of the 18th and 19th centuries. Because Gutsmuths described a bat as being part of the game, I extrapolated that English baseball was generally played with a bat, even though that fact had not been detailed elsewhere.

In my book I also theorized on the origin of the English game of rounders. When rounders first appeared in the early 19th century, it seemed to share the same basic characteristics as English baseball, or at least the way I understood English baseball to be from Gutsmuths’ description; i.e., a game played with a bat. From this I postulated that rounders and English baseball were one and the same, with the name rounders replacing the older name of baseball in the 1800s.

In the years since my book was released, researchers, including myself, have made new discoveries about both English baseball and rounders. The knowledge gained from these findings has caused me to revise some of my earlier thinking regarding the relationship between the two. The new information shows that English baseball had a much longer lifespan in the 19th century than was previously believed; that it was played as late as the 1890s; and that it coexisted with rounders for seven decades or longer.3 Except for one doubtful example, none of the new references to English baseball indicates, or even suggests, that the pastime was played with a bat. By contrast, the newest discoveries about rounders only confirm what has been long documented about it—that it is always played with a bat. Taking into account the total body of evidence available, I now believe that English baseball and rounders were separate games, distinguished principally by the use of a bat in the latter. Furthermore, a strong gender division characterized the two pastimes throughout much of the 19th century, with English baseball having been played predominantly by girls and young women, and rounders by boys and men.4

Because of their similarities, it seems probable that rounders was a direct offshoot of baseball. It may have been a natural and obvious thing for boys in the late 18th century to experiment using a bat to strike a baseball instead of using their bare hands. Bats were certainly very familiar and available to them from the popular games of trapball and cricket. (A parallel process may well have transpired in North America, where bat use seems to have been adapted to baseball during the colonial era.) I speculate that it was during this stage, when youngsters were introducing bat play to baseball and beginning to form incipient rounders, that Gutsmuths captured his information about English baseball and memorialized it in his book.

Coincidence or not, at this same time a game called simply “bat and ball” began to appear in English writings. A 1790 book listed a young man’s amusements as including “marbles, bat and ball [and] hop-step-and-jump.”5 A 1797 newspaper article, praising the layout of a new school ground, noted “it affords ample space for cricket, for bat and ball, or any other school-boy exercise.”6 An 1801 children’s book, Youthful Sports, explained that “bat and ball is an inferior kind of cricket, and more suitable for little children, who may safely play at it, if they will be careful not to break windows.”7 Two decades later, an 1824 journal article observed that: “on Sunday, after afternoon service, the young people joined in foot-ball and hurling, bat and ball, or cricket.”8

So what was this “bat and ball”? The citations make clear that it was something different from cricket. Nor was it likely that “bat and ball” denoted any other well known game, such as trap-ball or stool-ball, as these were nearly always cited by name. Quite possibly, “bat and ball” was a convenient label for the evolving game that would soon become known as rounders.

It was in 1828 that the term “rounders” made its first known appearance in The Boy’s Own Book, a popular new British anthology of games and sports. Rounders, as described in that book, appears similar to what early American baseball must have looked like in the era, featuring the familiar elements of batting (with a bat), baserunning, fielding, soaking, etc.9 In fact, when authors of American children’s books in the 1830s began writing descriptions of the young game of baseball, they borrowed freely from the rounders section of The Boy’s Own Book.10 Does this prove that rounders was the forerunner of American baseball, as many historians such as Henry Chadwick and Robert Henderson have suggested over the years? This is unlikely, as evidence abounds that baseball took root in North America long before rounders came into existence. But American baseball and rounders, clearly, are closely linked, with both deriving from a common ancestor, the early English baseball of the mid–18th century.

Following the publication of The Boy’s Own Book in 1828, only two further references to the game are found until the 1840s. From then onward, though, the name rounders shows up with ever increasing frequency in British books and newspapers. Boys, it seems, were the main practitioners at first, but mentions of college students and other young men playing rounders began appearing in the late 1840s, and by the 1850s there are multiple indications of adult men taking up the pastime. The Glasgow Herald of June 1, 1855 printed a letter from a British soldier on deployment in the Crimea telling of playing rounders with his comrades near Sebastopol. An 1858 London newspaper reported that 11 men representing a pub in Cheltenham were challenging any neighboring pub to a rounders match for a stake of not less than 20 pounds.11 By 1869, it was evident that the pastime had grown even further in dimension and popularity. Descriptions of rounders in earlier guidebooks indicated that the bases be placed 12 to 20 yards apart, but a July 7, 1869, article in the Western Mail of Cardiff reported that the bases for a local match between two teams of men were set 25 yards distant from each other. The article also announced that “some thousands of persons of all classes [were] present, all of whom seemed to take much interest in the game.” The same paper reported a “large number of spectators” at another match a year later.

By the 1870s, the expanding coverage of rounders in British literature and newspapers made clear that the pastime was a masculine preserve, only rarely hinting that girls were trying their hands at the game. The front cover of the August 16, 1873, issue of The Graphic newspaper pictures soldiers of the 42nd Highlanders — the famous “Black Watch”—all dressed up in regimental tartan and kilts for a game of rounders. The accompanying story states: “We have no doubt that most of our male readers have at some time or other taken part in a game of ‘rounders’ so that they will feel no need of an explanation of it from us. And if the ladies feel curious we must refer them to the gentlemen.”12 But within three years of this article’s publication, two new books for “young ladies” were moving to satisfy that curiosity without any help from the gentlemen. The books proposed a somewhat gentler form of the game than the men were playing at the time, advising young women to equip themselves with a battledore or tennis racket, and a rubber ball. One mentioned that instead of a racket, “sometimes the ball is struck by hand.”13 This suggests a link to the game of English baseball that may have still been familiar to the young ladies. One of the books was especially enthusiastic about rounders:

Perhaps this is more properly a boy’s game, but it is admirable exercise for a bright fresh morning; and there is no reason why bright young girls in the fresh morning of their lives should not indulge in it; and much less fatigued and languid would they feel after a good game of rounders, than on the morning after a ball, when they have danced till the dawn of day.14

Imagine, rounders more healthy than dancing! Apparently so, because over the next couple of decades, thousands of English schoolgirls embraced the game with great enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the men kept playing at it too, with the 1880s seeing the formation of rounders associations in Wales, Scotland, and England. In Liverpool, a weekly rounders newspaper reported on the dozens of matches (or fixtures) that were contested each week.15 The men’s version of the game had evolved into a highly physical and competitive sport, and some of its fanciers — perhaps feeling their manhood threatened — began grumbling over the fact that their rugged sport had to share its name with the gentler pastime that girls were playing in the schoolyards. One had this to say in 1892:

In the old game … hitting of a player, or the vain attempt to make a target of the flowing skirts of a young girl running around the bases, usually provokes hilarity, and is considered the comedy episode of picnic fun-making…. It is to be regretted that modern rounders suffers by association of name, at least, from its progenitor.16

About this time, the men’s associations were making major revisions to their form of rounders. Soaking was done away with in favor of tagging runners at the bases, and the short, traditional, one-handed rounders bat gave way to a longer, two-handed implement that was something of a cross between a cricket bat and an American baseball bat. In 1892, as a crowning touch, the associations in both Liverpool and South Wales discarded the old name rounders in favor of a new name: baseball! Conjecture arose that this move was made to tie the sport more closely to American baseball, though both associations denied it and fended off outside entreaties that they adopt the American rules. A May 24, 1892, Cardiff newspaper article explained the local association’s decision:

A meeting was held on Saturday to consider the desirability of changing the name of the game of rounders to English baseball.—A letter was read … from Mr. Henry, of Liverpool, saying that, in view of the prejudice that had always existed against the game of rounders, many considering it, not knowing the rules under which the game was now played, to be something childish, to be played by girls or at a pic-nic, and not fit to be ranked as one of the manly sports, it had been decided by the National Rounders’ Association to change the name to the English Baseball Association, stress being laid on its being “English” baseball, so as not to be confounded with the American code…. Following the example of the Liverpool men, it was practically decided to substitute the name of English baseball for rounders in this district.17

Thus, full ownership of the name rounders was conceded to children on the playgrounds of Britain, where the game today remains the most widely played of all school sports for girls. As for the new “English baseball” (the pastime formerly known as rounders), it is now more familiarly known as Welsh baseball and endures as an organized sport in both Cardiff and Liverpool.

And so the long and winding road of English baseball and rounders has wound its way to the 21st century, carrying along two games whose histories are totally intertwined. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter whether Gutsmuths back in 1796 was accurately reporting the state of English baseball or foreshadowing the rise of rounders. What matters is that he did write about baseball, as did John Newbery in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, and a precious few other contributors. We owe them a great debt, because without them we might not know anything at all about the simple English game that was the ancestor of our American National Pastime.


1. Gutsmuths, J. 1796. Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden (p. 78).

2. Block, D. 2005. Baseball before We Knew It.

3. Recently I have uncovered a dozen or more newspaper articles from the 1870s to 1890s that mention English baseball, showing that it survived longer than previously believed. In one example, a letter printed in the Daily News (London) of March 28, 1887, complained about new park regulations: “Rounders, base ball, bat and trap, games as old as cricket, will be forbidden, or practised under irksome regulations and rules by which thousands of children will be deprived of that pure innocent pleasure which these games afford.” The “doubtful example” to which I refer is a mock letter published in the humor magazine Punch in August, 1874. It suggested that a batter in English baseball could hit the ball “with a stick or his hand.”

4. The gender division between the two sports was not absolute. Books and newspapers from the period document rare instances of females playing rounders and males playing baseball prior to the 1870s.

5. Incidents of Youthful Life; or, the True History of William Langley (1790, p. 94).

6. “Westminster School,” The Oracle and Public Advertiser (London): Jan. 14, 1797.

7. Youthful Sports (1801).

8. Monthly Repository of Theolog y and General Literature (London): Aug., 1824, p. 500.

9. Clarke, W. 1828. The Boy’s Own Book (2nd ed.) (p. 20).

10. These included “base or goal ball” from Robin Carver’s The Book of Sports (1834, pp. 37–38); “base or goal ball” from The Boy’s and Girl’s Book of Sports (1835, p. 18); and “base ball” from The Boy’s Book of Sports (1835).

11. Bell’s Life and Sporting Chronicle (London): May 9, 1858.

12. The Graphic (London): Aug. 16, 1873, pp. 1–2.

13. Valentine, L. 1876. The Home Book for Young Ladies (p. 4).

14. Mackarness, Mrs. H. 1876. The Young Lady’s Book (p. 459).

15. The newspaper was entitled The Rounders Reporter and Liverpool Athletic News and it appears to have been published only in 1885.

16. Walker, J. 1892. Rounders, Quoits, Bowls, Skittles and Curling (p. 10).

17. Western Mail (Cardiff ): May 24, 1892.