The article below, by Tom Altherr, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Tom is our field’s premier collector of primary data on all species of ballplaying. His 2000 article in Nine on early ballplaying references won the McFarland-SABR Research Award in the following year, and he continues finding and reporting original references. His 2011 article in Base Ball, “Basepaths and Baselines: The Agricultural and Surveying Contexts of the Emergence of Baseball,” won the McFarland-SABR Research Award for 2012. Tom is a history professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver; among his courses is one on baseball history that he has taught since 1991.
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 1841.12, reflects that it is the twelfth entry for the year 1841. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1841.12, Barn Ball
Thomas L. Altherr
Who has not played “barn ball” in his youth, and “wicket” in his manhood?
This question appeared in an 1841 New Orleans Daily Picayune reprint of a Cleveland Herald editorial defending boys’ ball games against charges by a local letter-writer complaining of “infantile sports.” Viewing barn ball as one of the common ball games of childhood, he added, “there is fun, and sport, and healthy exercise in a game of ball. We like it: for with it is associated with recollections of our earlier days, and we shall never be too old to feel and take delight in the amusements which interested us in our boyhood.” For a game designated as common, however, barn ball has always shown up only infrequently in early America. A New Hampshire farmer, Abner Sanger, may have been referring to barn ball when he wrote in his diary on April 27, 1782, “Caleb Washburn, young Benjamin Hall, Tom Wells the younger and El play before my barn.” The Knickerbocker magazine briefly mentioned barn ball in a January 1850 editorial column.
Most references to barn ball come from later in the 19th century. Some of the sources testify that barn ball was a common game. In 1877 a Portage, Wisconsin, newspaper reported that a new window for a store would crimp the local lads: “The boys will not be permitted to play barn ball against the new front.” Many of the remembrances are tinged with nostalgia. Referring to a younger brother, one writer declared in 1852, “If you wanted him, you would find him . . . playing barn-ball.” In 1855, a columnist for Burritt’s Citizen of the World wondered with some whimsy, “How is it with . . . Base-ball, and Barn-ball, and Long-ball. . . ?” Sometimes boys played barn ball against a rock ledge, as an 1874 story in The Youth’s Companion attested, describing an incident in which a lost ball, suspected as stolen, provoked a moral lesson. An 1882 Atchison, Kansas, piece surmised that politician Hannibal Hamlin, who had returned recently from Spain, had found “no bull fight that has any of the cheerful and healthful excitement of a game of barn ball.” In 1908, a New Hampshire writer recollected barn ball in his youth, especially one game in which he accidentally threw the ball over the roof and lost it. In 1874, a Cleveland writer answered the question, “What is a Sturgeon Good For?” by asserting, “A sturgeon is good for nothing, except his nose, and that’s good for a ball center, or core, to make the ball bound” for games including barn ball “in our ball-hood days.” An 1896 Christmas toys article reflected on how grandfathers had used a homemade sock ball for barn ball and other early ball games. In 1889 a reenactment of two-old-cat and barn ball in Bismarck, North Dakota, inspired one writer to gush:
The game was not one of these narrow stringy performances that close with a half-dozen runs, but was on the broad, old-time plan, which gives the audience the worth of its money in runs and shouts. The Burnt Creek team took the lead early in the game, and won by a score of 65 to 33. There were many exciting chases after the ball, and the way the sphere was pounded over the grounds was proof of the superiority of rural muscle and vim.
Additionally, a Brooklyn lawyer, J.H. Littlefield, who had read law in the same office with Abraham Lincoln, asserted that Abe was a fervent barn ball player: “As a relaxation from professional cares he would go out and play ball. The game was what was called barn ball, and it consisted of knocking the ball against the side of a building and then hitting it again on the rebound. I have seen Mr. Lincoln go into this sport with a great deal of zest.
Perhaps the most detailed expression of the nostalgic attitude toward barn ball appeared in an 1877 story, “Good-Will,” by prolific juvenile literature author John Townsend Trowbridge. In this piece—for St. Nicholas magazine—Trowbridge featured barn ball in a small morality play about unselfishness. Trowbridge started with a capsule description of the game:
In one of my walks, the other day, I saw two boys of my acquaintance, whom I shall call Orson and Robin, playing a game of barn-ball. I suppose every country boy knows what that is. The ball is thrown against the unclapboarded side of a barn, or any other suitable building, and as it rebounds, the thrower, who stands behind the knocker, tried to “catch him out.” Of course, there must be no windows to knock the ball through, or, the first you know, there will be a pane to pay for, and, quite likely, somebody very cross about it. A nice little game it is for two; and as I used to be fond of it when I was a boy, and am something of a boy still, I stopped to watch my young friends Orson and Robin.
The story then recounted how Orson refused to take his aunt’s letter to the post office and instead sulkily continued to play barn ball, even by himself for a bit, while his companion Robin, in the spirit of good will, took the aunt’s letter himself to the mail. Trowbridge then drew a didactic distinction about the value of unselfish behavior among good boys. As important here is the author’s offhanded presumption that every boy was familiar with barn ball and that the game had been a favorite for some time. Given that Trowbridge was born in 1827, that would extend the lineage of barn ball back to the 1830s.
An 1867 article in the Daily Cleveland Herald gave some additional detail about barn ball:
But Barn-Ball and Dutch-long, where are they? The first game was composed of three parts: two small boys and a barn. The side of a brick building without windows was the “bully” place, but that was not often attained in the rural districts. But a barn with smooth sideboards was next to best; a clapboarded side of a house would not do, for the ball would strike the edge of a clapboard and glance off, and besides, it need the firmness of plank for “bounding” purposes.
The thrower stood behind the striker; the distance from the barn being gauged by the power of the arm for throwing purposes, and the elasticity of the ball; the best bounding ball was wound around a sturgeon’s nose, or a bit of rubber. It was a great feat when the striker missed and the catcher caught the ball before it struck the ground, though it was an “out” if caught on the first bound. A “tick and a catch” was also “out,” and so it was “out” if the striker could not run from the bye, touch the barn with his club, and reach the bye again, before the catcher could recover a struck ball, and hit the striker or put it on the bye.
One article about tennis compared ancient tennis in Spain to the “modern game of ‘barn-ball,’ or ‘barn-door tick.’” The latter name could be a reference to catching a ball before it bounced twice, a tick.
But apparently barn ball kept some adherents in the late 19th century. An 1887 essay about handball play compared that more urban game to barn ball, “played by all boys in the country.” The writer thought that handball had simply added side walls to the front wall necessary in barn ball action. In an 1890 survey of several types of early ball games, Henry J. Philpott wrote, “It was much more fun [than playing some simpler games] to throw the ball against the barn, and standing behind the batter put him out by catching the ball when struck.” One scholar, however, analyzing the early American ball games, found them inferior to baseball. Edward B. Tylor wrote thus in 1879:
The old-fashioned ball of our fathers was very amateur, but required some enlargement of the field. Round-ball, barn-ball, and one and two old-cat were lively game in the hands of boys, but did not admit of the muscular precision, dexterity and nerve of the base-ball, with its inelastic projectile, swift pitching and expanded field.
Indeed some saw barn ball as a very rudimentary game. A travelogue in an 1885 Outing number labeled barn ball an “antiquated and humble game” and noted that onlookers “lay around in the hammocks and chaffed the players.” Albert Spalding wrote somewhat dismissively of barn ball in America’s National Game, suggesting that is was just a step in the evolution inexorably heading toward baseball because boys had increasingly less access to a barn and had to develop other forms of ball play. In Summer-Savory (1879), author Benjamin Taylor recalled a boy who “never got further than ‘barn-ball,’ which means throwing a ball at the gable and catching it when it returns,” because of his or his parents’ timidity. Perhaps, however, John Allen Krout’s summation in Annals of American Sport seems fairest. After including an illustration of boys playing barn ball and describing the play of barn ball along the lines of the 1867 Cleveland Herald article, Krout observed, “Here were the fundamentals of the game of baseball; the pitcher, the batter, the base hit, and the run.”
1. “Playing Ball,” The Daily Picayune: May 25, 1841, p. 2.
2. Stabler, L. ed. 1986. Very Poor and of a Lo Make: the Journal of Abner Sanger (p. 416).
3. “The Editor’s Table,” The Knickerbocker: Jan. 1850, p. 84.
4. “Here and Hereabouts,” The Wisconsin State Register: July 14, 1877.
5. “An Autobiography,” Water-Cure Journal: Aug. 1852, p. 33.
6. “Old Burchell’s Packet for the Children,” Burritt’s Citizen of the World: June, 1855, p. 85.
7. Rev. Theron Brown, “Aunt Huldah,” The Youth’s Companion: July 16, 1874, pp. 230–231.
8. “No Place Like Home,” The Atchison Globe: Nov. 4, 1882.
9. Walker, C. 1908. Early Days of “Squog.” Manchester [New Hampshire] Historic Association Collections, vol. 4, pt. 1, pp. 68–69.
10. “What is Sturgeon Good for?” Cleveland Daily Herald: Oct. 6, 1874.
11. “Merry Xmas to Our Lads and Lassies: Toys and Games of Our Grandparents,” Rocky Mountain News: Dec. 13, 1896.
12. “Bass Ball of Ye Olden days,” Bismarck Daily Tribune: Oct. 13, 1889.
13. “Memories of Lincoln,” Bismarck Daily Tribune: Dec. 2, 1887.
14. Trowbridge, J. 1877. “Good-Will,” St. Nicolas 4.6, pp. 389–391.
15. “Barn-Ball—Dutch-Long,” Cleveland Daily Herald: Apr. 24, 1867. The word “bye” could have referred to a base or a starting line from which the action proceeded. For the former sense, see: Dickson, P. 2009. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.) (pp. 153–154). For the latter connotation see: Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed., vol. 2) (p. 732).
16. Chace, M. 1893. “Tennis,” The Youth’s Companion, Aug. 17. See also: Dickson 2009, 873; Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed., vol. 18) (p. 54).
17. “Hand-Ball,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat: Nov. 27, 1887.
18. Philpott, H. 1890. “A Little Boys’ Game with a Ball,” Popular Science Monthly 37.5, p. 654.
19. “Base Ball Historically,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat: June 3, 1879.
20. Seely, L. 1885. “The Capital Outing,” Outing, an Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation 7.3, p. 333.
21. Spalding, A. 1911 (1991 reprint). America’s National Game: Historic Facts Concerning the Beginning, Evolution, Development and Popularity of Bass Ball (p. 23). See also Harold Seymour’s brief description of barn ball in his Baseball: The Early Years (1960) (p. 6).
22. Taylor, B. 1879. Summer-Savory, Gleaned from Rural Nooks in Pleasant Weather (p. 122).
23. Krout, J. 1929. Annals of American Sport (p. 115).