The Rise and Fall of New England–Style Ballplaying

With this ninth 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 Larry McCray, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball for which Larry served as guest editor. He 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.

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 1829.2, reflects that it is the second Protoball entry for the year 1829.

1829.2 The Rise and Fall of New England–Style Ballplaying

Larry McCray

Mr. Lawrence says, as a boy [h]e played Round Ball in 1829. So far as [his] argument goes for Round Ball being the father of Base Ball, it is all well enough, but there are two things that cannot be accounted for; the conception of the foul ball, and the abolishment of the rule that a player could be put out by being hit with a thrown ball…. Mr. Lawrence considers Round Ball and Four Old Cat one and the same game; the Old Cat game merely being what they would do when there were not more than a dozen players, all told.1

If one is inclined to trust the reliability a senior citizen’s memories from his boyhood seven decades earlier, this 1905 testimony describes a long and simple arc for New England–style ballplaying. The ancient “old cat” games, including perhaps “hornebillets” as described in the 1670s in England, are linked to round ball as played in Massachusetts in the 1820s, which is itself linked, via the formalized Massachusetts Game of the 1850s, to modern baseball.

This essay reviews current evidence on the evolution of New England ballplaying up to the 1860s.

 

Beginnings and Folk Play to 1854

Excluding references to the English game of cricket and the American game of wicket, we find that scholars have, to this point, unearthed about seven dozen references to ballplaying in the six New England states before club play began in Boston in the mid–1850s. Can we discern the roots of the Massachusetts Game, as finally codified in Dedham MA in 1858, in these spare and disparate clues?

The short answer: Well, maybe, but only when we accept the general assurances of men like Mr. Lawrence, cited above, who assert strong resemblances between early and later forms of play.

The problem is that most of these earliest references give no details on the actual nature of the games they cite. The vast majority are of the quality of Bowdoin student and future poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s letter to his father in 1824:

This has been a very sickly term in college. However, within the last week, the [school’s] government seeing that something must be done to induce the students to exercise, recommended a game of ball now and then, which communicated such an impulse to our limbs and joints, that there is now nothing heard of, in our leisure hours, but ball, ball, ball.2

From our vantage point, this is an especially sweet morsel, but is still, effectively, a sweet nothing; it gives us no glimpse of the actual game played, or its rules, or even the name for the game that was played — just “a game of ball.”

And in fact, about two-thirds of our references fail to name the game played, using terms like “game of ball,” “playing at ball,” and the like.

The games that are specifically named, in order of their relative frequency of appearance, are (1) round ball, found mostly in Eastern Massachusetts, (2) bat-and-ball, mostly to the north and east of Boston, including Maine, (3) one of the old cat versions, (4) base, or base ball, and (5) goal, or goal ball.3 But we are given very few clues whether these labels attached to identical, similar, or dissimilar games, let alone what their playing rules were.

We do get glimpses of isolated aspects of the games: there are scattered references to the use of bats, or bat-sticks, or ball-clubs, and one Vermont account of playing goal in about 1828 mentions that “the elm trees by our yard were the goals (bases).”4 An account of ballplaying in Western Massachusetts in about 1850 mentions games of “round ball, two and four old cat, with soft yarn balls thrown at the runner,” rare evidence of the practice of “plugging” in those pastimes.5 Ours is not a rich feast of anecdotes.

There is one New England source that does lay out several features that were later formalized as the Massachusetts game rules. This book, published in 1834,6 lays out rules for “base, or goal ball” (also identifying it with “round ball”), including two teams, four bases, soft tosses to batters, a three strike rule, the fly rule, plugging, all-out-side-out innings, and backward hitting. Oddly, however, the basic text is not actually written to reflect New England ballplaying: it is taken, with only minor word changes, from an 1828 London book’s section on “minor sports.”7 The original version is found under the heading “rounders,” a game said to be popular then in the west of England.8 (This apparently marked the first appearance of the term “rounders” anywhere. We have 1905 testimony from seniors that round ball in America was believed to have extended back to before 1800,9 so the idea that New Englanders simply “imported” a game known as rounders from England is not easily supported.)

All in all, it seems fair to infer that the basic rules listed in the two books may have governed at least some forms of New England ballplaying in the early part of the 19th century, but that conclusion cannot, at this point, be solidly buttressed by hard contemporary evidence. We are forced to lean heavily both on reflections of the elderly, and on an assumption that the editor of the 1834 book was correct in linking the English rounders rules he printed to games then played in New England.

The Massachusetts Game Emerges and Blossoms, 1854 –1860

In 1854—a decade after the Knickerbockers had formed in New York—Boston saw the founding of the Olympic Club, its first. By 1856, the first known interclub games were reported. There were still major rules kinks to work out; when the Olympics played the Green Mountain Club in a “second trial game of base ball” in May 1856, the two teams were still smarting from an earlier dispute as to whether the “thrower” should deliver from 20 feet or from 40 feet,10 whether the “catcher” could move around during play, and how many strikes made an out (six, they had agreed). An all-out-side-out rule appeared to have been used to define a half-inning when these two clubs played.

In May 1858, 10 clubs met at the town of Dedham and agreed to 21 rules defining the Massachusetts game of baseball. (The term “base ball” was by then uniformly used to denote the New England–style game, sometimes with an indication its traditional name was round ball.) The rules reflected both a shorter list of New England–style rules laid down by the Olympic Club in 1857 and the recently amended 1858 rules of the New York Game, from which it borrowed phraseology. In contrast to the New York rules, the Dedham rules depicted an infield in the form we describe as a square, not a diamond, and with shorter basepaths; deliveries to the batter that were thrown, not pitched; use of a fly rule, but no bound rule; the plugging of runners; a one-out-side-out definition of a half-inning; matches played to 100 “tallies”; team size ranging from 10–14 players; stakes instead of flat bases; a noticeably smaller and lighter ball; and, while not explicitly stated, the absence of any foul territory, which allowed “backwards hitting.”

Some of these new rules may have simply codified traditional practice for New England ballplaying. For other Dedham provisions, however, we have, as yet, no local precedent on record, and for all we know such features may have been introduced more recently: such features may have included overhand pitching, playing one-out-side-out innings, using stakes as bases, playing to 100 tallies (more common format had been a best-of-three set of games to 25 tallies), and setting the number of players on a team.

The Massachusetts Game flourished for only a short while. Its peak may have been reached in October 1859, when a club from Medway and a club from Upton met to decide the state championship, for a stake of $500 in gold. The Upton club prevailed, 100–56, after 11 hours and 80 innings of play. A crowd of 5,000 or more souls was reported per day, and “the neighboring towns gave their employees holidays to see the game.”11

 

Subduction By the New York Game in the 1860s

But the onrushing New York game presented an irresistible force. Already in 1857, a new Boston club, the Tri-Mountain, had elected to play by the New York rules.12 In 1858, two clubs at Harvard College were playing the New York game.13 In 1859 a scrapbook clipping states that Massachusetts had 37 clubs playing by Massachusetts rules—but that another 13 clubs played by New York rules.14

A brief rivalry between the two forms of baseball arose. An aggressive article in the New York Tribune in October 1859, perhaps seeing overhand deliveries and plugging and the more demanding fly rule as features of a more “manly” game than the one New Yorkers had devised, charged that the New York game was “a bastard game, worthy only of boys 10 years of age. The only genuine game is known as the Massachusetts Game.”15 Detractors called the New York version a “baby game.” In 1860, the champion Upton Club reportedly offered to play the elite Atlantic Club of Brooklyn by Massachusetts rules for a winner-take-all stake of $1,000. The Atlantic Club did not take the bait.16

The national trend was obvious, even in New England. A regional journal in 1860 admitted that the New York game “is fast becoming popular in New England, and in fact over the whole country … requiring a greater attention, courage, and activity than the old game, sometimes called the Massachusetts Game…. The New York Game bids fair to supplant all others.”17 During the Civil War, a few Massachusetts regiments played their traditional game in the war camps, but there were 10 times as many reports of games played by New York rules. New England’s game was fading fast. Even today, it is reported, local vintage baseball clubs rarely play New England’s own game, strangely preferring the gentler one that had emerged from Pinstripe City.

 

Notes

1. Letter from Henry Sargent to the Mills Commission, June 25, 1905.

2. Andrew Hilen, ed. 1966. The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, vol. 1 (p. 87).

3. We have no contemporary evidence of the game of “rounders;” a single account, written in 1917 when the “Rounders Theory” of the origin of baseball was already well publicized, places rounders at Phillips Andover in 1853; see Protoball entry 1853c.1.

4. See Protoball entry 1828c.5.

5. See Protoball entry 1850s.33.

6. Carver, R. 1834, The Book of Sports.

7. The Boy’s Own Book, 1828, p. 20.

8. Carver changes one feature of rounders in his book; while the original 1828 text stipulates that a backward hit is an out, Carver’s version deletes that provision. Both books depict clockwise baserunning.

9. See Protoball entries 1780c.4, 1790s.7, 1800c.4.

10. “Exciting Game of Base Ball,” New York Clipper: May 26, 1856, p. 35.

11. Sargent, H. “Roundball: Baseball’s Predecessor and a Famous Massachusetts Game,” The New York Sun: May 8, 1905.

12. “Base Ball in Boston,” New York Clipper: June 13, 1857.

13. “The Lawrence Base Ball Club,” The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Mar. 1917, pp. 336–340.

14. “Base Ball.” Unidentified clipping in the Mears Collection, Cleveland Public Library.

15. New York Tribune: Oct. 18, 1859.

16. Letter from Henry Sargent to the Mills Commission, June 25, 1905.

17. Farmers Cabinet: May 16, 1860, p. 2.

4 Comments

The Mudville Base Ball Club of Holliston, Mass. still routinely plays by the Massachusetts Rules of 1858. The Winthrop club of Holliston defeated the Boston Olympics 100-27 in May 1858 on the Boston Common in the first game played following the codification of the rules. As quoted in the Boston Bee “The playing by the Holliston Club was by far the best ever seen in our city.” In May 2008, to recognize the 150th anniversary of the playing of this game, The Mudville Base Ball Club defeated the Boston Colonials 46-40 on the Boston Common.

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Keep up the good work, John, with “the game that got away.”

john thorn

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