July 3rd, 2012

The Game That Got Away

Long before the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry, an early variant of baseball known as the “Massachusetts Game” was edged out by the so-called New York rules. What happened? That was the editor’s tease that ran above my story when it ran in the Boston Globe in 2005. I remain convinced that this long vanished game of baseball was as good, if not better than, the one that vanquished it.

Rainey Tisdale, Collections Manager of the Bostonian Society, was perplexed. In the days before the reigning champion Red Sox were to open their 2005 season, her riffle through the archives had revealed an ancient baseball painted gold and mysteriously inscribed:

Won, Oct. 29, 1858.

H.L. 1, Runs 13.

The ball had been preserved in an 1855-patent-model cylindrical presentation box topped with a handwritten label bearing the scrawled initials “B.F.G.” and “Prize Ball 1858.” The Society’s records indicated that a Miss Helen Guild had donated the ball in 1953, and that it had been connected somehow with Boston’s Tri-Mountain Base Ball Club.

These were the facts, too loosely strung to form a story, let alone to understand why this relic had been saved. Seeking more information about the Tri-Mountains, the cryptic “B.F.G.”, and the meaning of the golden globe, Ms. Tisdale contacted a research librarian at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, who referred her to me. I had recently won fleeting fame for the discovery of a bylaw residing in the city records of Pittsfield that gave unequivocal proof that baseball had been played there in 1791, long before Abner Doubleday’s supposed invention of the game in Cooperstown in 1839.

Not many study baseball as if it held the secret to the universe, and nearly all of us who do so belong to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR, some 6,000 members worldwide) and, as a subset of SABR, the nineteenth-century research committee (about 750 members). We take pleasure and occasionally pride in knowing things that all baseball fans knew more than a century ago but few know today.

For instance, I knew the Tri-Mountain was important historically because in 1857 it became the first club in New England to abandon “round ball,” also known as the Massachusetts Game—the region’s traditional version of baseball played since the 18th century—in favor of the New York variant pioneered by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. By this act of perspicacity (or treachery), the Tri-Mounts helped to ensure that by the end of the Civil War teams everywhere played the New York Game which, despite constant tinkering with the rules into the first decade of the next century, is essentially the game we play today.

Some of the details on the ball were obvious to one who elects to live among ghosts, while others required a bit of digging.

“H.L.” was an abbreviation for “hands lost,” what we today call outs. As for “B.F.G,” in a fat folder in my file cabinet labeled “Massachusetts Game,” I quickly came upon an account of a September 9, 1858 Tri-Mount game, the first ever played by two distinct clubs employing the New York rules, that gave the name of the catcher as B.F. Guild. Further research revealed this to be one Benjamin Franklin Guild, who would go on to become a successful editor and columnist. (Guild’s brother Curtis became the Bostonian Society’s first president while his nephew—also named Curtis—was governor of the Commonwealth from 1906 to 1909.) Helen Guild, the ball’s donor, was B.F. Guild’s daughter.

And as for the game commemorated on the trophy, Joanne Hulbert, a baseball expert from Holliston, provided me with a Boston Herald account from October 30, 1858 relating that the contest of the previous day had been an intramural one, between the first and second nines, played under New York rules but requiring that balls be caught on the fly rather than on one bound, as the overly cautious New Yorkers allowed. With no need to list teams on the ball, all else that need be mentioned was Guild’s game-best performance of 13 runs scored.

Those answers satisfied Ms. Tisdale well enough. All the same, the improbable survival of this golden ball, marking the incursion of the New York Game into New England, gaudily summoned up other, larger mysteries, unsolved to this day. Why had Guild and his Tri-Mountains rebelled against the Massachusetts Game? Why had the pride of New England been vanquished so swiftly and utterly by its New York rival? What further secrets might lie along this road not taken as to how baseball developed?

* * *

Until a flurry of debate on SABR’s nineteenth-century listserv, baseball experts had been content to accept traditional notions that the Massachusetts Game had vanished owing to its curious rules (especially “soaking,” the practice of retiring a runner by throwing the ball at him when he was between bases) or simply its echoes of boyish fun.

Yet, Larry McCray of Lexington—at that time in the early stages of his Protoball database of ancient baseball findings—wrote: “One fact that impresses me is that the Boston crowd seemed to defer to the new game without that much of a fight. Still, it is ironic that [New York’s] palpably less manly’ game took over. No plugging, no fly rule, no overhand pitching.”

Meanwhile, David Ball of Cincinnati suggested the game disappeared as a result of “some combination of the cultural dominance of New York; local differences in attitudes toward leisure activities in general and the playing of ball games by grown men; and what I think is probably a relatively small but quite possibly crucial head start in formal organization of the New York game.”

I agreed with both views, adding that there is no overestimating Americans’ love and fear of organization, then as now. And finally—had the obvious eluded us all this time?—New York may have won out because of a skillful publicity campaign in which its game of baseball, held up as a paragon of manliness, was in fact easier for un-athletic clerks to play. For men who would be gentlemen, it was more important to comport themselves well than to play well. In sport as in war, perhaps, the first casualty is truth.

So, just what was the Massachusetts Game of baseball at its evolutionary pinnacle of 1858? In this version of baseball, played on a square with 60-foot basepaths, the striker stood at a point equidistant between the first and fourth bases. He would attempt to hit a ball thrown overhand from the midpoint of the square, a distance of 30 feet. However, because there was no foul territory, he might deliberately tick the ball behind him or employ backhanded or slide batting techniques to deflect the ball away from the stationed defenders.

A side might number 10 to 14, though 11 was the most common contingent, and several fielders would be stationed in what modern eyes would view as “foul ground,” including at least two “scouts” behind the striker. Three misses and the batsman was out, but if he struck the ball he would fly around the bases (four-foot-tall stakes, actually) until he himself was struck by a fielder’s throw or halted his homeward course by holding to his base. The ball was small and light and there is no record of anyone suffering injury (except to pride) from being “soaked.” A catch for an out had to be made on the fly, not on the first bound, a practice those New York sissies continued to permit until 1864. One man out, side out.

Victory required the scoring of 100 runs, or sometimes by agreement a lesser number. This—not the circular field of play (thus the old name of “round ball”), not the indignity of soaking—has most often been identified as the asteroid that extinguished the dinosaur. In October 1858, the same month as our golden-globe game, the Bay State club of Boston met the Bunker Hill club of Charlestown and after some hours of play adjourned with the score 77–56. A report of the game, writes Joanne Hulbert, stated that the teams “did not think the game would be finished until 1859 … which kinda gives a different perspective to ‘wait until next year.’ A similar problem [would arise] at the 1860 championship game at Worcester. The teams never reached a score of 100 tallies and the game went on for days, until their lease ran out on the Agricultural Grounds.”

In truth, when 10 baseball clubs convened at Dedham on May 13, 1858 to standardize the Massachusetts Game playing rules, they were daubing rouge on a corpse. The New York rules had been standardized at a convention the previous year, and a hopefully titled ‘‘National Association of Base Ball Players” had been formed to play what was still a provincial game, scarcely played outside the metropolitan area. At the Dedham conclave, B.F. Guild stood up and declared that the Tri-Mountain “would be obliged to withdraw from the Association,” as reported in the Boston Journal, “as the Rules and Regulations submitted by the Committee, and favorable to a majority of the Association, could not be accepted by their club, as they preferred to play the New York Game.”

It was not long before the rest of the country did too. By 1865 Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times, the nation’s leading sporting journal, declared:

The National Association or ‘New-York game’ is now almost universally adopted by the Clubs all over the country; and the Massachusetts, and still more ancient style of playing familiar to any school-boy, called ‘town ball,’ will soon become obsolete. No lover of the pastime can regret this, as the New-York mode is superior and more attractive in every way; and better calculated to perpetuate and render our national game ‘an institution’ with both young and old America.

* * *

The game that was left behind, however, was in many ways the superior version, for both players and spectators. Because first base was so easy to reach (one had only to hit the ball and then run 30 feet without being “soaked”), the real action came between the other bases. Smart fielding and relays of long hits turned seeming extra-base hits into astonishingly easy outs. Because the rules contained no provision that a runner must stay within the baselines, he might run into the outfield to elude a fielder attempting to plunk the ball between his ribs. A striker might turn 180 degrees as the pitch was coming to him and whack the ball as far behind him as he might have hit it ahead. There were so many tricks that skilled players might employ that I soon came to believe—through personal experience as a frock-coated, stovepipe-hatted arbiter at vintage-Massachusetts-style contests in the 1980s and ‘90s—that New England’s Game had suffered a cruel fate indeed.

Sadly, even today’s Vintage Base Ball Association has gone over entirely to the New York Game, with most games played by late 1860s rules and a goodly number played by the rules and equipment of the 1880s. Déjà vû all over again, and I think it has disappeared this time for the very same reasons as in the 1860s: the New York game is easier to play and does not so readily expose spindly or puffy young men to ridicule.

Why did the Massachusetts adherents give up without a whimper? We know more about how the dinosaurs became extinct than we know about this.

In the end it was almost certainly no single rule of the Massachusetts Game that did it in, for impractical provisions may always be changed. Its failure to retain market share may be chalked up to the game’s unabashedly rural quality at a time of increasing urbanization, and in some measure may reflect the increasing dominance of New York among American cities.

All that the Massachusetts Game had going for it was joy. The New York Game, on the other hand, gave promise of utility, of somehow becoming ‘‘our cricket,” affording Young Americans suffering from England Envy a national game all their own. The New York propagandists artfully blurred the line between the playful and the useful, convincing the credulous in New England that their venerable game was less gentlemanly and seemly—less manly, in its day a richly layered word that had more to do with decorum and bearing than with plebeian notions of bravery, such as being soaked and not whimpering.

With victory in the 2004 League Championship Series, capped by a World Series crown, Boston at last gave New York a good soaking. Maybe the years the Red Sox spent in the wilderness had been not so much the Curse of the Bambino as the Curse of the Bamboozled. New England gave up on a damned fine game.

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