July 27th, 2012

The Amazing Francis Willughby, and the Role of Stoolball in the Evolution of Baseball and Cricket

The article below, by Larry McCray, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball for which Larry served as guest editorHe 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.

His article, like others from the special Protoball issue,  appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1672.1, reflects that it is the  first entry for the approximate year 1672. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.

1672c.1,  The Amazing Francis Willughby, and the Role of Stoolball in the Evolution of Baseball and Cricket

Larry McCray

Hornebillets. Hornebillets is when they make 2 round holes in the ground, 7 or 8 yards asunder, or further or neerrer as they think good. They play 2 of a side, and have one Cat & a pare of Dogstaffes betweene them . . . . If 6 play they must have 3 holes, if 8, 4 &c, and the Cat must bee throwne round from one hole to another.[1]  [Francis Willughby]

Long before there was David Block, there was Joseph Strutt, whose own path-breaking book, on English sports up to 1800,[2] is well known to sports historians. Long before there was Joseph Strutt, there was Francis Willughby, whose path-breaking manuscript on English “plaies” was lost for 10 generations, reaching print only in 2003.

The Willughby Catalog of Games

Willughby, born in 1635, was described by a friend as having been “bitten by the snake of knowledge.”[3] He was a leading researcher on insects, and at age 26 became an original fellow of the scientific Royal Society. In the 1660s, he began his survey of games, or “plaies.” He had hoped to travel to America, where such a survey might have continued, but in June 1672 he contracted pleurisy, and he died a month later, leaving behind 192 folio pages of notes describing over 60 pastimes, including several games of ball. This trove then disappeared into long-term storage.

The first known cricket play had occurred a century before Willughby’s survey commenced (our first reference to English baseball only turns up 72 years after his death). But he has no description of cricket at all, which is likely why few today celebrate his ancient games collection, and perhaps why the manuscript, recovered in the 1940s, reached print only recently.

Willughby does, however, provide a detailed and comprehensible account of English stoolball, a game for which we have many dozens or references ranging from 1500–1700. Stoolball today has many strong resemblances to cricket: “Goals” are defended by batters, who then run bases until the ball is retrieved and returned. Still played vigorously in the south of England, the game—in which batters defend targets set at about shoulder level—is sometimes called “cricket in the air.”[4]

But the game Willughby described in the 1660s bears a stronger similarity to a fungo game like “hit-the-bat” than to cricket.[5] Standing near a stool placed with its seat facing the field, a member of the offense “posts” a ball—envision a volleyball-type serve—toward the defensive side. If the ball is caught on the fly, and the offense fails to catch a return post, “hee that [first] posted it must be out;” if it is not caught, however, the defense throws the ball back, trying to hit the stool, a feat that also will serve to retire the hitter. Willughby describes nothing resembling pitching, batting, or any attempt to defend the stool from the thrown ball. It’s not cricket-like at all.

But then, we find in Willughby the otherwise unrecorded game of hornebillets.[6] Hornebillets play sounds familiar to us, even if its name doesn’t. A member of one team tries to throw the “billet” into a circular hole. A member of the opposing team, knowing that if the billet enters the hole “they are out,” hits it away with a staff and then runs from hole to hole, running up the score, until the billet can be retrieved and returned. A score of 63 wins the game. Running was apparently mandatory for all hits. A fly rule is not mentioned. The age range and genders of the players are not given.

It would be hard to miss the resemblance of this game to the early American “o’ cat” ballgames, which are sometimes rendered as “one-hole cat,” two-hole cat,” etc. It would also be hard to miss the central fact that a “billet” is not a ball; it is a short length of stick or animal horn. If the playing ground was not level, players may have much preferred to play with an object that was not forever rolling down a slope and away from them. Whether hornebillets has some relationship to primitive forms of cricket, or English stoolball, or to the game of English baseball that arose in the next century, awaits the research effort of some modern-day Willughby.[7]

What features may stoolball have bestowed on cricket and baseball?

Stoolball is certainly one of the best-documented of early ballgames (the Protoball Project has more than a hundred references to its play prior to 1870),[8] and many observers have thus seen it as an important early stage in the evolution of safe-haven games. It is not uncommon, for example, that cricket writers refer to stoolball as the likely father of cricket, and David Block cites stoolball as the game that may have contributed the most to English baseball.[9]

But what particular elements of early cricket and baseball might have derived from ancient stoolball? In 2010 we took a hard look at the available evidence about stoolball before these other games had appeared on the scene. (As stoolball and cricket have been similar games for recent generations, we have supposed that they always were.)

The earliest known reference to cricket indicates that it was played in about 1550.[10] Cricket scholars believe that the game had taken its essential shape by 1706, when a long poem depicted the game in enough detail to identify cricket’s central features,[11] including baserunning, bowling, and the defense of wickets using bats.

Thus, our main question is what the evidence says about the nature of stoolball from 1550 to about 1700; such elements, and only such elements, might have influenced the early evolution of cricket. We examined each of the 70 stoolball entries Protoball has collected from that century and a half, many of them brief mentions in poetry, plays, scoldings by clerics, bans and ordinances, etc.

The general picture that emerges from those pre-1700 sources is that stoolball was easily the most frequently cited English ball game of the era, that it was an adult pastime, that it was played as often by women as men, and that not infrequently it was cited as a lusty game that led to somewhat unchaste interactions between the lads and lasses involved.

However, the evidence on the game’s actual playing rules is very thin, with the exacting Willughby survey itself by far the most complete and convincing description of the lot. We find in scattered evidence that pre-1700 stoolball involved (a) the propulsion of the ball by a member of the “in” team to a team of fielders who could register a score by catching it in the air; (b) fielded balls being thrown toward the stool; (c) score being kept and a winning side thereby determined; and—in Willughby, and no place else—(d) an all-out-side-out format for exchanging sides at the end of we now call innings.

Missing from all these pre-1700 accounts are any concrete depictions of (1) risky running among stools by the “in” players as the way to score “notches” (runs);[12] (2) the presence of two or more bases (stools) on the playing field; (3) the use of a bat to put a ball in play;[13] and (4) the idea that “in” players protected a stool or other target from being hit by the balls thrown toward the stool by the “out” side.

Thus, if these accounts are taken as the only evidence, one cannot attribute to 1700-era stoolball the central modern features of bowling/pitching, batting (with either a club or with a player’s hand), or baserunning. All three of these features were already part of cricket in 1700 and they were part of English baseball when it later emerged. They were found in stoolball itself in later years, but one could speculate that stoolball may have adopted them from cricket or other pastimes.

If bowling/pitching, batting, and risky baserunning didn’t come to cricket from stoolball, what were their sources? That’s still hard to say. Possibilities may include running games like European long-ball games, and assorted “cat” games like cat-and-dog and hornebillets, which were running games but not ball games. But even if stoolball has endowed to later games nothing but the ancient and familiar fly rule, that may be reason enough to celebrate its long history.


1. Cram, Forgeng, and Johnston. 2003. Francis Willughby’s Book of Games: A Seventeenth-Century Treatise on Sports, Games, and Pastimes.

 2. Strutt, J. 1801. The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England.

 3. Ibid., 7.

4. The sport is energetically promoted by Stoolball England: see www.stoolball.org.uk.

5. Ibid., 178.

6. Ibid., 175.

7. Stoolball’s leading scholar today is Martin Hoerchner, an American living in Kent, England. Martin has drafted a fine introductory history of stoolball.

8. For a compilation of about sixty references to stoolball, see: retrosheet.org/Protoball/Sub.Stoolball.htm.

9. Block, D. 2006. Baseball before We Knew It (p. 119).

10. See Protoball entry 1550C.2. In a 1598 trial record in Surrey a John Derrick, then aged 59, “stated that he had known the [disputed] ground for fifty years or more and that when he was a scholar in the free school of Guildford, he and several of his fellows did run and play there at cricket and other plays.” Brown, J. 1950. The Story of the Royal Grammar School, Guildford (p. 6).

11. Goldwin, W. 1706. “In Certamen Pilae,” Musae Juveniles, March 1706.

12. It is possible to perceive a reference to baserunning in a couplet from a sonnet by Elizabethan poet Phillip Sidney: “A time there is for all, my mother often sayes/ When she with skirts tuckt very hie, with gyrles at stoolball playes.” However, Sydney may here refer to his mother as a fielder, not a baserunner. Grosart, A. 1877. The Complete Poems of Sir Philip Sidney (p. 51). See Protoball entry 1586.1.

13. However, the use of a bat does appear before 1720. See “Stool-ball, or the Easter Diversion,” in Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy, 1719, reprinted by F. A. Praeger, 1967, p. 27.

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