The Old-Time Game of Wicket

Wicket is a vanished game that for more than a century was the dominant game of parts of New England, notably Connecticut, and the Western Reserve, extending to Ohio and what is now termed the Midwest. Not baseball and not cricket, it may be understood as a primitive form of cricket, one no longer played in England by the middle of the 18th century. Its rules evolved from the time of its earliest report, in 1704, to the “vintage wicket” revival contests in Saugatuck, Connecticut at the turn of the 20th century. Wicket was played in Hawaii in the 1850s–before baseball–as well as in New Orleans and Rochester and Baltimore and Brooklyn. Until quite recently, historians of baseball thought wicket and cricket to be interchangeable terms for England’s National Game, but it was different and, to our eyes, fresh and fascinating. Read on, as George Dudley Seymour tells you about its development, spread, and crowning glory in Bristol, Connecticut … today home to ESPN, which might consider hosting a tournament, eh? Recently, after a century of neglect, Brian Sheehy and the Essex (MA) Base Ball Club have twice played a form of wicket. Larry McCray offers, ” It’s a good game, and I think that town v. town play likely started with wicket and became regularized first with wicket.”

The Old-Time Game of Wicket and Some Old-Time Wicket Players, by George Dudley Seymour, Esq.

Source: Papers and Addresses of the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Connecticut, Volume II of the Proceedings of the Society, [n. p., 1909.] pp. 269-303.

I well remember lying on the grass that fringed the village green near the Meeting House on the top of the hill one drowsy summer afternoon watching a game of wicket. A village green and a Meeting House on the top of a hill are characteristic features of many Connecticut towns; I must therefore be more explicit and say that I am referring to Bristol, an offshoot of the old town of Farmington, in Hartford County. When I lived in Bristol the Meeting House with its great Doric columns and square tower faced the “Academy,” which has long since disappeared, as well as the curious little gambrel-roofed house which Abel Lewis built near the site of the old Episcopal Church to be used as a store and as an excuse, as I have sometimes imagined, for utilizing in a secular way the round-headed windows of the church which, wrecked and defiled, he had bought and converted into a barn after that “pesky nest of tories” had been broken up in Revolutionary days. The Lewises were Congregationalists and had a severe and telling apprehension of the truth of the Calvinistic scheme of salvation. To-day St. Joseph’s Church, the parochial residence, and a parochial school face the Green. But no matter about the changes. With this introduction I may be allowed to go on, or rather go back to where I was lying on the grass. I was a small boy, but young as I was, I felt a vague sense of strangeness about it all because even then wicket was virtually obsolete and played only occasionally, not exactly as a revival, but rather as a matter of local pride and to keep the traditions of the game alive, as well as to give the old wicketers a chance to stretch their muscles. Already the more strenuous game of baseball had pushed wicket into the background and claimed the younger men. A born antiquary, I had an inquiring mind about the past and tried to find out the origin of the game and how long it had been played. My father had been an expert wicketer in his day, and my brother, although first of all a baseball player, was impressed into service whenever a game of wicket was played, and as a wicketer upheld the traditions of his father’s game. But I never succeeded in gathering much information about the game from my father more than that it was the great game of his boyhood in New Hartford, where he was born and spent his boyhood, and where, as it seemed to him, it had always been played. Turn where I would, I could learn no more than that the game had come down from early colonial times and that formerly it had been extensively played throughout the State, notably in Hartford and Litchfield Counties. The towns of Wethersfield, Newington and New Britain had within recent years had wicket teams and still boasted of some players, but in my boyhood the game as an organized institution had survived only in Bristol, where records of the game had been kept for many years.[1] Indeed, the old clock-town felt a peculiar distinction in being the last stronghold, as it were, of the game which had its origin in Old England, and which from a date long prior to the Revolution, had been a favorite pastime. That is was better suited to the Age of Homespun than to our own, is perhaps not altogether to our credit.

When Bristol had its “Old Home Week” celebration in the fall of 1903, the game was very properly revived. A challenge was sent to some scattering players in Wethersfield, Newington and New Britain, and a great match was arranged to be umpired by Governor Chamberlain, who, in his time, had been a star player in New Britain, and had played in the ever memorable championship game of 1859. My brother-in-law, Mr. Miles Lewis Peck, the Captain of the Bristol Club, rallied the old players and filled in the gaps in his team. Here local pride came in and almost made a quarrel. Certain interlopers, fascinated by the sport as they saw the practice games, tried to have themselves enrolled on the Bristol team to the exclusion of the native-born aspirants, who indignantly claimed their right and had it allowed. The game was called at ten o’clock in the forenoon and played, without interruption, until half-past three. It would be difficult to say which excited the most interest the game or the spectators. The match had been widely heralded; and to see it came not only the curious, but also many old players, retired long ago to their rocking-chairs, in which, as a matter of fact, some of them were brought to the field.

I saw the game, or as much of it as I had time for, and I was stimulated anew to find out something more of its history; but, as before, my inquiries were fruitless.

No historian has devoted his attention to the sports and pastimes of our colonial period, and for information I have had to turn to the pages of the diarist and traveller, and to the files of old newspapers.

I may say, in the first place, that the American game of wicket, or, as it was sometimes called, cricket, is essentially the noble old English game of cricket, the national pastime of Englishmen. The main difference between the two games is that in wicket the wicket is placed on two blocks which lift it only about four inches above the ground, while in cricket, three supports lift two bails to a height of twenty inches or more above the ground. In wicket the ball is bowled or rolled along the ground; in cricket the ball is bowled, as it is said, but in reality thrown, and hence the English term “throwing bowling.” I need not say that the literature of the English game is extensive. Different authorities give different sources for the origin of the game. Some writers advance the theory that it is derived either from stoole-ball or club-ball both very ancient games of ball. Daly in “Polo, Past and Present,” derives all games played with ball and stick, including cricket, golf, hockey, and the national Irish game of hurling, from polo, of which he says they are but dismounted forms. Polo originated in the far East, probably in Persia, where games on horseback are still the great national sport and are played with magnificent dash and enthusiasm. If Daly is correct in his view that cricket as played in Old England is but a form of dismounted polo, the same must be true of our New England wicket, which as shown is but a modified, and perhaps an earlier, form of cricket than that now played in England. Always being modified in form, the persistence of games like the persistence of customs and superstitions is admitted, and those who enjoy speculation may like to connect the wicket-players on our village greens with half savage horsemen, dashing on their wiry barbs over the open plains of Persia. It may at least be said that our game of wicket with its low wickets and ball, rolled on the ground rather than thrown, allies itself more readily to polo than cricket, in which the wickets are carried on high supports and the ball is thrown. But whatever its origin, the present English game of cricket did not come into vogue until the beginning of the 18th century, and was soon brought to this country. Just when wicket, the American game, acquired its distinctive form, I cannot discover whether before or after it was first brought here. It is not unlikely that in the England of two hundred years ago cricket was sometimes called wicket. I am led to think so because the very first reference to the game in America is to wicket. As both cricket and wicket may have been derived from stoole-ball, though Strutt says club-ball, I cannot refrain from noticing what I believe to be the first reference to ball-playing on this continent.

“On Christmas day, 1621,” says Mr. Kittredge in his The Old Farmer and His Almanac, “Governor Bradford had an amusing encounter with some of his raw recruits, who had arrived on the ship ‘Fortune’ the month before. There were thirty-five of these newcomers, and, to use the Governor’s own words, “most of them were lusty yonge men, and many of them wild enough.” The Governor, who seems to have had the saving grace of humor, which he had need of, himself admits that the circumstance is one “rather of mirth than of waight.” Let me read the entry as he wrote it in his now famous history:

One ye day called Christmas-day, ye Govr caled them out to worke, (as was used), but ye most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on yt day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led-away ye rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly; some pitching ye barr, & some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play & others worke. If they made ye keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly.

The good old Governor’s use of the word “implements” to describe the “barr” and the “stoole-ball” which, in the exercise of his paternal authority, he took away from those “yonge men,” shows how careful he was to keep his own skirts clear from contamination with “shuch like sports.” One cannot help hoping that the boys got the “barr” and “stoole-ball” back again and managed to rebuke the Governor for his meddling.

The game of wicket, so far as I have been able to discover, was not played until one hundred odd years later, and my first record of it shows that it then involved the infraction of high authority with disastrous consequences—not Governor Bradford this time, but the Mirror of Old Boston, the amiable and fussy Judge Sewall, Mentor and Diarist. Under date of March 15th, 1725-26, he writes:

Sam. Hirst got up betimes in the morning, and took Ben Swett with him and went into the (Boston) Comon to play at Wicket. Went before any body was up, left the door open; Sam came not to prayer; at which I was much displeased.

Was the learned Judge more displeased with Sam for leaving the door open, or for coming “not to prayer”? Two days later this careless and incorrigible Sam Hirst repeated the offense. Under date of March 17th the Judge writes:

Did the like again, but took not Ben with him. I told him he could not lodge here practising thus. So he lodged elsewhere.

Sam Hirst, the first old-time wicket player on my list, grandson of the diarist, was born in 1705, and graduated from Harvard College in 1723. He was therefore between 20 and 21 years of age when his grandfather turned him out of his house for twice indulging before breakfast in the game of wicket on Boston Common.

I am in doubt about giving little Ben Swett a place on my list. Did he actually play or not? Perhaps not; on March 17th Sam “took not Ben with him.” But I could wish a green, if belated, bay for our boy enthusiast who had the courage to go at all. Born in 1713, the son of Samuel Sewall, a cousin of the Judge, Ben was only about thirteen at the time he stole away with his cousin Sam to play, or to watch a game of wicket on Boston Common. I may be mistaken, but I think it more than likely that at this time the game had just been introduced into New England, and that this accounts for Sam Hirst’s passion for it. It must be remembered that the game of cricket in anything like its present form did not begin to be played in Old England until a few years prior to this.

So far as I can learn, the game never became popular in the Massachusetts Colony, and I have not found a single reference to it later than this entry in Judge Sewall’s Diary. Undoubtedly the game was played to some extent, and a more exhaustive examination of all sources of information would probably disclose references to it. I must believe, however, that the game never obtained much of a foothold in Massachusetts. Until recently cricket has been played by the boys at St. Paul’s School, Concord, but their game was not, I think, a successor of wicket but a recent importation of cricket.

In an unsigned note, entitled “Cricket in America,” to be found in Vol. 48 of “The Saturday Review,” page 170, this statement occurs:

Cricket has been played in America for over a century. It was exported thither from its home on British soil before 1747. Englishmen who had gone out to build themselves new homes in a young and growing country, carried with them their love of the noble sport. The earliest known games in America were played in the lower part of New York City where Fulton Market now stands. The Gazette and Weekly Post Boy gave an account of a game played there on May 1st, 1751. The contestants were eleven London men and eleven New Yorkers; and strange to say, the New Yorkers won, making 80 and 86 to their opponents’ 43 and 37.

Here the game is called “cricket,” and the circumstances would warrant the inference that the game was the English game as played in England at that time. It may well be that our game of wicket follows the old English game more closely than the game now played in England under the rules laid down by the great English cricket clubs. At all events, the present English game is a much more highly developed game than ours. The comparative newness of the English game of cricket is well illustrated by the fact that the first match game in England of which there is any record was played between “Kent” and “All England” in 1746 only five years before the game played between the “Londoners” and “New Yorkers” in 1751. I daresay the New Yorkers had neither the patience nor the time for cricket, and foresaw that it could not be acclimated. At any rate, the game apparently gained no foothold there. A century later the game was played to a very limited extent in the City of Brooklyn, where it was transplanted, as I am bound to believe, from Connecticut probably by Bristol clock makers, who went to Brooklyn to engage in work there at the time the factories of the Ansonia Clock Company were established in that city. By 1751 the game had become widely popular in England, and was played by all classes, though the participation of men of rank in the game gave rise to many protests. In the same year as the match game in New York between “New Yorkers” and “Londoners,” Frederick, Prince of Wales, died from internal injuries caused by a blow from a cricket ball while playing at Cliefden House.[2]

How or when the game was introduced into Connecticut I cannot tell; but it was unquestionably being played in Hartford County with great enthusiasm as early as 1767. I am not prepared to say that the game was fostered by the established church of Connecticut, or has any connection with Congregationalism. But at any rate, the earliest reference to it I have been able to find for Connecticut occurs in Dr. Parker’s “History of the Second Church of Christ in Hartford,” in which he prints on page 136 the following challenge breezy with local spirit :

Hartford, May 30th, 1767 

whereas a challenge was given by fifteen men south of the great bridge in Hartford to an equal number north of said bridge, to play a game of cricket the day after the last election; the Public are hereby informed that the challenged beat the challengers by a great majority. Now said North do hereby acquaint the South side, that they are not afraid to meet them with any number they shall choose, and give them the liberty of picking their men among themselves, and also the best players both in the West Division and Wethersfield. Witness our hands (in the name of the whole company). 

William Pratt, 

Niell McLean Jr.

In this challenge the game is called “cricket,” though subsequently it seems to have been generally called “wicket”—the term used by Judge Sewall. The Hartford game was played as an aftermath of election, and with fifteen men on a side, but apparently the number of players was optional then as now, because this challenge reads, “that they are not afraid to meet them with any number they shall choose.” The reference to men of Wethersfield leads me to remark that the game was always very popular there. There are still a few scattering players in Wethersfield, though no organization. Perhaps the broad open fields of Wethersfield fostered the game just as the broad open downs of the southern counties of England did, for there was the true birthplace of the English game in its developed state. I was curious to learn how this challenge found its way into Dr. Parker’s book, and wrote him about it. He could only say in reply that the challenge was written on a loose sheet of paper, and just how it found its way into his collection, or what has become of it, he does not know. It is more than likely that the early files of the “Hartford Courant” contain some notices of games, though in those earlier and ruder days sporting editors and sporting reporters were unknown. I feel certain that at least from 1767, the game was played with practically unabated interest, particularly in Hartford and Litchfield Counties, up to the middle of the 19th century, when baseball appeared as its rival. Baseball, a development of the old English game of rounders, first appeared about 1845, but made slow headway until 1865, when it seems to have been taken up all over the country. Then the good old game of wicket was doomed. It lingered on in Hartford and Litchfield Counties for a few years, and a few players remain, but the game is now practically obsolete. It was inevitable that the game should be superseded by one more in consonance with the American spirit. “Americans,” says one writer, “do not possess the patience of Englishmen and do not care to witness a cricket match which may extend to three days and then remain undecided.” We require an intense, snappy game, in which all of the excitement is compressed into an hour or two. Such a game is baseball, which, however, has the very serious defect of placing too much power in the hands of the umpire.

In a “History of America” published in Edinburgh in 1800, Edward Oliphant, the writer, says in describing New England (page 113): “The athletic and healthy diversions of cricket, foot ball, quoits, wrestling, jumping, hopping, foot races and prison base are universally practiced in this country, and some of them in the most populous places, and by people of almost all ranks.”

This note is somewhat unsatisfactory because it does not appear of what section of New England he is writing, nor what opportunities he had for verifying his statements.

From Hartford, where the game was played, as we have seen, with enthusiasm as early as 1767, it was undoubtedly taken to Litchfield County, where it became widely popular. From thence it spread, as I surmise, into the Berkshire region of Western Massachusetts. I have the authority of Professor Louis V. Pirsson of Yale for saying that it was played in the region of Pittsfield some thirty-five years ago, but only to a limited extent. The towns of Litchfield and New Hartford were great centers for the game. Torrington and Waterbury boasted of good players. Our former Governor, Hon. Frederick John Kingsbury of Waterbury, writes that he well remembers the game as played in Waterbury, where he thinks the game was at its height between 1830 and 1840. The game described by Mr. Kingsbury is the American game, but like the English game, called for three supports and two wickets. This feature I have not met with elsewhere.[3] If the degree of excitement is in direct proportion to the number of heroes engaged, a game of wicket should arouse a community to a higher pitch of enthusiasm than baseball. Thirty players on a side was the usual number, sixty players in all. It must be observed, too, that in this country the best men in the community played the game. I do not mean to say that the teams were wholly or even largely composed of picked men, but every team was pretty sure to include a few of the best men in the community, and these kept the game free from bickerings and rowdyism. The taint of professionalism always attached to baseball was conspicuously absent. I am convinced that wicket was the more wholesome sport, and certainly had the merit of engaging actively a larger number of men than baseball. On the other hand, it is a less interesting game to watch. The most patriotic Englishmen admit that, as a spectacle, cricket is fatiguing.

Here and there I find mention made of the game being played on “training” and “election” days; but wicket required too much time to be given a second place on such crowded days. I am disposed to think that its devotees were willing to give the best of a day to it, though it is true that “training” and “election” days were great occasions for indulgence in all forms of athletic sports by the colonists and their immediate descendants. Madam Knight, in her inimitable journal of her ride from Boston to New York in 1704, speaks of ball-playing in Connecticut. She does not refer to wicket, but the English game of cricket had not taken on anything like its present form until 1702, and was not, so far as I can learn, played here much before Judge Sewall made the entry in his diary in 1725–6 already quoted from. Our colonists had the passion of the English for sports in the open, and they missed the English holidays, for which they found a substitute in “election” and “training” days. Hence Madam Knight’s reference to “Saint Election.” It may be thought too great a tax upon credulity to connect the game of wicket as played on our village greens with the games of Persian horsemen, but it must be admitted that in playing games of all sorts on “training” and “election” days our colonists were transferring to those days the games which their English forebears had long played on Saints days days originally devoted by the priests to miracle plays, which in the course of time gave way to purely secular entertainments. It is hard to believe that the merry-go-round and the shooting gallery of the holidays of modern England are in the line of succession from the miracle plays with which our ancestors were entertained before the Reformation, but our masters will have it so. Nor is it easy to connect our New England games on “training,” “election” and “fast” days with miracle plays, but the evidence supports the conclusion.[4]

Whether wicket was ever played in New Haven by “town-born” and “interloper” I am unable to say; but it was unquestionably played by the college boys from early times, though I have been unable to find any record evidence of the game antedating 1818. In a poem entitled “New Haven” written by William Croswell, a son of Dr. Harry Croswell of Trinity Church, New Haven, and himself a Rector of the Church of the Advent in Boston, cricket is mentioned. This poem refers to the years of his undergraduateship, 1818–22, when young Croswell was a student at Yale. The fifth stanza reads:

And on the green and easy slope where those proud columns stand, 

In Dorian mood, with academe and temple on each hand, 

The football and the cricket-match upon my vision rise,

With all the clouds of classic dust kicked in each other’s eyes. 

Football and cricket went hand in hand in those days, as appears from Belden’s “Sketches of Yale College,” published in 1843. He says: “Were it spring or autumn you should see a brave set-to at football on the green, or a brisk game at wicket.”

As a New Haven school boy, Mr. Henry T. Blake saw the college students play wicket on the Green prior to 1844, as well as during his own college days. He tells me that he never heard the game called anything but wicket; and the game, as he describes it, follows what I call the American game. It was during Mr. Blake’s college days that baseball made its appearance and, if I may say so, a decided hit. For a few years thereafter wicket was not played on New Haven Green at all as far as I can learn; but when the Rev. Dr. Storrs O. Seymour of Litchfield came to college in 1853 it was revived by him and some Litchfield County students at Yale. About that revival he writes as follows:

In the class of ‘57 there were three men from Litchfield County well acquainted with the game of ‘wicket.’ And after the excitement of the football games between ’57 and ’58 had subsided, it was proposed that a wicket club be formed. This was done, the ball and bats and wicket sticks after the regular pattern were procured and the club began its practice. The place where we played was on the public green south of the old State House, which was then standing, and parallel with College Street about where the row of trees now stands. These trees were not then growing there. I can not recall all the names of those who were accustomed to play with us. But I remember very well that Sam. Scoville, George M. Woodruff, George Pratt, Holbrook our Valedictorian, John C. Day, D. Stuart Dodge and Charles Blackman were prominent as good players. The time when we played was at noon, after the eleven o’clock recitation and before dinner. Sometimes also Saturday afternoon was given up to it. There were a good many of our class who would from time to time join in the game but irregularly. There were not more than a dozen perhaps who were enthusiastic enough to be on hand every day. I think that we never chose sides, but when a man was bowled or caught out someone else took the bat, a sort of order being observed, so that all had a chance to bat. The game excited considerable interest, tho. I think no other class formed a club. There were other men in the other classes who knew the game, who had come from towns where it was played, these would occasionally take part in it. So far as I know the game was not continued by any club after the class of ’57 was graduated, and so far as I remember I have not played a game since that year. But I enjoyed playing very much, having begun when I was a small boy. The game was played here in Litchfield on our public square every pleasant evening from early summer to late autumn.

After one of those games in which young Seymour played, an old gentleman came forward from among the spectators and said to him, that he was very glad to watch him and his friends play at the game of wicket; that he had played the game in the old town of Litchfield with his father, Judge Origen S. Seymour; with his grandfather, Sheriff Ozias Seymour; and with his great-grandfather, Major Moses Seymour. “They were all good players,” added the old man, “and you play as well as the best of them.” This was Mr. Asa Bacon, then eighty-six years old, a Litchfield man and a contemporary of Sheriff Seymour. It was the custom in Litchfield, as elsewhere, for elderly men to play a match game with the younger men, and so Mr. Bacon as a young man had played with Major Moses Seymour, and as an elderly man in a game against Judge Seymour. This little story calls up a pleasing picture of Major Moses Seymour, the patriot, as an old man playing a match wicket game on Litchfield Green. Dr. Seymour thinks that the game which his grandfather played against Mr. Bacon must have been played prior to 1800. Litchfield, as I have already stated, was one of the strongholds of the game, which must have been played there until the middle of the last century, and I should judge that it must have been something of a cult in the Seymour family because I am assured by our member, Hon. Morris W. Seymour, that he played the game as well as his brothers, the Rev. Dr. Storrs O. Seymour and the late Judge Edward Seymour.

The game was also a great favorite in Litchfield with the students of Judge Reeve’s justly celebrated law school. I think the game was never played in New Haven after the graduation of Dr. Seymour and his Litchfield County friends in 1857.[5]

Professor Henry A. Beers, who played the game as a boy in Hartford during the years 1859-63, says that it was not played during his time in college from 1865 to 1869. By that time baseball had entirely crowded it out. The game described by Professor Beers as having been played by him during his school-boy days in Hartford, corresponds in all particulars to what I call the American game. He also writes, “A few years ago in the little town of Southfield in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, the natives organized a wicket game on July 4th, between the married men and bachelors.” I have already alluded to finding the game in the Berkshire region, whence I think it was derived from Litchfield.

How far the Connecticut game of wicket has travelled I cannot say, but it is certain that when the Western Reserve region of Ohio was settled from Connecticut about 1830, the game was taken along. Our member, Professor Thomas Day Seymour of Yale, tells me that wicket was a favorite game of the students at Western Reserve College then located at Hudson, Ohio. He played the game at that time, as did also his brother, Mr. Charles Seymour of Knoxville. That was a community of pure Connecticut stock, and a greater part of the students came from the Western Reserve region and were of the same stock, and they came to college well acquainted with the game. “Up to 1861,” he says, “the standard games at our college were wicket and baseball, with wicket well in the lead. This game was in no sense a revival. A proof of this is the fact that young men coming to college all over the Reserve were accustomed to this game at home.” The game described by Professor Seymour is the Connecticut game. Mark Hanna was a star player there about 1860, and the rule had to be called on him that the ball must touch the ground three times before it struck the wicket.[6]

It thus appears that wicket was played in Connecticut, and particularly in Hartford and Litchfield Counties, from the middle of the 18th century down to the outbreak of the Civil War. During the War, athletic games were largely suspended in favor of drilling and other manoeuvres. After the war, baseball seems to have had a clear field. In an address made on May 24, 1906, A. G. Spalding, the “famous pitcher” and authority on the “national game,” said:

Baseball is of American origin, was born in New York City, and the first baseball ground was located about where Madison Square now stands. Back in 1842 a few of the young business men of New York began to assemble every Saturday afternoon on these grounds to play what they called baseball. In 1845 these same young men organized the original Knickerbocker Baseball Club of New York, the first baseball club ever organized. This club printed the first playing rules in 1845, and it may interest you to know that the present game of baseball could to-day be played under these same rules with a few minor changes, showing that the main underlying principles of the game have not changed from that day to this. Five years later, in 1850, the Gotham and Empire Clubs of New York were organized, and then began rival match games between clubs. In 1857 a convention of baseball players was held in New York, which resulted in the formation of the first National Association of Amateur Baseball Players in 1858, with a total membership of about twenty-five clubs, all from New York city or the immediate vicinity. This national organization gave a great impetus to the game and clubs began forming in other cities. 

The game had become well launched when the Civil War began in 1861. The New York baseball players of that period were among the first to respond to President Lincoln’s call for troops, and they took their baseball accoutrements with them, and thus was the game introduced into the army, where it soon became a favorite camp pastime. Every regiment had its baseball team, and the monotony of camp life was very much relieved by match games of baseball. In some unaccountable manner the new game found its way over into the Confederate lines, and while those two magnificent armies could not agree upon national policies, they could agree upon baseball. At the close of the Civil War, in 1865, the soldiers of both armies in returning to their homes disseminated baseball throughout the nation, so you can see that baseball has its patriotic side, and became the national game of America through the efforts of those battle-scarred veterans of the Civil War.

The “national game” itself was until the sixties merely the local pastime of New York City and a few neighboring places. When the Civil War began, the New York regiments introduced the game into the army, and as Mr. Spalding tells the story, the return of the soldiers to their homes after the conclusion of peace spread the game with the greatest possible rapidity to the uttermost parts of the country. Wicket was thus displaced by baseball a game far better suited to the American spirit, but less democratic than wicket, though the contrary opinion is often expressed.

This I cannot but feel is a loss, as it should always be the aim to keep recreation democratic.

For my last chapter in the history of the game, I must turn again to Bristol. The history of wicketing in Bristol is entrenched behind an unbroken series of victories over neighboring teams, the more remarkable, perhaps, because the Bristol team has always been made up of local players, while the opposing teams have often been composed of picked players from different towns. A memorable game was that played on Federal Hill in Bristol September 9, 1858, between Bristol and Waterbury. A special train brought the Waterbury players to Bristol. The game lasted nearly all day and was played to the accompaniment of a band of music. Waterbury was defeated. After the contest was over the home and the visiting teams marched, the band leading the way, to the center of the town, where they were loudly cheered. A banquet at the Kilbourne House followed. But the most memorable day in the annals of the game was a match played between Bristol and New Britain on Monday, July 18, 1859, the Bristol team having advertised that they were willing to meet a team from any town or city in the State, or any combination, for the championship of the State. After some delay New Britain accepted the challenge and the affair was arranged with as much elaboration of detail as any sort of public celebration would be to-day. Monday morning dawned clear and hot, and the whole country-side was early astir. In Hartford the interest was so great that a special train was made up and left for Bristol early in the morning. More cars were added and filled at New Britain. Every car was trimmed with flags and bunting; the visitors brought a band with them, and a great crowd welcomed them at the Bristol station. When the game began it was estimated that fully 4,000 people –a number exceeding the entire population of the township—had gathered to witness the contest. Every window in the Congregational Church was filled with people who stood there all day, as well as every available window in the neighboring houses that commanded a view of the old green. The remainder of the company stood in the hot sun. For hours the battle waged, and although New Britain played a losing game, their heroic efforts to recover themselves maintained the excitement until all was over. In speaking of the game, the “Hartford Press” said, “the most remarkable order prevailed during the game, and the contestants treated each other with faultless courtesy, the good-natured cheers at each other’s mishaps being given and received in the best of spirits. The judges required the umpire but few times during the game and the decisions were yielded to promptly.” New Britain was defeated by a score of 190 to 152.

Though their team had been beaten, the New Britain contingent were not broken in spirit. Stripping the flags and bunting from their gaily decorated cars, they now draped them heavily in black; the shades of evening heightened the majesty of grief. And so, as the day closed, this funeral train wound slowly through the cut, crossed the great “Cow Plain,” and drew on to New Britain and Hartford. The team remained behind for the customary banquet. In this great match of 1859 for the championship of the State the game seems to have culminated. In that game thirty men played on each side. In the lists I notice the names of the late Frederick W. Stanley and Valentine Chamberlain of New Britain, and Henry A. and the late Josiah Tracy Peck of Bristol, both brothers of Professor Tracy Peck of Yale.[7]

Fortunately the rules decided upon for the New Britain game, as drafted by the late Deacon “Harry” Bartholomew of Bristol, have recently been brought to light and are here reprinted. They are valuable as showing the game at the very height of its development and just before it was displaced by baseball.

RULES OF THE GAME OF WICKET.

1st. The ball shall be from 3-3/4 to 4 inches in diameter and weigh from 9 to 10 ounces.

2d. The wickets shall be 75 feet apart.

3d. The wickets shall be six feet long.

4th. The tick marks shall be six feet from the wickets.

5th. The ball shall strike the ground on or before it reaches the center, to be a bowl.

6th. The bowler must start from behind the wicket and pass over it in bowling.

7th. The bowler shall be within ten feet of the wicket when the ball leaves his hand.

8th. A throw or jerk is in no case a bowl, but the arm in bowling must be kept perfectly straight.

9th. In ticking, the bowler must stand astride or back of the wicket, striking it off from the inside, retaining the ball in his hand.

10th. When the bowler has received the ball, it shall be bowled by him before it is passed to the other bowler.

11th. The striker shall in no case molest the ball when it is being thrown in, so as to hinder the bowler from ticking him out.

12th. There shall be no crossing the alley when the ball is being bowled.

13th. There shall be no unnecessary shinning.[8]

14th. In catching, flying balls only are out. A ball caught before striking any other object but the catcher is out.

15th. In crossing, the striker shall tick his bat down on or over the tick mark to have a cross count except when caught or ticked out.

16th. No striker shall strike a ball more than once except in defense of his wicket, neither shall he stop the ball with his bat and then kick it.

17th. No one shall get in the way of a striker to prevent his crossing freely.

18th. Lost ball may have four crosses run on it.

19th. No one but the judge may cry “no bowl.”

The number of players on each side is not fixed by these rules. On this point there seems to have been considerable elasticity. While the game was frequently played with only about fifteen men on a side, the existing records show that in all match games of any importance there were about thirty players on each side; but, as stated, there seems to have been no hard and fast rule fixing the number of players. Thirty players on a side may have been considered the “perfect number,” but important match games were played with 28 men on a side, and with even more than 30. One would think that with sixty men more or less engaged in one game, there would be great confusion; but it is to be remembered that only about half the whole number were playing at one time. While one team was fielding, the other team was batting. The fielding team was, of course, in play, but the batting team was waiting its turn, two by two, at the bat. The fielding team moved from one end of the alley to the other according to the end of the alley used for batting. Either end of the alley was used, but only one end at a time. Although only a little over half of the aggregate number of men engaged were in play at any one time, the number actually taking part in the game was large compared with our modern game of baseball. The very number of players engaged in these bygone contests gives a quaint and old-time air to any rehearsal of them, and shows how simple, compared with our own, the times were when sixty men of the better class, and even of the first class, were able to devote an entire day to a game. Indeed the number of players gives some color to the theory that the game is after all but dismounted polo derived from true polo in which a great number of horsemen took part.

From 1859 the game seems to have languished up to 1873, when Bristol played Wolcottville and Ansonia, and, in 1874, Forestville. Several games were played in 1876 the Centennial year.

In 1880 the Bristol wicket team went to Brooklyn, New York, and on August 27th decisively defeated the Brooklyn Club. The game drew a great crowd and the reporters of the New York dailies took advantage of the opportunity to write up the strange Yankee game of wicket. The Brooklyn Eagle said, “There were many grey-beards on both sides, but what was the most striking in the contest, to the spectators present, accustomed to witness games and matches of all kinds in the Metropolis, was the entire absence of the spirit of partizan malice, of continuous disputing and quarreling which is frequent at local contests on the ball field.” If the game of baseball was free from rowdyism at first, it soon degenerated into it, so that to-day and for many years past, at least, rowdyism has been characteristic of baseball games. A rough class of men have played the games and a rough and rowdy class have been attracted to them. I do not mean to say that baseball is a rowdy game as played by young men, nor that many of the best men in any community are not enthusiastic supporters of baseball. What I mean to say is, that baseball has almost from its beginnings been characterized by a great deal of rowdyism.

Beginning with 1880, local games occupied the Bristol wicketers until 1892, when they played two games with Newington. In 1893 they played Newington and Torrington. Newington was again beaten in 1895. The next great game was that of 1903—the “Old Home Week” game already spoken of. The last game was that played as a feature of the annual fair at Berlin last year, attracting a great crowd. For over sixty years the Bristol team has been victorious in every game. Is it strange, then, that up there on the hills they cherish the traditions of the ancient Yankee game of wicket, of which they consider themselves the appointed custodians?

I should not bring this paper to a close without attempting a description of the game as played. To begin with, an alley 75 feet long is prepared. No rule prescribes any width for the alley but it varies from 8 to 10 feet. Two pairs of wooden blocks are placed at the respective ends of the alley in parallel lines at a right angle to its length; on these blocks light sticks six feet long, called wickets, are mounted. The blocks, which are usually pyramidal in form, are of a height to lift the wickets about 4 inches above the floor of the alley. The center of the alley is crossed by an imaginary transverse line used to determine the fairness of the ball, it being one of the requirements that the ball must be bowled so as to strike the floor of the alley before reaching the center of the alley. The judge generally takes a position in line with this transverse line, which is marked by bits of red flannel held in place by pins driven into the edge of the alley on each side so as to be flush with its floor. The bowlers stand back of the wickets and for them the ground is cleared and smoothed so as to merge into the alley, though the alley proper is confined between the wickets; no rules limit the size of the place occupied by the bowler. Imaginary “tick-lines” are drawn at a right angle to the axis of the alley, six feet inside of the wickets. Similarly, imaginary transverse “bowling lines” five feet inside of the “tick-lines,” and therefore ten feet inside of the wickets, are drawn to prevent the bowlers from advancing toward the center of the alley more than ten feet from the wickets, before delivering the ball. These “tick-lines” and “bowling lines” are usually indicated by bits of red flannel attached to pins driven into the side of the alley as described above. The batsmen are placed facing each other between the “tick lines” and the wickets, each batsman being furnished with a one-piece wooden bat not unlike a tennis bat in form, though having a longer handle, and being solid at the outer end instead of strung with gut. Two bowlers chosen from the fielding team stand back of the wickets. The batsmen from the team at the bat stand just inside of the wickets. That is their position for batting, but when the ball is being bowled to one of them, the other, of course, has to get out of the way of the bowler and always moves forward on the right side of the alley to be out of the way and to be nearer the opposite wicket if the ball is batted and he has to run. The wicketers forming the team from which the bowlers are chosen are arranged around the end of the alley from which the ball is being batted. In case the batting is shifted to the other end of the alley, the fielders swiftly group themselves around the bowler there. To deliver a ball the bowler retreats back of the wicket for some distance. Then running forward he leaps over the wicket and delivers the ball with a straight arm as close to the ground as possible, and always within the “bowling line” before described. He may deliver a straight ball, or a curved ball a swift ball or a slow ball; but under all circumstances, the ball, in order to be a fair ball, must touch the alley before reaching the line crossing the middle of the alley and determining the fairness of the ball. If the ball is not intercepted by the batsman, it will, of course, knock off the wicket, which it is the aim of the batsman to guard. The batsman may strike an unlimited number of balls, and may or may not run as he may judge best; but in some way or other he must intercept the balls and prevent them from knocking off the wicket. When he strikes the ball into the field he ordinarily runs to the opposite end of the alley and strikes the ground back of the “tick line” with his bat. In this way a run is scored, but of course the batsman does not score if the ball is caught by one of the fielders, or if the ball is thrown to the bowler and the wicket knocked off with the ball in the hands of the bowler before the runner “ticks” down. If he makes a strong hit he may after “ticking” once run back to the opposite end of the alley and then back and “tick” again, and so on, but in any event he cannot make more than four runs on any one ball. But up to the number of four, he may run back and forth until the ball has been recovered, and thrown to the bowler. With so many men in the field to intercept the ball, it is surprising that any runs to speak of are made; but, on the contrary, wicket scores are high as compared with baseball scores.

With so many taking part, the game is necessarily prolonged, even lasting all day, and rarely played within a space of five hours; but I have never heard of the game of wicket being continued over to the next day, which I believe is not unusual with the game of cricket as played in Old England. The difference between the game of wicket which was played with scarcely diminished enthusiasm as late as 1860, and our national game of baseball, is fairly characteristic of the great changes in American life. The old game was leisurely, gentlemanly, and democratic in so far as it brought together on terms of friendly equality the high and the low of our old social order, just as in England the farmer’s son, the squire’s son, and the nobleman’s son engaged in village games, without any consciousness of distinctions of rank. In the game of wicket the game itself was enough for the players though it generally drew a good many local people. On the other hand, we have in baseball a game played with terrific intensity and power for an hour and a half or two hours, by eighteen men too frequently of a rough class, and almost invariably before an immense throng of highly wrought spectators. In baseball, at least as now played, the players are generally recruited from the same class. It would be invidious to say that the “best people,” so called, do not to-day attend baseball games. But they are in the minority in the great crowd of men who occupy the “bleachers”—they are, as I think, men who as boys played the game when it was in its infancy, and when it too brought together in friendly rivalry the better and the best men in the community. The game of wicket compared with baseball as now played seems rural enough, and shows more plainly than the old players could have ever realized, how close they were, after all, in their sports to the mother country, which many of them affected so much to despise. The English cricketers and the American wicketers were in truth of one brotherhood.

NOTES

1. A chronological list of the games with the names of the players and the runs made by each player has been kept in a large account book. This book has long been in the custody of Mr. Henry B. Cook, to whom the writer is indebted for the loan of it.

2. This on the authority of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall. Horace Walpole attributed the death of the Prince to a blow from a tennis ball—a more aristocratic attribution and one far more likely to appeal to Walpole. Tennis was the royal game of England and of France; that was enough for him. The curious may see The History and Posthumous Memoirs of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall, ed. by Wheatley, Vol. I., p. 308, and Walpole’s Memoirs of the Reign of George II, 2nd ed. (1846), Vol. I., p. 72.

3. Since the foregoing was written I have learned from Mr. George M. Curtis of Meriden that as he recalls the game the wickets were carried on three supports, in this respect following cricket. Why Waterbury and Meriden should stand together in this variant of the game I do not pretend to know.

4. Even the cloth forgot its dignity and engaged in sports. The Rev. Henry Smith, the first settled minister of the old river-town of Wethersfield, wrestled, as it would appear, not alone with the Lord. In a letter written from Hadley in 1689 by his son, his son says, “I do well remember ye Face and Figure of my Honored Father. He was 5 foote, 10 inches tall & spare of build tho not leane. He was as active as ye Red Skin Men and Sinewy. His delight was in sports of Strengthe & withe his own Handes he did helpe to reare bothe our owne House & ye First Meeting House of Weathersfield, wherein he preacht yeares too fewe. He was well Featured & Fresh favoured with faire skin & longe curling Haire (as neare all of us have had) with a merrie eye & sweet smilinge mouthe, tho he could frowne sternlie eno when need was.”

“Ye firste Meeting House was solid, mayde to withstande ye wicked onslaughts of ye Red Skins. Its foundations was laide in ye feare of ye Lord, but its walls was truly laide in ye feare of ye Indians for many & greate was ye Terrors of em. I do mind me yt alle ye able-bodyed Men did work thereat & ye old and feeble did watch in turns to espie if any savages was in hiding neare & every man kepte his Musket nighe to his hande.” For the remainder of this captivating letter, see the History of Ancient Wethersfield, Connecticut, Vol. I., p. 154.

5. For a further account of the game as played in Litchfield, see Mr. Clarence Deming’s article entitled “An Old Yankee Ball Game-Wicket,” in the New York Evening Post of May, 1903. Mr. Deming should also be enrolled as an enthusiastic wicket player on the Litchfield team, as well as the late Senator Orville H. Platt, who studied law in Litchfield.

6. Professor Seymour’s letter so well visualizes the game as it was played half a century ago in the Western Reserve that I am constrained to reprint it in full:

NEW HAVEN, April 25, 1905.

My dear Kinsman: As to “wicket” in Northern Ohio: My father was for fifty years professor in the Western Reserve College, and my youth was spent in a community of unusually pure New England stock. In 1861, the war set all men to “drilling,” and the “cadets” found in skirmishing and the like (Zouave drill) the vent for their longing for exercise and sport. But up to 1861 the standard games at our college were wicket and football, with wicket well in the lead. This was in no sense a revival. A proof of this is the fad that young men coming to college from all over the Reserve were accustomed to this game at home. My impression is that my father recognized the game as familiar to him from his boyhood, but of this I am not absolutely certain. The ball was about 5-1/2 inches in diameter; the wickets were about 4 inches above the ground, and about 5 feet long. The bats were very heavy, of oak, about 50 inches long, with an almost circular lower end of (say) 8 inches in diameter. The ball was so heavy that most bowlers merely rolled it with such a twist as they could impart; but some bowlers almost threw it. Mark Hanna was the star player about 1860, and the rule had to be called on him that the ball must touch the ground three times before it struck the wicket. The bats were so heavy that only the strong (and quick) batter dared to wait until the ball was opposite him and then strike. I was always satisfied to steer the ball off to one side. The rules favored the batter and many runs were made. (My brother has stimulated, helped, and confirmed my recollections in this matter.) I am,

Yours, &c.,

T. D. SEYMOUR.

7. One of the spectators of that great contest on Federal Hill lived to play a game of wicket in the same town nearly fifty years later, as the following item from the New Haven Journal-Courier of September 5th, 1905, shows:

Wilfred H. Nettleton of Bristol, aged eighty years, who has been an admirer of wicket for half a century and saw the game on Federal Hill, Bristol, fifty years ago, when Bristol defeated New Britain, played in the game on Friday afternoon on the Center street grounds, in that town. He has played more or less all his life and on Friday made eight runs in the game between the married and unmarried men. His health is preserved in a remarkable degree and there is rarely a baseball game hereabouts that he does not see.

8. That the game as played in Litchfield County was substantially the same as played in Hartford County is shown by the following extract from a letter dated at Litchfield, October 11, 1909, from the Rev. Dr. Storrs O. Seymour, a wicketer himself and the inheritor of the traditions of the Litchfield County game.

I thank you most heartily for sending me your article on “Wicket.” I do not see how it can be improved. Nor have I any suggestion to make unless it might be well to explain what was meant by ‘shinning’ in rule 13th. My impression is that three “shinnings” put a man out, although probably these three must have been consecutive, and I believe that when a batter had stopped a ball in that way the ball was thrown back to the same bowler. You also speak of the fact that the ball being bowled to one batter, the other might move forward to make his run. Was not this called “leading up” and considered as a mark of a courageous and alert batter? I think too that a batter who had thus “led up” might stop the ball anywhere in the alley if the bowler opposite to him tried to bowl him out before he could get within the “tick line.”

There used to be many match games played between the “Bantam Club” of Litchfield and the Wolcottville Club. The last match game in which I played was one between these two clubs when I was in college, my division officer, who, if I remember rightly, was Dr. Dwight, the late President, having excused me from attending on prayers and recitations that I might come to Litchfield for the purpose of playing. My brother Edward was one of the players and, alas! our club was beaten.” 

Dr. Seymour’s letter was submitted to Mr. Miles Lewis Peck of Bristol, who replied in part, as follows:

With regard to ‘shinning’ it meant the stopping of a ball with your shins without having made any effort to hit it with the bat. Sometimes players who had very tough shins would try to tire out a bowler on the opposite team by shinning ball after ball and a rule was made to prevent this. When, however, the batter struck at and tried to hit the ball, but failed, and the ball hit his shins, it was not called “shinning.”

 
 

6 Comments

I have been working on a book on American Cricket History for almost 2 years now & have also included a chapter on Wicket, which I wrote in the spring of 2011. I was hoping I would be the first to provide the history of Wicket in detail, I guess it was not meant to be. Hopefully the book will be completed before the end of the year. I have actually held the original Wicket bats & balls used in early 1900s & have pictures of them too. I have not read thru the complete article yet but I hope I find something new.
You folks do an excellent job with the history of early ball games in America, thanks.

Intriguing comment, thanks. We knew of an ancient wicket bat in the collections of Old Deerfield (MA), but their curators can no longer locate it. If you have a picture of what you have held I would love to see it. A handful of fellow researchers, including myself, have amassed tons of material on wicket and would be glad to share it with you. I’m sure you know Tom Melville’s work on American cricket,but there is always room for more, especially with a fresh perspective.

I appreciate your sharing the Wicket material with me that you have amassed, pl feel free to send it to my email a/c. I don’t have an issue with sending the picture to you, but at the same time I don’t want it ‘out’ before the book. I hope that is ok, I can send it a couple of weeks before the book is done. Yes, I have Tom Melville’s book and a few others by P David Sentance, George B Kirsch, John Lester etc.

Understood as to the image. Will send wicket material via YouSendIt. Accompanying message will provide my email address.

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