August 2011

Baseball in New York in 1823

With this eighth 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 George A. Thompson, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. George reads all he can in newspaper coverage in New York City in the 1800s, a habit that led to the discovery of a previously unknown reference to baseball in 1823, upon which he expands below.

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 1823.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1823.

1823.1 Game of Baseball Reported in the National Advocate 

George A. Thompson

COMMUNICATION. I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of “base ball” at the Retreat in Broadway (Jones’). I am informed they are an organized association, and that a very interesting game will be played on Saturday next at the above place, to commence at half past 3 o’clock, P.M. Any person fond of witnessing this game may avail himself of seeing it played with consummate skill and wonderful dexterity. It is surprising, and to be regretted that the young men of our city do not engage more in this manual sport; it is innocent amusement, and healthy exercise, attended with but little expense, and has no demoralizing tendency.— A SPECTATOR.1 

Finding this note—roughly 10 years ago—made me famous for about 72 hours. I hit the front page (above the fold) of The New-York Times and the International Herald Tribune; the story was reprinted by newspapers in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and elsewhere; I was interviewed by telephone by a sports-talk jock in Cincinnati and by the BBC, where I followed a discussion of the Kyoto Accord. Since then, of course, I have sunk back into obscurity.

Another newspaper received this same press release, but chose to summarize it:

We have received a communication in favor of the manly exercise of base ball; stating that an organized company, who are in the habit of taking this exercise at the Retreat, will play a great match there on Saturday next, to commence at half past 3 o’clock.”2

If the notice was sent to other papers, it was ignored: I have looked in several for that week without finding it. The letter was published on Friday, the day before the game. There was no later report on the outcome of the game. The newspapers of that era did not employ reporters, and depended on letters like this one for their coverage of local events that the editor did not himself witness. The editors seem to have felt more responsible for telling their readers that an interesting event was going to take place than for describing it afterwards. For example, shipbuilding was the most highly organized industry in New York at that time, and the launch of a full-sized ship was a spectacular event. Newspapers regularly printed one-sentence notes telling their readers that a ship was to be launched the next morning from some yard on the East River, but rarely ran an account of the event afterwards.

Let us read this letter carefully:

The “spectator” tells us of “a company of active young men” who play “the manly and athletic game of ‘base ball.’” The game was played by adults.

These men have formed “an organized association” and “a game will be played on Saturday next, to commence at half past 3 o’clock, P.M.,” that is, the men have formed a club, and they plan their games well in advance, to start at a set time.

“Any person fond of witnessing this game.” It seems that baseball was already a spectator sport, or at least the writer of this note was hoping that it would become one.

Baseball is “attended with but little expense.” I suppose here the writer had in mind the fact that baseball could be played with homemade equipment.3

It has “no demoralizing tendency.” This phrase today tends to raise smirks on those who read or hear it, but it most likely refers to the fact that no one bet on the games. Huge sums were bet on horse and boat races, and the prizes for winning footraces were big enough that a highly publicized race at Hoboken in 1824 was discovered to have been fixed, with the apparent intention of setting up a rematch. The Post was shocked: “We cannot help regretting that so manly a sport should be brought into disrepute by the disgraceful conduct of the competitors.”4

The letter was signed “A Spectator.” The writer was taking the mask of a casual passerby who had just happened upon this baseball game, and maybe he was, but the fact that he took the trouble to write to at least two newspapers suggests that he had some interest at stake. I suspect he was really Mr. Jones, the proprietor of The Retreat, hoping to use the game that the young men were going to play on his grounds to attract visitors to watch, eat, and drink. It is, however, also possible that our “Spectator” was one of the ballplayers, hoping to attract attention to his ballclub, perhaps hoping that other manly and athletic young men would form other ballclubs, to provide his club with opponents.

We know something about “the Retreat in Broadway ( Jones’).”5 It had been the country estate of William Neilson, at Broadway and Art Street, in Manhattan. (Art Street is now 8th Street, so the Retreat was about three blocks east and two blocks north of what is now Washington Square Park.) Neilson had died in November 1820,6 and the next spring his house and grounds had been opened to the public as a hotel and eating house, under the name of The Retreat, by a man named W. B. Heyer.

THE RETREAT—NEW HOTEL. The subscriber begs leave to inform all those who wish to encourage him with their patronage, that the elegant house at the corner of Art street and Broadway, opposite Vauxhall, is now open for their reception. Gentlemen may be accommodated with Board by the week or month. He keeps a constant supply of Ice Cream, and parties may be accommodated with Coffee, Tea and Relishes of various descriptions. HEYER. 

N. B. The Retreat is opposite Vauxhall Garden. The proprietor has thought proper, with the advice of his friends, to issue a limited number of Tickets of Admission to this House, on the day of Mr. Guille’s [Balloon] Ascension, at twenty-five cents each, to be had in refreshments, such as Ice Cream, Cake, Punch, Lemonade, &c. &c.7

By June 1822 it had changed hands, and was being managed by William Jones, “formerly of Fulton st.,” who promised “Dinner and Supper Parties supplied at the shortest notice.”8

A deadly epidemic in August 1822 drove New Yorkers who lived or did business in the lower part out of town, to Greenwich Village, on the shores of the Hudson River, what’s now thought of as the “West Village,” or up Broadway. A committee led by Archibald Gracie (the man who built Gracie Mansion), settled on The Retreat as the meeting place for those merchants whose temporary offices were on Broadway.9 A newspaper described the new site of the Merchants’ Exchange:

The Retreat.— This large and convenient establishment, in a delightful situation near the junction of Broadway and the Bowery, has been fitted up by Mr. Jones with every accommodation suitable for a temporary Exchange. The halls and rooms where the Exchange is held are spacious and airy, and the house at sufficient distance from the street to be free of noise and dirt. A spacious garden belonging to the establishment, and the extensive area in front of the house afford fine walks for exercise and health. Mr. Jones keeps an ordinary, and also furnishes regular board.10

Less than a month after the baseball game was played in 1823, William Jones had moved on:

CARD. WILLIAM JONES, of the Retreat, Broadway, has removed from hence to No. 27 James street, and is now ready to entertain his friends and the public, in the line of his business. He feels grateful for past favours, and will do all in his power to merit a continuance of public patronage.11

Our Spectator does not indicate what sort of a game these active young men were playing. I assume that it was at the least ancestrally related to the game played at mid-century. That game was described as the “good old fashioned game of base ball” in stories that specifically mentioned the Knickerbocker club, in 1854 and 1855,12 and if the game played at The Retreat was radically different from the mid-century game, I would expect some remark along the lines of “not your grandfather’s game of base ball.”

 

Notes

1. National Advocate: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 4.

2. New-York Gazette & General Advertiser: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 2.

3. Charles H. Haswell describes how boys played baseball in his childhood (the late 1810s) with a ball made from scraps by a mother or sister and perhaps a piece of found wood for a bat. Reminiscences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York (1816 to 1860) (p. 77).

4. New-York Evening Post: July 23, 1824, p. 2, col. 2.

5. The history of The Retreat is summarized in: Garrett, T. 1978. “History of Pleasure Gardens in New York City, 1700–1865,” PhD dissertation, New York University (pp. 487–489).

6. American: Nov. 27, 1820, p. 3; New-York Commercial Advertiser: Nov. 27, 1820; Mercantile Advertiser: Nov. 28, 1820; National Advocate: Nov. 28, 1820; New-York Daily Advertiser: Nov. 28, 1820.

7. New-York Evening Post: June 5, 1821.

8. National Advocate for the Country: June 21, 1822 (per John Thorn, September 12, 2009).

9. National Advocate: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 4. s

10. New-York Gazette & General Advertiser: Apr. 25, 1823, p. 2, col. 2.

11. New-York Evening Post: May 14, 1823.

12. New York Daily Times: Dec. 19, 1854; New-York Daily Tribune: Dec. 19, 1854, p. 6, col. 2 (the same report); New-York Herald: May 26, 1855, p. 1, col. 1.

The Baseball Hall of Fame Gallery

I think I have made more than 150 visits to the Baseball Hall of Fame since my first trip there in 1973. It is a second home to me, a place where I go for business or pleasure, most often both during the same trip regardless of its ostensible purpose. In August I found myself there three times in the space of ten days, most recently to make a presentation at the quarterly Owners’ Meeting at the invitation of the Commissioner. A highlight of the occasion was a memorable dinner served in the Hall of Fame Gallery, amid the plaques of all baseball’s worthies, from the First Five (in the order of their votes received: Cobb, Ruth, Wagner, Mathewson, Johnson) to the most recent three (Alomar, Blyleven, Gillick). Words fail me here; let me simply say that this was a memorable event.

The Hall of Fame Gallery is a shrine. Walk inside; people speak in hushed tones. The cool marble gives the feel of an ancient temple, and it is indeed a holy place for those of us whose religion is baseball. The plaques may be less interesting to the baseball scholar than items that relate to a man’s life as he lived it; to fans, however, these bronze tablets are magical, like fragments from Mount Sinai.

The likenesses are uneven: some are brilliant, others less so. The words are prosaic and functional, never rising to the level of grandeur. But in the aggregate–the entire gallery, with its hundreds of plaques, or even a smaller grouping such as the First Five–the effect can only be described as poetry. No plaque praises its honoree at a decibel level that would diminish another Hall of Famer. The dignity and solemnity of the tablets are in keeping with the celebration of a life now over–even for living Hall of Famers, what has ended is the endeavor that won a man his fame. A man elected to the Hall of Fame as a player, for example, may go on to manage in the big leagues or become a distinguished executive (Henry Aaron and Joe Cronin spring to mind), but I know of no case in which a man previously enshrined in the Hall has gone on to a career of equal stature in the game.

It is impossible to do justice, in forty words or less, to the achievements, much less the style, flair, and vigor of these men or how they changed our nation and every one of us. The art of these plaques lies in not trying to do too much, in trusting to the wind to keep these players’ fame aloft. Here are the first baseball greats to be elected to the Hall of Fame, the five immortals who form the corners of Cooperstown’s home plate. Today we look on these five with awe and reverence, baseball’s equivalent of Mount Rushmore. What we forget is that their accomplishments were quite recent in the minds of those who voted for them in 1936; most of the electors had seen each of the men play, many times. And of course, of the five immortals, only one had actually gone on to his eternal reward—Mathewson, who died in 1925. (Another committee of “old-timers” wasn’t able to achieve consensus on which long-retired veterans would be inducted at the first ceremony. Cap Anson and Buck Ewing got the most votes. Both were inducted by the grand opening in 1939, along with other worthies of the near and distant past.)

Ruth had retired as an active player just one year before his election. Cobb had played his final season in 1928, Johnson in 1927, Wagner 1917, Mathewson 1916. These were legends, all right, but they were as fresh in the minds of the voters then as the five men listed below–each of whom played his last game a similar number of years prior to his induction–would be to today’s writers and fans: Roberto Alomar, Gary Carter, Ozzie Smith, Tom Seaver, Rod Carew. Think about it.

Hall of Fame plaques reproduced here appear courtesy of the Baseball Hall of Fame and are subject to Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0.

An Enigmatic 1805 “Game of Bace” in New York

With this seventh 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 George A. Thompson, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball. George reads all he can in newspaper coverage in New York City in the 1800s, a habit that led to the discovery of a previously unknown reference to baseball in 1823.

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 1805.4, reflects that it is the fourth Protoball entry for the year 1805.

1805.4 An Enigmatic 1805 “Game of Bace” in New York

George A. Thompson

Sporting Intelligence.— Yesterday afternoon a contest at the game of Bace took place on “the Gymnasium,” near Tylers’ between the gentlemen of two different clubs for a supper and trimmings. One of these clubs has taken the very classical appellation of Gymnastics, and the other the no less classical one of The Sons of Diagoras, (not confined however to the number there [sic: properly “three”] but with great submission to the taste of the gentlemen we think a plain English name would have sounded quite as well as either. Great skill and activity it is said was displayed on both sides, but after a severe and well maintained contest, Victory which had at times fluttered a little from one to the other, settled down on the heads of the Gymnastics, who beat The Sons of Diagoras 41 to 34.1

A few years ago, while reading an early–19th century New York newspaper, I came upon this report. One of the two clubs involved had published a call to meeting the day before:

NOTICE. The Sons of Diagoras are requested to meet on the Gymnastic ground, on Friday the 23d [sic] instant, precisely at 3 o’clock P.M. By order of the President.2

This notice was repeated the following day, with the date corrected.3 I have not found a call to meeting from the Gymnastics for this event. That club was a well established one, though, having existed at least since the year before:

by order. The Members of the Gymnastic Association are requested to meet at Mr. Tyler’s, on Saturday next, at 3 o’clock P.M.4

The “Sons of Diagoras” had taken the name of their club from an Olympic boxing champion, the subject of the seventh Olympian Ode by Pindar, written in the mid–5th century BC. His three sons (and the sons of his two daughters) were also Olympic champions.

As for the Gymnastics, a book by Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths (also rendered as Gutsmuths), whom we have met earlier (see David Block’s Item 1796.1), called Gymnastics for Youth, or, A Practical Guide to Healthful and Amusing Exercises: For the Use of Schools, had been published in Philadelphia by William Duane in 1802 and had become a bestseller.

Nothing is known specifically about the “Gymnasium” or the “Gymnastic ground.” It was described as “near Tyler’s,” where the Gymnastic Association was accustomed to meet, and for that place we can do better.

Joseph Tyler was an actor who decided to capitalize on his popularity by opening a “Mead Garden”; it was remembered 25 years later as “a long afternoon’s walk” out of town toward Greenwich, at what had come to be the southwest corner of Spring and Hudson streets.5 This sort of resort was popular with New Yorkers of the day: Imagine the present-day park at Washington Square, or even one of the “community gardens” created in vacant lots around Greenwich Village, being run as a business, offering New Yorkers a place to sit during the summer months in the fresh air among flowers, while buying light beverages and snacks.

A few years after this game of “bace” was played, Tyler’s garden was offered for lease, in an advertisement giving a useful description: There was a house, with

13 rooms and 2 kitchens, a smoak jack, copper &c. with an excellent wine cellar; likewise, a new stable, which can be converted into a store house for goods; also, a spacious green and hot house full of exotic plants, grapes, &c. which will be sold, if not disposed of with the lease. The garden contains near two acres, abounds with a quantity of fruit trees, and a variety of beautiful flowering shrubs; the house and garden commands a view of the north river, a small distance from the New-Market.6

But what was the game of “bace”?

“Bace” was possibly an early version of baseball, but another possibility is that it was an adult form of “prisoner’s base,” known primarily as a chasing and tagging game played by children. It has been carefully examined by Thomas Altherr.7

Joseph Strutt, writing in England in 1801, described the game as follows:

The performance of this pastime requires two parties of equal number, each of them having a base or home, as it is usually called, to themselves, at the distance of about twenty or thirty yards. The players then on either side taking hold of hands, extend themselves in length, and opposite to each other, as far as they conveniently can, always remembering that one of them must touch the base; when any one of them quits the hand of his fellow and runs into the field, which is called giving the chase, he is immediately followed by one of his opponents; he again is followed by a second from the former side, and he by a second opponent; and so on alternately, until as many are out as choose to run, every one pursuing the man he first followed, and no other; and if he overtake him near enough to touch him, his party claims one toward their game, and both return home. They then run forth again and again in like manner, until the number is completed that decides the victory; this number is optional, and I am told rarely exceeds twenty.8

Strutt also described another more complex version of the game, in which a captured player was brought to a prison where he was obliged to stay unless rescued by a teammate.

The version of the game with prisons could be played to a conclusion, which would arrive when all members of a team had been captured. That would seem to be a conclusive indication of the winning side. But Strutt reports that scoring was sometimes used to determine the winning side, and so it is conceivable that the 1805 game followed such a rule.

But some researchers think it may well have been a ballgame. Altherr finds the very idea of a score puzzling: “If this game was the same as ‘prisoner’s base,’ it would be the only one ever located (in the U.S.) that was played to a score,”9 and John Thorn points out that the 41–34 score “resembles scores of baseball games played more than a half a century hence.”10 And the term “base” is not uncommon as a name for baseball. One New York City example appeared about 16 years after this 1805 game:

KENSINGTON HOUSE is beautifully situated on the banks of the East River, distant four miles and a half from New-York, and is a pleasant ride from the city through the Third Avenue…. The grounds of Kensington House are spacious, and well adapted to the playing the noble game[s] of cricket, base, trap-ball, quoits and other amusements; and all the apparatus necessary for the above games will be furnished to clubs and parties.11

If it was a ballgame, it deserves attention as one of the very earliest American game reports we know, occurring only 14 years after the term “base ball” was first used in the U.S., and decades prior to the emergence of the first baseball clubs.

Notes

1. New-York Evening Post: Apr. 13, 1805, p. 3, col. 1. (This story was reprinted in the New-York Herald: Apr. 17, 1805, p. 1, col. 5.)

2. Daily Advertiser: Apr. 11, 1805, p. 3, col. 1.

3. Daily Advertiser: Apr. 12, 1805, p. 3, col. 2.

4. Morning Chronicle: Apr. 9, 1804, p. 2, col. 2.

5. Morning Courier & New-York Enquirer: Nov. 14, 1831, p. 2, col. 3. The history of Tyler’s garden is summarized in: Garrett, T. 1978. “History of Pleasure Gardens in New York City, 1700–1865,” unpublished PhD dissertation, New York University, pp. 143–157.

6. New-York Evening Post: Jan. 27, 1808, p. 3, col. 4.

7. Altherr, T. 2009. “Base Is Not Always Baseball: Prisoner’s Base from the 13th to the 20th Centuries,” Base Ball 3.1 (p. 74).

8. Strutt, J. 1801. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England from the Earliest Period (pp. 68–69). A newspaper article on prisoner’s base from the late 19th century recommended keeping score: “a better plan is to put a time limit to the game—say one hour. When time is up, the count of prisoners is made and the side having the greatest number is declared winner.” “The Game of Prisoner’s Base,” The Daily InterOcean: May 25, 1890, part 3, p. 17, col. 4.

9. Altherr 2009, 76.

10. Thorn, J. 2009. “Origins of the New York Game,” Base Ball 3.1 (pp. 109–110).

11. New-York Evening Post: June 2, 1821, p. 3, col. 1; New-York Gazette & General Advertiser: June 7, 1821, p. 3, col. 4. For more on Kensington House, see the Hershberger essay, Item 1821.5.

Not Trivial, This Game of Baseball Trivia

Playing baseball trivia is an enjoyable pastime that should alarm neither loved ones nor psychiatrists. Gathering baseball trivia, however, is another matter, calling to mind Casey Stengel’s concern about his players’ chasing women long into the night—that it was the pursuit, not the capture, that wore his fellas out.

Knowing all there is to know about baseball may be about as useful and lucrative as being the best whittler in Punkinville. So the interesting question about this trivial pursuit is why we do it, why it feels like fun.

Even to its most ardent practitioners, baseball trivia is a curious form of play. If baseball is sublimated warfare, then trivia is sublimated baseball, in which the currency of skill is not athletic ability but memory, spurred by passion. Rattling off the names and dates of all the battles of World War I has yet to become a sensation and will not provide a sequel article to this one.

Some of the best baseball trivia players have photographic recall, are the sort of person to whom things attach without effort. Ever since they were little, these fortunate/unfortunate souls have amazed their cohorts by remembering everything. Other trivia stars are driven, nerdy types (not that there’s anything wrong with that; I wear the label proudly) who forage for facts for the sheer fun of it.

Playing baseball trivia is clearly different from playing baseball, but is it also different from being a baseball fan? Did people do it before the current era? Not in a competitive, game-playing sense they didn’t: a hundred years ago and more, the accumulator of baseball data was thought to be “odd” if not certifiable; some of the greatest baseball cranks and bugs were reputed to reside in insane asylums; their very nickname reflected the general sense that they were seized by mania. They would know all the stats, even inventing new measures to get at “the real dope” about the players. The players thought that such overinvolved, proud enthusiasts (including most sportswriters) truly knew nothing of the game and were mere tongues flapping without connection to their brains … hence the derivation of the name “fan” (forget what you learned about it being short for “fanatic”).

Fans originally reveled in the reflected glory of their favorites and longed for the opportunity to stand beside them with a bent elbow and a scuttle of suds. In this the old-fashioned fan’s relation to baseball players was no different from his attitude toward boxers or jockeys. But as radio and TV came along to create visual abstractions of the players—box-score heroes recreated almost in the flesh—it became easier for fans to form a relationship with ballplayers’ stats than with their physical beings. In the 1910s Hughie Fullerton had shown how detailed analysis of player tendencies might be good for predicting outcomes. But with the advent of mass media, the Ernie Lanigan types—sickly shut-ins—came to grip the baseball knowledge biz, gathering biographical data, keeping track of stats and inventing new ones, pointing out odd similarities and interesting tidbits … what we now call (but they never did) trivia.

Radio shows such as the Quiz Kids of the 1930s created the genre of mass infotainment, extending from an earlier period’s fascination with “Mr. Memory” tricksters of the vaudeville and variety-hall boards. In the 1950s television created a game-show boom—The $64,000 Question, or 21, or countless more—in which ordinary people who all their lives had uselessly known all about opera or astronomy might suddenly become rich and famous. Media made stars, but it was media that became the biggest star, fueling a pop-culture craze that remains with us. We admire someone who can sing perfectly the theme song from Davy Crockett or Gilligan’s Island or who can tell us the flip side of Ritchie Valens’ La Bamba. Not so long ago such people—the modern equivalent of the butterfly collectors and dotty antiquarians of yore—were freaks.

Baseball trivia is similar to but different from rock or movie or TV trivia, in that it goes farther back. It serves not merely to inspire memory of one’s own childhood but also connects us to a collective memory, the youth of our nation. Baseball trivia is not truly history, but it’s “in the ballpark”: closer to it than remembering who played Inspector Joe Friday on Dragnet. And in playing it, we are reenacting the once vital ritual of telling tales around the campfire to perpetuate the legends of the tribe—and even the tribe itself.

In our present age of factoid and short-form, high-speed life, telling tales around the campfire seems hopelessly archaic and wasteful of time. We feel anxious, that we must get to the point … even when the point is more in the telling than in the tale. In playing baseball trivia we are engaged in compact, symbolic story-telling, with substantial psychic payoffs. Proficiency gives water-cooler cred to a grownup, but it satisfies on a deeper level, reviving the imperative of youth—establishing mastery—at a time when aspects of our adult life may seem to be flying beyond our control.

A baseball trivia game can be as challenging as a spelling bee was to us once upon a time, or a PhD oral exam may be tomorrow. The trivia game is real life upside-down, an inversion by which the important is replaced by the unimportant while retaining all the trappings of exams, tests, trials—contests in which the stakes are genuinely high.

A good game of baseball trivia satisfies in just the same way that a good baseball game does. The pleasure lies in caring intensely about the activity while engaged in it but, because one knows at a deep level that the outcome is unimportant, caring not at all once it’s over, regardless of the outcome. To care intensely about something that doesn’t matter—to treat it as if it did matter—permits one to deflect real concerns and to engage in simulated combat with no real consequence. Such pleasures are part of civilized society, when not all one’s waking moments must be dedicated to securing the rudiments of sustenance.

In the end, it is not too much say that baseball trivia is not trivial, that it matters. Playing the game stokes the campfire, keeps the embers alive. It sustains our youth and our game.

The Pittsfield “Baseball” Bylaw of 1791: What It Means

With this sixth 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 yours truly, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal 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 1791.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1791.

1791.1 The Pittsfield “Baseball” Bylaw: What It Means 

John Thorn

In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to promote the safety of the exterior of the newly built meeting house, particularly the windows, a by-law is enacted to bar “any game of wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball,” within eighty yards of the structure. However, the letter of the law did not exclude the city’s lovers of muscular sport from the tempting lawn of “Meeting-House Common.”1

Thanks to the astonishingly preserved minutes of a Pittsfield town meeting in 1791, we know that in this locality a game called baseball, if played too close to a newly built meeting house, was a violation of the law—at a time when the United States of America was a teenager and the Constitution a mere toddler, four years old.

I’m the fellow who won fleeting fame in the spring of 2004 for finding what was not truly lost, except for its significance. While prowling the internet late at night, I came upon a mention of the now celebrated bylaw in a book entitled The History of Pittsfield, (Berkshire County,) Massachusetts, From the Year 1734 to the Year 1800.2 The bylaw, intended to protect the exterior of the newly built meeting house, particularly its windows, barred “any game of wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball,” within 80 yards of the structure. Because the book was published in 1869 under the authority of the town, I had no doubts about the authenticity of the reference. The next morning, I called folks at the Pittsfield City Hall to see if they retained minute books all the way back to the 18th century, and was informed that indeed they did.

Still a puzzle, however, is what the Pittsfield game of those days looked like, or what its rules may have been—no 18th century box score or game account survives, or is likely to have existed. We may reasonably assume that the Pittsfield game was different from the other ball games proscribed in the ordinance: “For the Preservation of the Windows in the New Meeting House … no Person or Inhabitant of said town, shall be permitted to play at any game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other game or games with balls, within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House.” This new meeting house doubled as a church, designed by Charles Bulfinch, the young nation’s most distinguished architect, who had already designed Faneuil Hall in Boston and would later design the Capitol in Washington, D.C. As it turned out, it was fickle tastes in style that doomed the building rather than flying baseballs. Deemed old-fashioned within decades of its construction, it was soon moved to a new location where it somehow survived until 1936, when it was demolished at last.

Because the old game of baseball may have originated, or at least first flourished, in the Berkshires and the Housatonic Valley, this region might not unreasonably be termed Baseball’s Garden of Eden, a term that Pittsfield’s civic boosters have been quick to adopt; for many this coinage has come to signify, in shorthand, that the national pastime was “invented here.” It was not, of course. If pressed to create a date for baseball’s taking root in America, I’d have to say, about 1735, because old-timer Henry Sargent stated to the Mills Commission of 1905–07 that his contemporary George H. Stoddard—an 1850s roundball player with the Upton Excelsiors whose grandfather and great grandfather had both played the game—believed that roundball surely dated back to just after the Revolution and was not a novelty then. It had been played, Stoddard said, “as long ago as Upton became a little village.”3 Upton was settled in 1735. Roundball was the name favored in New England for a game that was also called baseball, indeed the one that came to be termed the Massachusetts Game.

Admittedly, we are not likely to find hard evidence for that date as good as what now resides in the Berkshire Athenaeum in support of 1791. But we can only suppose that if baseball was banned in Pittsfield in 1791, it was not a nuisance devised in that year—that it had been played for some time before, and not only in this western Massachusetts city. The Berkshires may have been a remote region in 1791, but not as immune to influence as, say, the Galapagos Islands. Why did the Pittsfield legislators of 1791 ban the game as baseball rather than roundball ? My speculation is this: The border between New York and Massachusetts had long been in dispute, and had been settled only four years earlier (the New York–Connecticut border dispute wore on until 1857). But the lines that were finally drawn on a map made no matter to boys playing a game of ball long familiar under a localized name; they were going to call their game whatever previous generations had called it.

In fact baseball appears to have sprung up everywhere, like dandelions, and we cannot now be expected to identify with certainty which of these hardy flowers was truly the first. As Stephen Jay Gould explained not only the Mills Commission’s search for a baseball father but also Cooperstown’s hold on our hearts:

Too few people are comfortable with evolutionary modes of explanation in any form. I do not know why we tend to think so fuzzily in this area, but one reason must reside in our social and psychic attraction to creation myths in preference to evolutionary stories—for creation myths … identify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide no palpable, particular thing as a symbol for reverence, worship, or patriotism.4

In the nation’s straitlaced founding period, mentions of ball play came generally in the form of prohibitions or complaints. On Christmas Day in 1621, Governor Bradford was infuriated to find some men of Plymouth Plantation, who had begged off work to observe their faith, instead “frolicking in ye street, at play openly; some at pitching ye barr, some at stoole ball and shuch-like sport.”5 In 1656, the Dutch prohibited playing ball on Sundays in New Netherland, which eight years later would become New York.6 In 1724, Boston diarist Samuel Sewall was sorely disappointed that his lodger “Sam. Hirst got up betimes in the morning, and took Ben Swett with him and went into the [Boston] Common to play at Wicket. Went before any body was up, left the door open; Sam came not to prayer; at which I was most displeased.”7

Colleges too, were getting into the act. Anticipating Pittsfield, Dartmouth—where wicket was the students’ game of choice—prohibited ball play near windows in 1780, and the University of Pennsylvania followed suit in 1784.8 Three years later, the faculty of Princeton prohibited ball play “on account of its being dangerous as well as beneath the propriety of a gentleman.”9 Princeton student John Rhea Smith had noted in his diary for 1786, “A fine day; play baste ball in the campus, but am beaten for I miss both catching and striking the Ball.”10 Smith used baste as a corruption of “base” in two separate contexts: “baste ball” and “prisoners’ baste,” a game of tag. This in my view renders the Princeton diary the first textual reference to a game we should regard as baseball, if not one precisely so named, thus leaving Pittsfield with perhaps only an orthographic “first.”

Clearly bat-and-ball games were being played everywhere, and many of these games must have required a batsman to notch a tally by running around bases without being put out by a thrown ball. Each of these games varied minutely from the others, but all may be termed baseball because each exhibited, in my view, the essence of the game: a bat; a ball that is pitched or thrown to the bat; two sides alternating innings; multiple safe havens, whether bases or stones or stakes; and a round circuit of such havens that scores a run. One might object that none of these games employed the key New York innovations of foul territory and throwing the ball to the base rather than at the runner, but to such objections I would respond that the key innovation of baseball is evident in its very name: the base—just as the essential, defining characteristic of football, handball, racquetball, and basketball is evident in their names.

Notes

1. This is the first indigenous instance of the game of baseball being referred to by that name on the North American continent. The History of Pittsfield (Berkshire County), Massachusetts, From the Year 1734 to the Year 1800. Compiled and Written, Under the General Direction of a Committee, by J. E. A. Smith. By Authority of the Town (pp. 446–447). The actual documents repose in the Berkshire Athenaeum.

2. Ibid.

3. Letter from Henry Sargent, Grafton, Mass., to the Mills Commission, May 23, 1905. National Baseball Library, Cooperstown.

4. Gould, S. 1992. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History (p. 57).

5. Bradford, W. 1898. Bradford’s history “Of Plimoth plantation”: From the original manuscript with a Report of the Proceedings Incident to the Return of the Manuscript to Massachusetts (pp. 134–135).

6. Channing, E. 1905. A History of the United States (vol. 1) (p. 536).

7. Seymour, G. 1909. Papers and Addresses of the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Connecticut, Volume II of the Proceedings of the Society (p. 277). Note that this quote is not found in Van Doren, M., ed. 1927. Samuel Sewall’s Diary. It may be in Thomas, M., ed. 1973. The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674 –1729.

8. Rules for the Good Government and Discipline of the School in the University of Pennsylvania (Francis Bailey, Philadelphia, 1784).

9. Collins, V. 1914. Princeton (p. 208).

10. Smith, J. March 22, 1786, in “Journal at Nassau Hall,” Princeton Library MSS, AM 12800.

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