In a letter to Sporting Life, published May 5, 1886, Dr. Adam Enoch Ford recalled a ball game he had witnessed nearly fifty years earlier on June 4, 1838, in Beechville, Ontario, Canada, “which closely resembled our present national game.” Recalling events that may or may not have transpired when the author was seven years old, Ford’s letter is eerily reminiscent of Abner Graves’ missive to the Mills Commission in 1905, in which he recalled witnessing Abner Doubleday inventing the game of baseball when the inventor was twenty and he was five. In a further coincidence, both Ford and Graves resided in Denver at the time they wrote their letters. Both endured disgrace in their lifetimes: Graves murdered his second wife and ended his days in an asylum; Ford was driven from Ontario by a murder inquest, a relationship with a woman who was not his wife, and a dependence on alcohol and drugs which, in 1906, brought him to his end.
For further detail about Adam Ford, see Nancy B. Bouchier and Robert Knight Barney, “A Critical Examination of a Source on Early Ontario Baseball: The Reminiscences of Adam E. Ford,” Journal of Sport History 15 (Spring 1988): 75-87. It is available on the web at: http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH1988/JSH1501/jsh1501e.pdf. Here is the original Ford letter as published in Sporting Life.
VERY LIKE BASE BALL.
A Game of the Long-ago Which Closely Resembled Our Present National Game.
DENVER, Col., April 26–Editor SPORTING LIFE–The 4th of June, 1838, was a holiday in Canada, for the Rebellion of 1837 had been closed by the victory of the Government over the rebels, and the birthday of His Majesty George the Fourth was set apart for general rejoicing. The chief event at the village of Beechville, in the county of Oxford, was a base ball match between the Beechville Club and the Zorras, a club hailing from the townships of Zorra and North Oxford.
The game was played in a nice, smooth pasture field just back of Enoch Burdick’s shops. I well remember a company of Scotch volunteers from Zorra halting as they passed the grounds to take a look at the game. Of the Beechville team I remember seeing Geo. Burdick, Reuben Martin, Adam Karn, Wm. Hutchinson, I. Van Alstine, and, I think, Peter Karn and some others. I remember also that there were in the Zorras “Old Ned” Dolson, Nathaniel McNames, Abel and John Williams, Harry and Daniel Karnand, I think, Wm. Ford and William Dodge. Were it not for taking up too much of your valuable space I could give you the names of many others who were there and incidents to confirm the accuracy of the day and the game. The ball was made of double and twisted woolen yarn, a little smaller than the regulation ball of to day and covered with good, honest calf skin, sewed with waxed ends by Edward McNamee, a shoemaker.
The infield was a square, the base lines of which were twenty-one yards long, on which were placed five bags, thus:
The distance from the thrower to the catcher was eighteen yards; the catcher standing three yards behind the home bye. From the home bye, or “knocker’s” stone, to the first bye was six yards. The club (we had bats in cricket but we never used bats in playing base ball) was generally made of the best cedar, blocked out with an ax and finished on a shaving horse with a drawing knife. A wagon spoke, or any nice straight stick would do.
We had fair and unfair balls. A fair ball was one thrown to the knocker at any height between the bend of his knee and the top of his head, near enough to him to be fairly within reach. All others were unfair. The strategic points for the thrower to aim at was to get it near his elbow or between his club and his ear. When a man struck at a ball it was a strike, and if a man struck at a ball three times and missed it he was out if the ball was caught every time either on the fly or on the first bound. If he struck at the ball and it was not so caught by the catcher that strike did not count. If a struck ball went anywhere within lines drawn straight back between home and the fourth bye, and between home and the first bye extended into the field the striker had to run. If it went outside of that he could not, and every man on the byes must stay where he was until the ball was in the thrower’s hands. Instead of calling foul the call was “no hit.”
There was no rule to compel a man to strike at a ball except the rule of honor, but a man would be dispised and guyed unmercifully if he would not hit at a fair ball. If the knocker hit a ball anywhere he was out if the ball was caught either before it struck the ground or on the first bound. Every struck ball that went within the lines mentioned above was a fair hit; everyone outside of them no-hit, and what you now call a foul tip was called a tick. A tick and a catch will always fetch was the rule given strikers out on foul tips. The same rule applies to forced runs that we have now. The bases were the lines between the byes and a base runner was out if hit by the ball when he was off of his bye. Three men out and the side out. And both sides out constituted a complete inning. The number of innings to be played was always a matter of agreement, but it was generally from 5 to 9 innings, 7 being most frequently played and when no number was agreed upon seven was supposed to be the number. The old plan which Silas Williams and Ned Dolsen (these were gray-headed men then) said was the only right way to play ball, for it was the way they used to play it when they were boys, was to play away until one side made 18 or 21, and the one getting that number first won the game. A tally, of course, was a run. The tallies were always kept by cutting notches on the edge of a stick when the base runners came in. There was no set number of men to be played on each side, but the sides must be equal. The number of men on each side was a matter of agreement when the match was made. I have frequently seen games played with 7 men on each side and I never saw more than 12. They all fielded.
The object in having the first bye so near the home was to get the runners on the base lines so as to have the fun of putting them out or enjoying the mistakes of the fielders when some fleet-footed fellow would dodge the ball and come in home. When I got older I played myself, for the game never died out. I well remember when some fellows down at or near New York got up the game of base ball that had a “pitcher” and “fouls,” etc., and was played with a ball hard as a stick. India rubber had come into use, and they put so much into the balls to make them lively that when the fellow tossed it to you like a girl playing “one o’d cat,” you could knock it so far that the fielders would be chasing it yet, like dogs hunting sheep, after you had gone clear around and scored–your tally. Neil McTaggart, Henry Cruttenden, Gordon Cook, Henry Taylor, James Piper, Almon Burch, Wm. Herrington and others told me of it when I came home from the University. We, with a “lot of good fellows more,” went out and played it one day. The next day we felt as if we had been on an overland trip to the moon. I could give you pages of incidents, but space forbids. One word as to prowess in those early days. I heard Silas Williams tell Jonathan Thornton that old Ned Dolson could catch the ball right away from the front of the club if you didn’t keep him back so far that he couldn’t reach it. I have played from that day to this, and I don’t intend to quit as long as there is another boy on the ground.
Yours, DR. FORD.
Nine Innings, Nine Players, Ninety Feet, and Other Changes: The Recodification of Base Ball Rules in 1857
The article below, by Eric Miklich, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Eric is Historian of the Vintage Base Ball Association and maintains an extensive website on nineteenth century baseball at http://www.19cbaseball.com. There one may view his compendium of baseball rules from 1845–1900. An active vintage-game ballplayer, he maintains a special interest in playing styles and playing fields from 1854–1884.
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 1857.1, reflects that it is the first entry for the year 1857. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1857.1, Nine Innings, Nine Players, Ninety Feet, and Other Changes: The Recodification of Base Ball Rules in 1857
The game shall consist of nine innings to each side. . . . In playing all matches, nine players from each club shall constitute a full field. . . . The bases must be . . . fastened on the four corners of a square whose sides are respectively thirty yards.
Although the Knickerbocker Club had laid down baseball’s earliest surviving rules in 1845, some of the game’s canonical features had not yet appeared as of 13 years later. Only when the rules underwent a fairly thorough revision in 1857 did baseball’s distinguishing dimensions—teams of nine playing nine innings on a field with 90-foot basepaths—enter its list of rules.
The Knickerbocker Club was content to play intramurally for many years, for its primary objectives were exercise and good fellowship, and rival clubs were not to be seen. Its initial list of 14 playing rules—while falling well short of comprehensiveness—sufficed for this period, with one rule added and another modified in 1848. By April 1854, three clubs—the Knickerbocker, the Gotham, and the Eagle—were playing interclub matches, and they added two new rules for those matches, thus introducing the force-play and specifying the size and weight of the baseball itself.
Just two years later, however, the nature of match play had changed materially. The number of clubs had increased nearly ten-fold, and the emphasis was rapidly shifting toward winning, and away from mere fellowship. In this new environment, there was evidently some agitation for a rethinking of the rules. In December 1856 the Knickerbockers publicly invited interested clubs to send three delegates each to a rules convention in early 1857 (16 clubs would be invited and 14 would participate). Knickerbocker Club members then set about proposing a new set of rules for the assembled delegates to consider.
What emerged from this convention looked like a fairly thorough overhaul. The 17 playing rules expanded to 28 rules (plus seven others that related to umpiring and player eligibility), with fewer than half of the 1854 rules remaining essentially unchanged. One scholar estimates that the total volume of text was three times that found in the 1854 rules.
Some major changes and their implications
A close reading identifies over 20 substantive additions to the rulebook in the 1857 version; a few of the more prominent of them are described below. In addition, for modern readers the terminology in the official rules was becoming more familiar. Section 9, for example, defines the results of crossing the plate as “runs,” and the prior terms “counts, or aces” are less conspicuous. “Innings” makes its debut in section 25, and the original term “hand” declines. Section 11 uses the simple term “out” in place of “hand lost.”
Nine Innings. The Knickerbocker draft rules proposed having games end after seven innings (with extra innings if needed), instead of at the end of whatever inning saw one or both clubs reach a score of 21 aces. Convention delegates, however, decided on a nine inning game, with Knickerbocker Louis F. Wadsworth advocating this outcome contrary to his own Club’s recommendation. The rationale for a choice of nine frames was evidently not recorded. We now know that in 1856 the average game (still played to 21 aces) had lasted only about 6 innings, and thus the 1857 convention was defining a game that was to be 50 percent longer. A good many of the 1856 games were suspended due to darkness, and longer contests would arguably make things worse; however, history has certainly proved the nine-inning decision to be both workable and durable.
Nine Players. While earlier rules had not specified the number of players on a team, it is generally believed that a custom had already evolved that match games required nine-player teams. If so, this new rule was simply conforming to de facto standards. (The Knickerbocker Club had voted in 1856 that, for its intramural games, the presence of seven Club members per team was sufficient. If they felt that the number of players and number of innings should be identical, as some suggest, they may have felt bound to recommend seven-inning games to preserve such symmetry. However, there is as yet no known evidence that they proposed seven-player teams to the 1857 convention to match the seven-inning idea.
Ninety Feet (30 yards). The original 1845 rules had prescribed an infield layout that separated the four bases by a little less than 30 “paces.” Only if we knew how clubs actually defined a pace, would we know whether the 1857 rule was a significant change. A three-foot pace would have dictated a baseline of nearly modern length. However, a pace was formally defined as 30 inches in those days, not 36 inches, and if that pace was used, the distance between bases was about 75 feet, and the 1857 rule would extend the distance by 20 percent, and affect rates of scoring. (If the length of a pace was left to the discretion or natural gait of the marker, as some have speculated, the distance will have varied from one match to another and from one marker to another.) It would be natural for the baselines to lengthen, over time, as the weight of balls increased, thus allowing for longer hits and longer throws. But whether they did lengthen in 1857 remains uncertain. In any event, there was apparently no controversy about this provision.
The Ball. The ball specified in section 1 of the new rules was measurably heavier, and its maximum size reduced, compared with the 1854 standards. The maximum circumference was reduced from 11 inches to 10.25 inches. (The laws of cricket at this time called for a maximum circumference of 9 inches for a ball weighing about the same as the baseball.)
Pitching Restriction. The 1854 stipulation was that the ball be “pitched, not thrown.” Section 6 of the new rules read that the ball be “pitched, not jerked or thrown.”
Pitcher Placement. The pitching distance was changed from 15 paces to 15 yards (section 5). The pitcher’s position was defined by a 12-foot line, and he was not restricted as to his point of delivery along that line. A nine-inch circular quoit placed at the center of the 12’ line gave umpires a way to see if pitchers were delivering balls illegally.
Base Advancement on Fly Outs and Bound Outs. The new rule 16 prohibited baserunners from advancing on fly outs, but said that they “shall have the privilege of returning” to their base. For outs effected via one-bounce catches, runners could still advance freely.
The Bat. Section 2 specified that the bat be made of wood and not exceed 2.5 inches in diameter; its length was not restricted.
Substitution. Under section 27, player substitution was disallowed “unless for reason of illness or injury.”
Runner Interference. Runners who intentionally interfered with fielders “shall be declared out.”
Three-Foot Baselines. Runners were to not to evade tags by running more than three feet out of a direct line between bases.
Ground Rules. Clubs are permitted to adopt ground rules particular to their playing areas.
Controversy and failed proposals
The Knickerbocker proposal eliminated the old bound-out rule; a batter was not out unless a fly ball was caught in the air. This change was narrowly voted down, reportedly due to concern about to hand injury to fielders. The fly rule would not be part of base ball until the 1865 season, eight years later. In a compromise adopted unanimously, however, runners were to be prevented from advancing on caught flies, giving fielders a new incentive to attempt catches on the fly. (Another suggested inducement, made in Porter’s Spirit of the Times, was to award the fielding team two outs for a fly catch and one out for a bound catch, while giving the batting team six outs per half inning.)
To help speed up play, Porter’s also endorsed the idea of called strikes to spur overly picky batters. The idea was not accepted, but did enter the rule book the following year.
The Knickerbockers also suggested, in vain, that flat bats be permitted.
Some overall patterns in the new rules and the defeated proposals
Clarity for New Players. Many of the 1857 rule changes appear to have been made in order to help new players and clubs understand details of the game better. A few examples are found in fuller descriptions of the balk (section 6), of fair and foul balls (section 8), what constituted a run (section 9), and of the five distinct the ways that outs are accomplished (sections 11–15.) These improvements must have been particularly valuable for those with little direct access to experienced players for advice.
Closing Revealed Loopholes. Several modifications appear to be intended to limit prior attempts to bend or exploit gaps discovered in the original rules. It was in order to limit such “sharp practices,” one might surmise, that the new section 6 proscribed “jerked” pitches, section 18 introduced the 3-foot baseline, section 21 prevented runners from impeding fielders, section 22 disallowed the use of players’ caps in fielding balls hit in play, and section 35 dictated that clubs that arrived more than 15 minutes late must forfeit the match.
The Shadow of Cricket? Some rules, and proposed rules, appear to be intended to reinforce baseball’s standing as a game suitable for adults. The new inducement to discourage the bound out in section 16 had that character. More generally, one can discern the shadow of cricket—a manly game indeed—behind several of the items that were raised for consideration: the fly rule proposal, the heavier and smaller ball, the notion of using flat bats, the move toward a fixed number of innings, and even in the appointment of a “committee to draft a code of laws” (not “rules”) for baseball.
1. From sections 26, 27, and 3, Rules and Regulations of the Game of Base Ball Adopted by the Base Ball Players of New York, January 1857.
2. See essay 1845.1, Larry McCray, “The Knickerbocker Rules—and the Long History of the One-Bounce Fielding Rule,” http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/10/06/the-knickerbocker-rules/.
3. Many essential rules were left implicit. Take one example, of many: say that you are a baserunner at second base, with first base occupied, and the batter hits a low liner to left field. Should you run, or stay at second, go half way to third, or what? The original rules give you no clue, except that if the fielding team manages to get the ball to a fielder touching third base before you can get there, you will be out. Maybe you should stay put: there is no force rule, and the written rules don’t even say you will be sanctioned if you end up sharing a base with the runner from first, if he decides to advance. Clearly something beyond the original 17 rules was required to actually play the game in 1845.
4. The notable changes in 1848 were that only at first base could a runner be retired by a fielder’s throwing the ball to a base before the runner arrived there, and that with two outs, a run could not score if the batter was “caught out.”
5. See Ivor-Campbell, F. “Knickerbocker Base Ball,” Base Ball 1.2, p. 59.
6. Ibid., 60.
7. It remains unclear that “aces” was uniformly or extensively used from 1845–1857; in fact, the Knickerbocker game books, as early as 1846, show “runs,” not aces as the units of scoring. See, e.g., Ivor-Campbell, 57 (illustration).
8. See essay 1856.4.
9. John Thorn, email correspondence, 2009.
10. “Out-Door Sports. Base Ball,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Mar. 7, 1857, p. 5.
The article below, by David Dyte, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. David is a leading authority on early ballplaying in Brooklyn, his adopted home. One of his areas of expertise is the hundreds of Brooklyn playing fields from 1820 to the present, and his expansive website about Brooklyn’s historic ballparks, http://www.brooklynballparks.com, continues to accumulate data on Brooklyn hardball.
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 1845.4, reflects that it is the fourth entry for the year 1845. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1845.4, Base Ball in Brooklyn, 1845 to 1870: The Best There Was
The Base Ball match between eight Brooklyn players, and eight players of New York, came off on Friday [October 10] on the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club. The Yorkers were singularly unfortunate in scoring but one run in their three innings. Brooklyn scored 22 and of course came off winners.
This short 1845 newspaper account, lacking any of the dramatic flair later brought to baseball writing by the likes of Henry Chadwick, represents the earliest record of an organized baseball game in Brooklyn. The result points to a game by the Knickerbocker Club’s rules, which called for a winning score of 21 runs, and it put Brooklyn ballplayers at the top of the new game at its very dawn.
We know less about earlier local forms of the game, but they had been played in Brooklyn for decades. Late in the century, a former mayor recalled that “I went to school in 1820–1, to one Samuel Seabury, on Hicks street . . . . I also attended Mr. Hunt’s school, over George Smith’s wheelwright shop in Fulton street, opposite High. Foot racing and base ball used to be favorite games in those days.”
Colonel John Oakey, who took his schooling at Erasmus Hall in Flatbush from 1837, recalled the ballplaying there:
Erasmus Hall academy had a fine play ground surrounding it. Here John Oakey and his school fellows played many a game of three base ball. The boys who played were called binders, pitchers, catchers, and outers, and in order to put a boy out it was necessary to strike him with the ball. On one occasion John Oakey threw the ball from the second base and put another boy out. The boy . . . went down in a heap, but instantly sprang to his feet and cried out, “It didn’t hit me; it didn’t hit me.” But John Oakey and all the boys knew better. For a week after that boy had a lame back, but he would never acknowledge that the ball did it.
While Brooklyn and New York sides played twice more in October 1845, records of organized base ball in Brooklyn disappear between these matches and the emergence in 1854 of the Excelsior Club of South Brooklyn, a baseball team organized by the members of the Jolly Young Bachelors social club. With the founding in 1855 of the Eckford Club of Greenpoint, and the Atlantic Club of Bedford, Brooklyn’s triumvirate of great baseball clubs was complete. These teams would dominate baseball for more than a decade.
In fact, by 1856 there were already more interclub games being played in Brooklyn than anywhere else in the New York area, and the “New York Game” had, in one sense, skipped town. (Brooklyn was a separate political entity until 1898.) During the years when baseball became America’s game, it was played best in Brooklyn.
When the National Association of Base Ball Players formed in 1857, the explosive rise of the game in Brooklyn was evident. Nine of the sixteen founding clubs were from that city, and Brooklyn men would soon take a large role in NABBP governance. When the Association first recognized a formal champion in 1859, the Atlantic Club claimed the title, sporting a record for the year of eleven wins against just one loss.
Over the next few years, Brooklyn teams would monopolize competition for the championship, which was passed along to a club that defeated the incumbent champion in a best-of-three match. In 1860, the Excelsiors, having poached the devastating pitching ability of young James Creighton from the Star Club, bid strongly to wrest the title from the Atlantics. On July 19, 1860, the South Brooklyn club hosted the Atlantic and took its signal victory in the first game of the series, 28–4. The Brooklyn Eagle described the spectacle the following day:
For a month or more the Base Ball public has been alive with interest concerning this great match . . . . There could not have been less than five or six thousand persons present. The greatest excitement prevailed, and betting stood at 10 to 8 on the Atlantic Club. The Atlantics were not up to their usual play in any one point, missing balls on the fly and bound, overthrowing and misbatting. The result of the game was an entire disappointment to the large crowd in attendance, judging from their moving away like a solemn funeral procession after the game was over.
On August 9, the Atlantic turned the tables at their own ground, scoring nine runs in the seventh inning and holding on for a 15–14 victory. The Eagle was again enthusiastic: “From one to three o’clock, yesterday afternoon, the avenues leading to the Atlantic ball ground, at Bedford, were thronged with pedestrians, en route to witness the great match at base ball that was to take place between these two clubs, who have no superiors in the country.”  The crowd was far more pleased with the result on this occasion: “The shout that rent the air from the stentorian lungs of the countless friends of the gallant Atlantics was terrific . . . so eager were all to congratulate them on such a victory as they had so manfully achieved.”
The concluding match of the series at the Putnam Grounds on August 23 was to be a disaster. With the Excelsior Club leading 8–6 in the sixth inning, the abusive behavior of the crowd, which again had a decidedly pro-Atlantic tone, became so bad that Excelsior captain Joe Leggett took his team from the field. With the game called off, the Atlantic Club retained the championship, in fact if not in spirit. The two Brooklyn foes would never play each other again.
Some clubs were forced temporarily to disband when the Civil War began, but baseball continued to be a focus of popular attention in Brooklyn. In 1862, William Cammeyer set out to convert his skating pond in Williamsburgh to a summer sports venue, and created the Union Base Ball and Cricket Grounds, the first enclosed baseball park. Rather than charging his tenant clubs rent, as had the owners of other fields, he let them play for free, instead taking ten cents from each spectator as the price of admission.
The Union Grounds proved to be instantly popular, as the Eckford, Putnam, and Constellation Clubs shifted their homes to the new field. The Eckford Club, a working class collection of shipbuilders and dockworkers, hosted the champion Atlantics for three matches at the Union Grounds, splitting the first two. On September 18, the finest day of the Eckford Club, they took the championship with an 8–3 victory.
Even in wartime, the game itself was constantly evolving. Henry Chadwick, a Brooklyn resident whose enthusiastic baseball writing and recordkeeping became the stuff of legend, organized regular prize matches at the beginning of each season. These matches, involving picked nines of players from various teams, would often try out new rules. The long-contested fly rule, which was exhibited in prize matches in Brooklyn in 1864, and had been a feature of regular games involving the Excelsior and Star Clubs as far back as 1859, was finally adopted for general use by the NABBP in December 1864. This rule ended the retirement of hitters by means of one-bounce “catches” in fair territory.
The Atlantic Club regained its title from the Eckford Club in 1864 and was undefeated in 1864–1865. Challenges now began to come from further afield. A visit to Boston in 1865 to play the Tri-Mountain Club on Boston Common seemed to cement the dominance of the champions from Brooklyn—the Atlantics scored 68 runs in the last two innings to cap a 107–16 win.
To the south, however, the Athletic Club in Philadelphia was making noise. The Atlantics finally visited Philadelphia on October 30, 1865. The Eagle reported a huge attendance—“not less than 15,000 spectators present”—at the Athletic Grounds. The Philadelphians would be disappointed, however, as the Atlantic Club finished strongly to win, 21–15. A week later, at the Capitoline Grounds, the Atlantic withstood a late comeback from their Quaker State foes, winning 27–24 to retain the championship.
But now the rest of the baseball world was catching up. The next few years in Brooklyn baseball were a story of gradual decay at the top level. Some of the best players on the top teams bickered over money shared from gate receipts, or left the city completely. The Atlantic Club remained strong, although no longer unbeatable, and retained the championship in 1866 before giving the title up to the Union Club of Morrisania (then in Westchester, now in the Bronx) in 1867. In 1868, the powerful Mutual Club moved from Hoboken to Brooklyn, and claimed the championship.
It was a club from the distant west that heralded the bitter end of Brooklyn’s preeminence in baseball. The Red Stockings of Cincinnati, stocked largely by players from the New York area, were the first club to be incorporated as a for-profit business, and the first openly to employ fully professional players under contract. In 1869, the Red Stockings traveled extensively and won 57 games while losing none. Their efforts vitiated the challenge system for crowning baseball’s champion, as the Cincinnati team chose not to schedule its games that way. The Atlantic Club, which won 40 of 48 games in 1869, finished as official champions for the seventh and last time—but now to general derision.
In 1870, the Red Stockings continued to take all before them, and in June the mighty club brought in an 89-match winning streak to meet the Atlantics, still the pride of Brooklyn. The Eagle was, as always, present with superlatives at hand:
The most remarkable game, in more respects than one, was played upon the Capitoline ground yesterday between the celebrated old Atlantics and the celebrated young Red Stockings. Notwithstanding the energetic protest of the Atlantics, they were compelled to charge fifty cents admission to the ground, and yet from nine to ten thousand people congregated there, and in the hot sun, watched with intense interest the progress of the game. The general impression previous to the game, was that the Atlantics would lose the game . . . . The result therefore was, that the most stubborn game ever played, was finished yesterday on the Capitoline ground.
History records that the Atlantics, by some miracle, scored three runs in the eleventh inning to win 8–7. One editorial was most effusive:
Eleven innings, a total score of fifteen, and that standing just eight to seven, tell a story to professional minds which sends the blood tingling in joy to their toes. It was the greatest game ever played between the greatest clubs that ever played and, as usual, when Brooklyn is pitted against the universe, the universe is number two.
But the incredible victory over the Red Stockings was the last gasp of the era. The universe would soon strike back.
The three great clubs of Brooklyn withered. The Excelsior had already disappeared, and the Atlantic and Eckford Clubs saw their best players leave when the new professional league, the National Association, opened for business in 1871. Brooklyn baseball was no longer the best baseball.
1. New York True Sun, Oct. 13, 1845, p. 2.
2. “School Days Recalled,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 22, 1887, page 8.
3. “Sports in Old Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 21, 1894, page 21.
4. Data from the Protoball Project’s Games Tabulation, compiled by Craig Waff. See http://retrosheet.org/Protoball/GT.NYC.pdf.
5. “Base Ball—Excelsiors vs Atlantic,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 20, 1860, p. 3.
6. “Base Ball—Grand Match at Bedford,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug. 0, 1860, p. 2.
8. “Our National Game—Atlantic versus Athletic,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 31, 1865, p. 2.
9. “The Atlantics Triumphant — A Glorious Victory for Brooklyn—The Local Nine Beat the ‘Picked Nine’ from the West,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1870, p. 2.
10. “The Atlantic’s Victory,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1870, p. 2.
The article below, by Larry McCray, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Larry designed and developed the Protoball Project to help researchers and writers locate and refine primary data on the evolution of ballplaying up to 1870. He long served as chair of the SABR Committee on the Origins of Base Ball and is a member of the MLB origins committee and a key participant in Early Baseball Milestones.
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 1859.24, reflects that it is the twenty-fourth entry for the year 1859. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1859.24, State Championship Wicket Game in Connecticut: a Hearty Hurrah for a Doomed Pastime
The most important game [of wicket] ever played in this town was…for the championship of the State. . . . Monday morning the whole town was afoot early and a holiday was practically declared. . . . It is estimated that when the game commenced there were fully 4000 people in and around the grounds . . . thousands stood in the hot sun watching for ten hours the contest that was to decide the supremacy.
The big game took place on an otherwise normal Monday (July 18, 1859) in Bristol, Connecticut, and the home team prevailed, 190–152, over the New Britain visitors. Bristol had issued a statewide challenge to play, and thus considered the match to be a contest for the state title. Fans from Hartford filled a railroad car in a special early morning train from the state capitol. By the time the train reached Bristol, four cars, each trimmed with flags and bunting, were filled with wicket fans, the New Britain players, and a brass band. For fans, the windows of the nearby Congregational Church provided crowded indoor vantage points all day long.
Writing in 1904, Connecticut governor Abiram Chamberlain, whose 26-year-old brother had scored five runs for New Britain in the 1859 contest, recalled the game as arousing interest “fully equal to that of baseball at the present time.” Largely overlooked until recently by sports historians, the American game of wicket appears to have been the dominant safe-haven ballgame in several parts of the United States, right up to the time that the New York form of baseball swept the nation.
Wicket was a batting-and-running game featuring two wickets that were defended by batsmen, and it thus bore an obvious resemblance to cricket. The ball, however, was considerably larger, and apparently softer, than the ball used for cricket and baseball, and the angled wicket club was generally depicted as much heftier than the bats used in those other sports. The wickets were low (only a few inches off the ground) and long—commonly described as five or six feet in length—and placed 25 yards apart. The bowler was required to keep the delivery to a batter very low, so that it struck the ground some minimum number of times before it reached the batting area. Teams commonly comprised up to 30 players; for the Bristol–New Britain game, each side fielded 27 men. Wicket was an all-out-side-out game, most commonly described as lasting three innings, with the side scoring the most runs (sometimes termed “crosses”) emerging as the victor. Baserunning on struck balls was optional, as it is in modern cricket. Retiring runners by means of plugging them with thrown balls is not mentioned in any of the surviving rules or game descriptions.
There are indications that wicket was not a game for wimps. Bowlers were reported to deliver the large ball with impressive speed, and it required strength and agility for a batter to defend a wicket as wide as he was tall. The heavy bats may have been a source of substantial risk, as well. Within 60 days in spring 1863, in fact, two Union soldiers were reported to have died from injuries sustained while playing wicket.
The Protoball Project had, as of 2010, assembled more than 75 references to wicket play in the United States from 1725 through the Civil War years. The earliest of these reports places the game on Boston Common in about 1725, and George Washington was reported to have played wicket during the Revolutionary War. However, most citations of wicket refer to play after 1830, and about half the accounts (as well as all of the lists of rules) refer to play from 1850 to 1860. Thus, the pastime remained strongly rooted until abruptly displaced by the New York form of baseball.
Wicket now appears to have been most warmly embraced in Connecticut (it was sometimes referred to as the Connecticut Game) and western Massachusetts, where annual town vs. town matches were reported. One account reports that the towns declared holidays on such occasions. Local variants of the game seem to have evolved within its western New England range, as it was necessary in some cases for rival teams to stipulate to the particular rules to be used for the big game.
We also have several reports of less formal games being played on university campuses. Yale and Amherst students played games of wicket—including one that pitted one college class against another. The game is also described at Harvard College, in an area where the Massachusetts Game was to emerge, as late as 1854. For pickup games near towns and villages, the use of roadways for informal contests was irresistible—as would be expected with a game featuring a bowled ball—and a few reports center on conflict between players and passing travelers. In New York State, pickup games were not unusual in available town lots, and we have accounts of such games in western New York towns. Accounts of juvenile play were not frequent.
While wicket’s original foothold may have been in western New England (nearly two-thirds of the references are from that area), the game spread westward from there, presumably carried by migrating New Englanders. Wicket was evidently strong in Rochesterand Buffalo, for example, and one Rochester account recalls it as the primary game played in that area before baseball arrived from downstate. We also now have more than 10 pre–Civil War accounts from Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin. There are solitary reports of wicket play in Hawaii and Baltimore, and of a wicket club forming in 1844 in New Orleans, as well.
The original source of American wicket is unclear. Noting the familiar shapes of the wicket and bat, some cricket historians have surmised that the game branched off from some form of cricket very early in America’s history; by 1744, English cricket had already developed the tall, narrow (six-inch) wicket format that we know today. However, there is no record of a pre-1744 variant of early cricket that displays the special traits of American wicket. Absent from the English record, it would seem, are accounts of the large ball, the very wide wicket, and teams numbering as many as 30 players. That leaves us to speculate that whatever the form of the game that arrived from abroad in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, wicket most likely evolved markedly once it had set down American roots.
Once the National Association rules for baseball were distributed nationally, and that game had become the national passion, wicket fell into decline. Of Protoball’s compilation of 150 ballplaying references in Civil War camps, only nine cite wicket as the game that was played; while this sum is greater than that of the known accounts of cricket play, it is far exceeded by accounts of baseball in the war camps. (Most of the military wicket play involved Union regiments recruited from westernMassachusetts, but four reports reflected wicket play among soldiers inWisconsin andMinnesota regiments.) After the war, it is only throwback games of wicket that appear, spottily, and chiefly in the area of Bristol, Connecticut.
Soon enough, wicket was forgotten. Baseball researchers, perhaps, interpreted the term “wicket” as just a mislabeled reference to English cricket, and thus scant attention was accorded to a game that was, in fact, the favorite safe-haven game for large swatches of the new nation in the 1800s. But everybody else had neglected the pastime too. Daniel Genovese, who devotes a full chapter to wicket in his 2004 book on ballplaying in Westfield, Connecticut, worked with many local historians in the area, and reports that none had ever heard of wicket. Genovese’s sad epitaph for wicket: “The point is clear, even among well-respected historians, the game is lost.”
1. Norton, F. 1907. “That Strange Yankee Game, Wicket,” in Bristol Connecticut (p. 295). Originally published in the Hartford Courant in 1904.
2. Ibid., 295–296. The estimation of the crowd of observers, in the absence of admission gates, must have been difficult. An estimate of 4,000 exceeds Bristol’s population of less than 3,500 souls in 1859, so the estimator must have believed that few locals stayed at home that day.
3. Ibid., 296.
4. Palmer, M. 1913. “Diary Entry of Captain Milo E. Palmer, 12th Wisconsin Regiment,” in History of Brown County Wisconsin (p. 216). Paxson, L. 1908. “Paxson Diary,” in Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (part 2, vol. 2) (p. 132). These accounts are summarized as Cases 51 and 57 of the Protoball chronology, “Ballplaying in the Civil War Camps”: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm
5. See: “Wicket: A Working Chronology,” at retrosheet.org/Protoball/Sub.Wicket.htm. References to wicket play in England are rare, but “wicket” was sometimes used as a term for English cricket, and we know of a few cases in which US players called wicket by the name of cricket.
6. Sewall, S. 1882. “Diary of Samuel Sewall,” in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (vol. 7) (p. 372). Summarized in Protoball entry 1725c.1.
7. Anderson, J., ed. 1896. The Town and City of Waterbury (vol. 3) (pp. 1102–1103). Summarized in Protoball entry 1858.52.
8. Wicket-playing at Yale is summarized in Protoball entries 1818.1 and 1843.4. Wicket at Amherst is summarized in entries 1846.7 and 1846.8. Wicket at Harvard is summarized in entries 1840c.39 and 1854.13.
9. “Baseball Half a Century Ago,” Rochester Union and Advertiser: Mar. 21, 1903. Summarized in Protoball entry 1850s.16.
10. “Ballplaying in the Civil War Camps,” retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (accessed Oct. 7, 2010).
11. Genovese, D. 2004. “Wicket Ball: The Predecessor to the ‘New York Game,’” in The Old Ball Ground: The Chronological History of Westfield Baseball (pp. 9–25).
12. Ibid., 11.
Continuing yesterday’s lexicographic musings, I offer this, located moments ago on page 13 of the Trenton Evening Times of November 13, 1915. For students of the old ball game, or old ballgame, this subject has been one of enduring vexation. The author is, yet again, Old Anon.
Is it baseball? No. Clarence, this is not foolish question NO. 2,473. It is asked in all seriousness, and the question affords opportunity for much controversy in the councils of the Hot Stove League.
So far as the great majority of those able and brilliant men who write baseball dope for the daily press are concerned, the issue was decided long ago. Baseball is baseball. If there is a sporting writer on a daily paper in the United States or Canada who holds that baseball isn’t baseball, the writer isn’t aware of his identity.
Most of the up-to-date dictionaries of the American language uphold the contention of the baseball writers that baseball is baseball. Backed up by such good authority as this, the matter should be considered as setttled, perhaps. But it isn’t. A small but influential minority continue to adhere to the old notion that baseball isn’t baseball at all, but base ball. That is, that it is not one word, but two.
Of the publications devoted largely or exclusively to the great American pastime, Sporting News of St. Louis and the Baseball Magazine refer to the game as baseball. On the contrary, Sporting Life of Philadelphia, one of the recognized journalistic authorities on baseball, never makes use of the compound word. If by any chance some ignorant compositor should call it “baseball,” and the Sporting Life proofreader permitted it to get by, we fancy there would be a great commotion in the editorial office of our valued Quaker City contemporary.
Nor is Sporting Life alone in standing pat on the old form. Most of the leading baseball annuals, including Spalding’s and Reach’s, make two words of base ball. They seem determined to stick to their guns in spite of Ellen Highwater [in our less squeamish age, this odd individual would be rendered as “hell and high water”–jt] and with them it will probably be “base ball” until the end of time.
In the early days of the game “base ball” was universal. After a time, as the game increased in popularity, many publications adopted the hyphenated form, and it became “base-ball.” At a still later period along in the ’80s, as nearly as can be discovered—the newspapers began to drop the hyphen, and “baseball” came into use.
With all regard for those publications which adhere to the old form, the writer can see no valid reason for its continuation, common useage [sic] has set the stamp of approval upon the simple form of ”baseball” unhyphenated, one and indivisible.
While looking for something else–ain’t that always the way?–I came across this highly amusing (to me, anyway) article in the Philadelphia Inquirer of February 4, 1906. Its author is that most prolific of scribes, Old Anon, although there are clues that it might be Joe Vila. It seems I am drifting into an imitative antique style … so here is the genuine article. I vow to read some prose by Joe Campbell (“the Chaucer of Base Ball”), extolled below.
Base ball is one of the livest languages in the world to-day. Compared to it golf, horse racing, circus and railroad are expressionless, and the only one of the undictionaried languages that approaches it in richness of expression, in terseness, and point, is scat, which, however, is more limited.
The men who write and talk base ball stop at nothing. They follow Prof. Brander Matthews’ theory that the best language is that which conveys the meaning most clearly, and they adapt from English, French, German, Chinese, and other languages, and when these fail to fit the occasion they invent a word. Every one who knows base ball knows exactly what they mean—no matter what they say or write, and regardless of the fact that N. Webster might scratch his head a week trying to think what they meant.
The foundations of base ball language were laid by Charles Seymour, of Chicago, and since then such well known persons as Tacky Tom Parrott, Pietro Gladiator Browning, Chicken Wolf, Dad Clarke among the ball players, and O. P. Caylor, Ren Mulford, Len Washburn, and the lamented Joe Campbell have added richness to the vocabulary. Even the “Jones flew, Smith biffed, Brown skied” school of afternoon literateurs occasionally have added something to the language of the game by coining an apt word.
Once upon a time there was one of those gems of purest ray serene, hidden down in the deep, dark caves of ocean—or to be less poetic, at Quincy, Ill., who made language while you waited. I remember an extract from his classic report of a base ball game between Quincy and Omaha, which read something like this, writes Hugh S. Fullerton.
“The glass armed toy soldiers who represent the Gem City in the reckless rush for the base ball pennant were fed to the pigs yesterday by the cadaverous Indian grave robbers from Omaha. They stood around with gaping eyes like a hen on a hot nail, while the basilisk eyed cattle drivers from the west ran bases till their tongues were long with thirst. Hickey had more errors than ‘Coin’s Financial School.’ The Omahogs were bad enough—but the home team couldn’t have fallen out of a boat and hit the water.”
Joe Campbell, of Washington, really was the Shakespeare of base ball. He wrote classic, and probably was the best story writer of the “Jem Mace told the writer” school that ever happened. He would have said “Rameses II told the writer” if old Ram had been in the sporting game.
Campbell really was a wonder. He was one of the cleverest dramatic critics in the country, a Shakespearean scholar, and perhaps the most intimate friend Sir Henry Irving had in America, a deep student of stage history, a Hebrew and Sanskrit scholar, besides writing the base ball of the century.
One evening Campbell and I were sitting in his office in Washington, and he was bemoaning because (so he said) the editors of his paper would not permit him to write slang.
“They hold me down to straight away English,” he lamented. “If I try to be a bit picturesque, there is a kick.”
Without speaking I reached over and pulled the paper out of his typewriter. The last sentence he had written read this way:
“And Amie Rusie made a Svengali pass in front of Charley Reilly’s lamps, and he carved three nicks in the weather.”
Among the players who have helped make the language of the game Tacks Parrott stands in the front. Tacks got so that he couldn’t talk anything but base ball, and, if he strayed away from a crowd of fans and wandered into districts where base ball was merely incidental, he was lost until he could find an interpreter.
Homer Davenport, the cartoonist, who used to umpire up in the old Northwest League, hails from Portland and Tacky Tom came from the same town. When In Chicago Davenport lived with his uncle, Judge Smith, and one day while St. Louis was playing in Chicago, Davenport met Parrott and invited him down to the house to dine. On the way Davenport remarked:
“Tom, don’t talk base ball to the judge. He is a great lover of amateur sports, but he hates the professional, and besides, he don t understand base ball talk.” Parrott promised. Shortly after Parrott had been introduced to Judge Smith Davenport stepped out of the room for a moment and while he was returning he heard the following conversation:
“Ah, Mr. Parrott you are from Portland? What brings you east?
“I’m lobbing ‘em across for the Browns.”
“Ahh, yes. I see. Are you successful?”
“Successful. Well, you ought to see the old whip unlimbered. It’s zip, zip, zip across their old cazoozaahms, and to the bench.”
Then Davenport rescued the judge.
* * *
Lennie Washburn, who met death in a railway accident in Chicago, was past master of the art of comparison in base ball. One day Williamson slashed a hot one past third. The grass was a bit high and the ball instead of bounding, buzzed the ground and skimmed along through the grass, and the next morning Washburn wrote:
“It sounded like the hired man eating celery.”
But the funniest base ball writer that ever wrote didn’t intend to be. He was one of the editorial writers, or something that way, of the New York Herald, whose health failed so they gave him the job of reporting base ball. He came to the Polo Grounds in a frock coat and silk hat, and sat upstairs, in lonely grandeur, while an assistant kept the score. He wrote base ball just as an editorial writer thinks a base ball writer writes. And the rest of us, remembering poor old O. P. Caylor’s wonderful descriptions, read and hugged ourselves with glee. Here is a sample extracted from one of his reports:
* * *
The most expressive word in base ball is “bazzazzaz,” which was invented by Matty Kilroy. Sometimes Matty was at a loss for a word to express something, so he invented “bazzazzaz” and applied it universally. It means a good drive, a fast curve, a batsman’s leg, a base runner’s foot—or anything else. It is to base ball what “zug” and “schlag” are to German. [“Bazzazzaz Balk” was also the name Kilroy gave to his deadly pickoff move to first. H.L. Mencken’s father, a cigar manufacturer, was such a baseball fan that he produced a popular cigar named the Kilroy during the pitcher’s top years in Baltimore, including 1886 when he fanned 513 batters (not a typo!). The senior Mencken hired Oriole catcher Sam Trott to sell it. But I do run on.]
Let’s leave to one side for now Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, the man who invented the position in 1849 or 1850 and whose story I have frequently told, including in Baseball in the Garden of Eden. For Adams, who began his play with the Knickerbockers in 1845, let his own words suffice for now, from an interview published in The Sporting News on February 29, 1896: “I used to play shortstop,” he reminisced, “and I believe I was the first one to occupy that place, as it had formerly been left uncovered.” But when Adams first went out to short, it was not to bolster the infield but to assist in relays from the outfield. The early Knickerbocker ball was so light that it could not be thrown even two hundred feet, thus the need for a short fielder to send the ball in to the pitcher’s point.
For more about Adams, see my biographical profile of him at: http://goo.gl/1MVN3. But the men who made the position modern, by bringing it into the infield and then widening its responsibilities, were Dickey Pearce and George Wright, the two great shortstops of baseball’s early professional era.
The portraits offered below were part of a fascinating series on “The Fifty Greatest Ball Players in History” that ran in the New York Evening Journal in 1911-12. What makes these portraits so interesting today is that the author, veteran sportswriter Sam Crane, was himself a major-league second baseman who formed a keystone tandem with Pearce back in 1877 and frequently opposed Wright. The latter was one of the first men installed in the Hall of Fame, while Pearce has an outstanding claim to induction, inasmuch as he was the first to play shortstop as an infielder—not restricting his scope to short fly balls and relaying throws from the outfield, as was the practice in Adams’ day. Now, without further ado, Sam Crane:
In the days of the old games between the Mutuals of New York and the Atlantics of Brooklyn in the late sixties and early seventies, when the fans of those days were even more partisan than now when the Giants and Superbas cross bats [Crane wrote this piece before the Brooklyn team re-adopted its old name of Dodgers], there was one player who was more feared by the New Yorkers than any other on the Atlantic team, and that was Dickey Pearce.
The little fellow was not bigger than a good-sized cruller, the only food product at the time that seemed to be available by fair means or foul in those days, but little, fat, pudgy Dickey Pearce was about the whole show in the Atlantic team and did more, possibly, in his own way to win games for the famous old Atlantic club than any other player on the old team.
At any rate, every lover of baseball in Brooklyn thought so at the time, and it is a matter of baseball history over in the neighborhood of the Union Grounds and Capitoline Grounds that Dickey Pearce’s short, pudgy legs brought in more tallies for the Atlantics than all the slugging sprinters there were on the team.
And why? Simply because Dickey knew how to get on first base.
He was not a slugger like many of his fellow players, but he had so studied the science of batting as it was in vogue at the time that his “fair foul” hits often counted much more than the home-run wallop of his bigger and stronger teammates.
Dickey Pearce was the originator of the present bunt. And that was the hit that transformed batting in his day. It was not known as the bunt at that time, and Dickey himself had no idea that he was making baseball history. But he had the baseball instinct, and that was that a player had to get on first base before he became a factor in the run getting. He appreciated the fact that unless he could reach first there was no possibility of his spikes denting the plate.
When Dickey first began to play baseball, the score was kept by cutting notches on a pine stick and every notch meant a tally. A fence rail instead of a pine stick did just as well, and the fence rail in Dickey’s day was the official press box. Anyhow, what those notches figured up meant the road to victory for his side, and no player was more frequent than little Dickey in crossing over the plate and shouting gleefully, “Tally Pearce one.”
Dickey played on the many open lots around Brooklyn for many years before he got his first chance on a real team. He was considered too small.
But like all little men, Dickey was cocky. He saw the big fellows play, and as he peeked through the knotholes in the fences of the Union and Capitoline grounds for two innings and then “flashed” his ten pennies to get into the enclosure when the gates were opened to the kids after the second inning, as was the custom at the time, Dickey came to the conclusion that he could play as well as any of the stars. But how to “mingle” was the great question.
The first start he got was to carry water to the players, and when he got that job, he was the envy of all of his fellows.
Finally he was allowed to carry the bat of one of his idols, and from that advancement he was allowed to chase balls in the outfield while the “big fellows” were at practice. Then on one long-to-be-remembered day he wasasked to bat against one of the pitchers, who was out alone for practice, and he made a base hit. The pitcher took notice of him and told his captain these was a promising youngster that would bear watching.
The regular nine was shy of one player one day in a “match,” and Dickey was selected to take his place. The ambitious youngster was put in at right field, a position at the time that was considered only fit for the “scrubs.” Any old player could play right field. But my bold Dickey was there with both feet—not in fielding, possibly, for nothing came his way—but at bat the youngster was in his element. He was a hard man to pitch to, as all midgets have been, since, from Davy Force to Billy Keeler, and Dickey showed up some of the regular members in getting to first and getting around the bases.
That accidental chance to play made Dickey Pearce. He was put on the regular team and placed at shortstop, for the reason that he was considered to be too short-legged to cover ground in the outfield. It was a fortunate selection, for Dickey took to shortstop like a duck to water, and in the first game he played in that position, he showed such ability that none of the old-timers on the team had a chance to beat him out of the job. And none did that that for years and years. Dickey Pearce’s name at shortstop for the Atlantics was stereotyped, and the scorecards always had his name in that position as long as he played baseball with that club, and that was for many years.
In fact, Pearce was a close rival of the great and only George Wright for the supremacy in the position.
Against the Mutuals in the games the Atlantics played with their New York opponents, and when partisanship was at the highest pitch, Dickey Pearce was always a star. When he went to bat, it was more than two to one that the little bit of a “sawed-off” would get his first.
Dickey Pearce’s first chance to shine as a star of national reputation was when he played with the Atlantics against the Red Stockings of Cincinnati when the latter famous team lost its first game after an uninterrupted string of victories for a season and a half. In that great and historical game, Pearce’s work, both as shortstop and at the bat, was the feature of the victor’s game. In the eleventh inning it was Dickey Pearce who started the rally that enabled the Atlantics to win out 8-7.
Pearce was the first player to work the “fair foul,” a ball that was hit by chopping down at the ball, making it hit on fair ground and then bounding off into foul ground. It is a hit that is foul now under the present rules, but in those days there was no rule that prevented it from being perfectly fair. I have seen both Dickey Pearce and Ross Barnes get three bases by working this foxy bit of batting.
I have heard of home runs being made on the same hit, but I never saw it done, and I doubt if Dickey ever did, simply because I do not imagine that his short legs could ever carry him the distance, but many is the game little Dickey sewed up by the shrewd stab.
There were lots of objections and protests made in those days on that hit, but no rules could be found to prevent it, and until the rules were altered, Dickey always was high up in the existing batting records.
Pearce, by reason of that “fair foul,” has been credited with originating the now famous bunt, but as Dickey worked it the hit was never intended to be worked as we understand it now.
I am inclined to give John M. Ward the credit of discovering the bunt as now played. But that is a story for a future article.
Dickey Pearce made such a big reputation with the Atlantics that he was in demand by the best clubs in the country, and finally he cast his fortunes with the old Mutuals, of New York, his old rivals. Over in Brooklyn he was somewhat of a renegade at the time, but that was the dawn of professionalism that had been more or less under disguise at the time, but Dickey’s fine work with the crack New York team enabled him to retain his reputation and popularity, and he was a star until he was obliged to quit on account of age bedimming his former grand abilities.
Dickey kept in touch with the game for a long time after he got out of active participation in it as a player. He still continued to retain his popularity with players young and old, by whom he was considered an oracle.
When the Players’ League was formed, in 1890, Dickey was given the position of grounds keeper of the Brotherhood Grounds (the present Polo Grounds) and helped Buck Ewing to lay out the field. And as Dickey laid it out then, it stands today. Of course grounds keeper Murphy has made improvements since, with all the money that since has come into the local club’s coffers, but Pearce has to be given the credit for putting the field in the condition that allowed of the present model field of the country.
Dickey did not die overburdened with wealth, but he was well cared for until he passed away, a little over a year ago. He had a daughter who became prominent on the stage, and she saw that he wanted for nothing in his declining years.
The last time I saw Dickey Pearce was at one of the “old-timers’ ” reunions at Paddock’s Island in Boston Harbor, three years ago, and the veteran was there, the recipient of all the love and respect that was his due. It was veneration, because we all appreciated what he had done for baseball.
As honest as the day.
Baseball was bettered by Dickey Pearce’s connection with it.
* * *
There have been many great shortstops, but for all-round ability there has been none who ever played the position who has been able to force George Wright from the top-notch rung of the ladder of fame. [Note that Crane wrote this at a time when Honus Wagner was at the height of his powers.]
The game has gone along for over forty years, too, since George first blossomed out as a star, and I have in mind when I give him this lofty record all of those grand players who have shone so brilliantly in the past and present. There have been shortstops and shortstops. The Dickey Pearces, Davy Forces, Bob Fergusons, Jack Glasscocks, Ed Williamsons, Herman Longs, Jack Nelsons, Johnny Wards, and other old-time luminants, who have come and gone, leaving reputations and records a mile long.
The Tinkers, Doolans, Elberfelds, McBrides, Brashes [Brains?], Bridwells, Barrys, and Turners of the present are also all in my mind, who are thought by the fans of today to be preeminent. I have known them all and have seen them all play, but to George Wright I give the credit of being the best ever.
It is difficult to make the admirers of the “speed boys” of today think that any of the old-time ball players could approach the players of the present for stops, ground covering, and throwing, but while I acknowledge that there are more fast players today, still there were individuals in the earlier days of the sport who excelled the best who are now exploiting the game.
The game is faster now and has progressed simply because there are more speedy players now than in the past.
George Wright is a brother of Harry Wright, that noble old veteran around whom my first article on famous ballplayers was written. The fame of the Wright brothers was countrywide forty years ago, and George was the real player of the two. George’s reputation as the greatest player of his time has not been dimmed in the least.
He was born in upper New York City, Yorkville, in the fifties [actually 1847], and with his elder brother, Henry, naturally took to baseball after learning the rudiments of cricket, taught him by his father, Sam Wright, the old professional cricketer. Baseball was born in George Wright. He was consequently a natural ballplayer. He first came into prominence in the national game with the Unions, of Morrisania, with which club he played shortstop, the position he always occupied afterward in his long and brilliant baseball career. I do not remember that he ever played any other position. It therefore became second nature to him, and the many, many plays he was called on to perform that brought victory after victory to his teams year after year at critical stages were from intuition, although at times they often took on the look of being uncanny.
George Wright was probably as quick thinking a player as ever wore a uniform. His wits were always about him. He was invariably upon his mental tiptoes, and whenever he would pull off one of those grand, unexpected plays that were so dazzlingly surprising as to dumfound his opponents, his prominent teeth would gleam and glisten in an array of white molars that would put our own Teddy Roosevelt and his famed dentistry establishment far in the shadow.
In a game between the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics in 1873, when the Quakers had three men on base and none out, George caught a fly ball in his cap, tossed the ball to the pitcher, thereby putting the ball in play again, according to the rules of that time, and a triple play resulted, but it was not allowed.
But it was in such critical times that George showed his great nerve and quick thinking abilities. He was always ready to grasp a point of play and never hesitated, no matter how many chances there were to take by missing the anticipated point.
From New York George went to Cincinnati in 1868 [actually 1869] and joined the Cincinnati Red Stockings, of which his brother Harry was manager. George was the all-around star of that famous bunch of champions. He led the club in batting and run getting, and these departments of play at that time were of the most importance.
In the fifty-seven games the Red Stockings played George took part in fifty-two. He made 339 runs, 59 of which were homers. His batting average was .518, showing that he made a fraction over a base hit every two times he was at bat.
Wonder if Ty Cobb could have done any better with the underhand pitching in vogue in those days?
George went to Boston in 1871 with his brother, Harry, as manager, and in the Hub George more than lived up to the reputation he had made in Cincinnati. He was the star of the Boston Red Stockings until 1879, when he went to Providence to manage the Providence Grays, the team that won the championship that year, although by a very close call. That wound up his active career on the diamond.
In 1874 George was a member of the Boston club that accompanied the Athletics to England, and while the introduction of baseball to our English cousins was not a pronounced success, still the ballplayers taught the Britishers some few points about their own game—cricket. It was always eighteen ball-players against eleven cricketers, but the Americans were never defeated at the English game, and George Wright was the crack batter of the American eighteen.
George was the first shortstop to play a deep field. He played forty years ago just as far back of the line as the players in the same position do today. It was George’s strong throwing arm and deadly accuracy that allowed of his playing so deep, and he of course saw the advantage there was to be gained in covering ground by playing deep. He was the first to grasp that idea.
George Wright was about 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed about 160 in his prime. I remember him; he had a thick crop of dark curly hair, a small mustache and a dab on either cheek for a bluff at “siders” [Burnsides, today known as sideburns]. He was slightly bowlegged, and I never knew a bowlegged ballplayer who was not a crackerjack—a la Hans Wagner.
George Wright is a millionaire, having gained wealth and prominence in the sporting-goods business in Boston. He started in a small way in 1872, the year after he went to Boston to play ball.
George is one of the Hub’s most respected citizens and still keeps in touch with the national game that he has done so much to build up. He is the proud father of Beals Wright, the champion tennis player.
OK, folks, now that we’ve posted Tom Altherr’s article “Barn Ball,” we may as well have an all-out Altherrfest. Below is his Fall 2011 article in the journal Base Ball, “Basepaths and Baselines: The Agricultural and Surveying Contexts of the Emergence of Baseball,” which won the McFarland-SABR Research Award for 2012. It is a bad pun but an accurate statement to call it pathbreaking. Tom is our field’s premier collector of primary data on all species of ballplaying. He 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 appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company.
Recent research has established that baseball and baseball-type games predate the 1840s. In other words, they predate the hoary but erroneous 1839 Abner Doubleday / Cooperstown / Immaculate Conception theory of baseball’s invention. Most notable among the books has been David Block’s definitive Baseball before We Knew It, and my own articles, “‘A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball’: Baseball and Baseball-Type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic” and “Chucking the Old Apple: Recent Discoveries about Pre–1839 North American Ball Games.” George Thompson’s discovery of 1823 accounts of baseball in New York City and John Thorn’s uncovering of a 1791 Pittsfield, Massachusetts, ordinance prohibiting baseball-playing, among other sports, have been two of the more exciting examples of this research. The energies of SABR’s Origins Committee, expanding to roughly 200 members under the leadership of Larry McCray, have resulted in a valuable database, Protoball, a Protoball glossary, and a monthly newsletter, Originals, updating the finds.
Baseball thus existed, but the question now arises: Why did baseball appeal to an increasing number of Americans in the early Republic? Why in those transitional decades, moving from the settlement of the Revolutionary ferment to the volatile Jacksonian trends, did Americans move toward allegiance to baseball-type games? What other American developments may have affected, modified, paralleled, or drawn along the expansion of baseball and baseball-type games? Certainly baseball did not emerge in a cultural vacuum, a total escape from the agricultural and commercial cares of the times.
To start down a path toward some sort of answer, it is necessary to revisit the Country Game thesis. According to this interpretation, baseball originated in rural environs and even as the sport exploded in urban locales by the 1840s and 1850s, players and spectators alike ever since have celebrated baseball as some sort of pastoral design, a pleasant recreation of the rural past fading before their eyes, a harkening back to some sort of golden age of rustic simplicity and harmony. Many commentators have celebrated the rural roots of the game, waxing eloquently about green fields as temporal heavens, barefoot boys with cheeks of tan whiling away summer afternoons, and rural virtues manifesting themselves in the practitioners of the game. Nevermind that once professionalism overtook the amateur game, most players did not hone their skills in cow pastures and the juggernaut of commercialism relegated small-town baseball to minor league, bush league, and farm team statuses. But longings for the rural origins have persisted so strongly that the creation myth of baseball—the Abner Doubleday “Immaculate Conception” scenario—involves Elihu Phinney’s pasture in Cooperstown.
These claims often rest heavily on nostalgia, an attractive but fundamentally false collection of sentiments, or on a Leo Marxian model of the pastoral middle landscape, rather than a closer understanding of the material and cultural connections of agriculture and the folk games that gave rise to baseball. As worthy as those emphases on the concept of the middle landscape are, in the end they fuel an idealized portrait of farming that most actual farmers themselves would not have recognized. But those same agriculturalists experienced a concrete specificity of objects in their work duties, tangible materials that provided a framework for their lives and also served as important ingredients for ballplaying.
The Agricultural Contexts of Baseball: Getting Good Wood on the Ball
The bat is, of course, one of the key instruments for bat-and-ball games. Today bats come in ceramic and aluminum versions, as well as the traditional wooden ones. For early Americans, wood was a constant reality in their lives. In the eastern woodlands colonists found a staggering abundance of forests, which allowed even the most amateur carpenter the choice of very prime wood and encouraged profligacy with wood supplies. As one writer from the Androscoggin River region of Maine recalled in 1800:
The richest and straightest trees were reserved for the frames of the new houses; shingles were rived from the clearest pine; baskets, chair bottoms, cattle bows, etc., were made from brown ash butts; all the rest of the timber cleared was piled and burned on the spot…. All the pine went first. Nothing else was fit for building purposes in those days. Tables were made 21.2 feet wide from a single board, without knot or blemish.
Most parts of furniture, some kitchenware, and many decorative items were all wooden. Wood construction dominated house-building and barn-raising, despite some use of stone and brick. Most outbuildings were wood construction. Fencing often depended on wood, posts and split rails. Wicket gates.a device replicated in wicket and cricket-style ball games.and stiles were wooden. Many a roadway and walkway consisted of wooden crossbeams or corduroy planking. Byproducts of wood, such as charcoal and potash, were important to home products and the burgeoning metallurgy.
As agriculturists, early Americans frequently wrapped their hands around a variety of wooden implement handles, plow handles (or hales), and similar tools. Indeed the employment of several common farm tools necessitated bodily motions very similar to swinging a bat. Many a major leaguer swung an axe or sledgehammer during the offseason to stay in shape. Longtime baseball man Charlie Metro and Hall of Famer Ted Williams discussed designing a bat with an oblong handle, such as those on farm tools, to improve swinging accuracy. The following comment by an Englishman watching cricket in England in 1825 could have as easily pertained to an American baseballist: “I have myself whiled away whole mornings in seeing him strike the ball (like a countryman mowing with a scythe) to the farthest extremity of the smooth, level, sunburnt ground….” Wooden team yokes and singletrees (or badikins, whippletrees, whiffletrees, or swingletrees) facilitated plowing and hauling. Other large wooden implements such as harrows, carts, cultivators, horsehoes, barrows, drills, drags, mouldbaerts, and sledges were all necessary for cultivation and harvest. Even many iron, and later steel, implements had wooden handles or grips. Indeed the swingle part of a flail owed its etymology to the root word for swinging.
Wood appeared in manifold additional manners. Harvesters filled many a wooden basket or trug. Processors packed many a wooden barrel, box, or crate. Wooden pails were ever present for carrying water, milk, or cider, as well as animal feed, slop, and silage to livestock who often fed at wooden troughs. Other wooden buckets and carts carried off the constant waste products. Rowers grasped wooden oars and rudders; canoeists propelled their crafts with wooden paddles, usually of ash. Wood was literally everywhere. As Lewis Mumford wrote about the ubiquity of wood in an eotechnic economy:
As for the common tools of the time, they were more often of wood than of any other material. The carpenter’s tools were of wood, but for the last cutting edge: the rake, the oxyoke, the cart, the wagon, were of wood: so was the washtub in the bathhouse: so was the bucket and so was the broom: so in certain parts of Europe was the poor man’s shoe. Wood served the farmer and the textile worker; the loom and the spinning-wheel, the oil presses and the wine presses were of wood, and even a hundred years after the printing press was invented, it was still made of wood. The very pipes that carried water in the cities were often tree-trunks, so were the cylinders or pumps. One rocked a wooden cradle; one slept on a wooden bed; and when one dined one “boarded.” One brewed beer in a wooden vat and put liquor in a wooden barrel. Stoppers of cork, introduced after the invention of the glass bottle, begin to be mentioned in the fifteenth century. The ships of course were made of wood and pegged together with wood; but to say that is only to say that the principal machines of industry were likewise made of wood: the lathe, the most important machine-tool of the period, was made entirely of wood—not merely the base but the moveable parts. Every part of the windmill and the water-mill except for the grinding and cutting elements was made of wood, even the gearing: the pumps were chiefly of wood, and even the steam engine, down to the nineteenth century, had a large number of wooden parts: the boiler itself might be of barrel construction, the metal being confined to the part exposed to the fire.
But these are simply categories. The variety within many of these tool types was impressive. For example, the woodworking process from forest to finishing could entail using twenty or more different types of axes alone.
Until Euroamericans reached the more barren prairies and plains, wood supplies were usually so plentiful that rarely did anyone forecast decline, scarcity, or deforestation. So when it came time to furnish an implement for bat-and-ball games, the natural choice understandably was wood. Wooden tools had been extensions of a person’s hands for so long that any other material would have probably seemed alien. Early bats ranged from stout tree branches to sturdy clubs to eventually the wood-turned cylindrical bats. Clifton Johnson surmised that when boys played ball games at early–19th century country schools, they appropriated a longer piece of firewood: “The club was a round stick selected from the woodpile.” Such a piece was available as woodcutters often cut firewood to manageable lengths for drying before they cut them to stovewood dimensions. Fashioning a favorite bat most likely occurred quickly, much as agriculturalists and woodworkers had devoted design and care to favorite wooden tools. Unlike British cricket bats, which were mostly flattish, early Americans probably relied on more simplistic designs of common woods, rather than the rarefied woods the British were fashioning into elaborate bats by the mid–18th century. Whatever the case, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of wood in the quotidian experience of early Americans. Perhaps Steven Gelber’s insightful thesis that late–19th century baseball replicated work skills and patterns for players and spectators alike might have some application a century or so earlier, as baseball may have been a natural extension of the wooden workaday world. Wood-oriented terms occasionally carried right down to more modern times in baseball lingo. For example, when an overmatched batter swung wildly at a pitch, he “flailed” at it. Similarly “flail” was a slang word for a bat in the early 20th century. Did the several baseball uses of the word “hook” derive from some agricultural origin by way of vaudeville? How else would one understand the baseball phrase “to take a hack at the ball?”
Balls and Bases
Similarly, the making of balls was undoubtedly pretty easy. Livestock, especially cattle and horses, provided a ready supply of leather. By the 1770s at least, tanners had perfected the process of tanning leather white, by use of horse urine. If leather was not available, other fabrics familiar on the farm surely sufficed. Stuffings for balls ranged from feathers to rags to any similar filler. As Johnson wrote of the country school ball play, “The ball was a home-made affair of old stocking ravellings wound together and covered with sheepskin.” Occasionally the ball may have been all wood, carved and smoothed round, although evidence for those is scanty. For centers, ball-makers used wood, maybe rubber, and according to one source, cartilaginous fish noses. Early Americans who were used to crafting so many objects in their work certainly found fashioning a ball no hard chore.
Providing bases also fit the agricultural lifestyle fairly easily. There were always trees, stumps, or natural items that served conveniently as bases. Stones and boulders, or more artificially sculpted mileposts, also became bases. In the 1744 illustration about “Base-Ball” in John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, boys or young men played the game using what were apparently mile markers, survey corner markers, or possibly even gravestones. When town ball became more formalized, or perhaps even before, players easily found material for the four wooden stakes that demarcated the active portion of the playing surface. The proto-baseball game of stoolball used three-legged wooden stools, often known also as crickets. Milkmaids used such stools for their twice-daily milkings of livestock, and in the evenings or even in daylight, people sat on such stools near the fireplace. Some of the folk games also utilized stumps of trees, those stumps themselves often called stools, fallen to clear future crop fields. Even when players started using filled cloth sacks as bases, a practice whose exact incipience is still unknown, the connection was there, too, somewhat related to agriculture. In those days before differentiated packaging, customers and suppliers regularly bought or packed commodities in sewn cloth sacks. How many current non-agriculturalist Americans would make this association when they hear a phrase such as “the sacks are full” or “the bags are loaded?” Similarly how many modern Americans would make the connection of the word “basepath” to the prevalence of dirt paths in the lives of agricultural Americans, the paths that cattle trod from pen to barn to pasture, the paths that farmers stepped along to the fields and back, the lanes connecting the farmstead to a larger thoroughfare? To be sure, many were winding or curvilinear, following the contours of creeks, levels of the land, and animal meanderings. But paths they were, and they would conform to more rectilinear patterns later.
Pastures for the Pastime
Early Americans spent a lot of time working in pastures, herding livestock, mostly during the warmer seasons. Pasturing itself involved cycles of movement, transitions from field to field in a fairly systematic pattern to ensure even grazing. During a day it may not have been unusual to relocate grazing stock through three or four pastures, somewhat paralleling the crop rotation sequences in the fields. Worn pathways would appear as a result from these herding movements. In the morning farm people herded their stock out to morning pasture and by dusk usually had maneuvered them through the other pastures then home for milking or night-time protection. Agricultural people were accustomed to moving from base to base often in a cyclical pattern. Did baseball provide an echo of these transitions? Baseball speeded them up, but the basic patterns may have been similar.
As for playing space and fields, the agricultural lifestyle also accommodated the enthusiasm for games, but did not relegate certain patches of lands to permanent ball fields. In some areas pasture was dear or in need of fallowing and recovery, and thus off limits to animal and human trampling. But in each town in the North and South some crossroads had designated commons lands. Sometimes this common land was forested or a broken mosaic of small clearings, salt licks, breaks, and other irregularities that would probably not suit a full-scale baseball-type game. But the case of the central commons in most towns was different. Admittedly, the quaint, cozy village green of New England fashion arrived only in the mid- and late 19th century. But to the extent that commons existed, these multi-use sections of towns allowed for a variety of human uses—farming, grazing, militia trainings, sermons and speeches, public punishment and occasional executions, and, last but not least, recreation. Boys and men played a variety of ball games ranging from marbles to something called football, which actually resembled soccer, to bandy, a precursor of field hockey, to types of golf to baseball-type games. Referring to the village green in Norfolk, Connecticut, Frederic Dennis wrote in 1917, “It was an arena for all sorts of athletic sports, such as base ball, foot ball, wicket playing, jumping, wrestling, tugs of war, and foot and horse races.” But because the commons was just that, a commons, available to public usages, no one usage could usually monopolize the space.
Although it may be that the terminology for segments of the baseball field—the “infield” and “outfield”—derived more directly from cricket, farming peoples would have recognized the use of those words to refer to those more valuable fields closer to the village center and those less valuable further away. According to an agricultural dictionary, “Infield consisted of the best land, about one-third of the extent of the outfield, usually near the farm buildings. The infield received all the winter dung which was put on about one-third of the field and was ploughed three times and then sown with barley.” Outfield, on the other hand, “was the extension of arable cultivation beyond the infield, but within the head-dyke, and was cropped for a restricted period without the benefit of any manuring, and then rested until it regained its natural fertility.” British farmers had long characterized such field divisions, and early New Englanders carried on the custom. As historian Joseph Wood noted in his study, The New England Village, “large common fields were divided into rectangles and small common fields were widely dispersed in New England towns, and included infields and outfields,” and led to enclosure and dispersal to unified farmsteads.
Opening Days and Fall Classics
Perhaps surprisingly to today’s techno-driven American, agriculture also provided some stretches of leisure that could support some more formalized recreation such as baseball. A series of agriculturally oriented holidays, pre-industrial in scope and origin, as well as militia training days, punctuated the calendar. How often townspeople and rural residents congregated on these days for the express purpose of playing baseball is
uncertain, but much like the later Fourths of July, types of play became more and more integral to the celebrations and ceremonies.
Admittedly, farm people worked hard, perhaps women as much or more so than the men, but the rhythms of the agricultural cycles left some times where the main task was awaiting the maturation of the crops. Sabbath prohibitions most likely restricted this leisure and dampened some baseball-playing, but even then some boys such as the future Massachusetts reformer and Union officer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, found ways to steal away for clandestine ball games behind someone’s barn.
In an allied manner, early Americans had a deeper reliance on seasonality than do modern ones. As Michael Kammen and John Demos have demonstrated so eloquently, preindustrial Americans lived their lives according to cyclical patterns firmly rooted in sunlight and moonlight, weather cycles, natural phenomena, and agrarian bloomings and die-offs. Seasons were sharper for those generations as opposed to the more flattened or blurred seasonal experiences for modern Americans. Baseball may have had some similar delineations. Baseball’s playing season paralleled the agricultural one. Opening Day often occurred right about when many flowers were also opening for pollination or two or three weeks after Lady Day, March 25, one of the feasts of the Virgin Mary and the agrarian New Year. Until the calendar revisions of 1752, March 25 served as the conventional start of the agricultural year, and in rural areas lasted as that traditional demarcation between winter and spring. In later decades, the rural associations would persist in the notion of a seasoned veteran or sending a prospect back down to the farm team for more seasoning. Although several pundits have made much about the number three and its multiples in baseball—three outs per inning, three strikes, nine innings, 27 outs per game—the number four has also had its importance in the game. Four balls for a walk arrived later in the formalization of the sport, but much earlier baseball proponents settled on four bases—not the two from cricket or the various cat games, or the five from rounders, but four. No specific evidence exists to support the next speculation, but did early agriculturally oriented Americans sense a similarity in baseball with its four stations, mirroring the yearly cycle, suggesting the four directions and winds? Likewise it is important to recall the contemporaneity with the Second Great Awakening, which produced some evangelical religions that stressed the Foursquare gospel, not to mention the four gospel writers and four Apocalypse horsemen, among other celebrated cornerstones in Christianity. The concept of four, whether from seasonality or religion, likely resonated strongly for those generations, who found a numerical echo in baseball.
The Surveying Contexts of Baseball: Baselines and Squares
Thinking of the Early National period also suggests another possibly overlooked reason for baseball’s emergence. Writers who have cogitated on the structure of the field often declare the design as somehow divinely inspired, as if some angel descended with the mandate for 90-foot basepaths, or some Moses type appeared directly from the Big Commissioner in the Sky’s office with tablature laying out baseball’s commandments. Theories that posit that the ball field is hostile territory in which the hero must negotiate a dangerous traverse around four small outposts of safety in a quest to return to ultimate safety at home, to capture the Holy Grail of home base, or fourth stake in town ball, are all well and wonderful and provocative. But might not there be an alternative interpretation? One that turns the field of danger image inside out? That links the game to the national grid pattern of land-surveying and other surveying methodologies?
The profound impact of the national grid land-surveying system that Congress formalized in 1785 helped many Americans embrace an increasing rectangularity in measurements.  The ordinance enacted May 20 of that year stipulated that for land in the western territories “the surveyors shall proceed to divide the said territory into townships of 6 miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles, as near as may be….” Further subdivision into square-mile lots would facilitate land purchases and settlement. Thomas Jefferson was in many ways the chief architect of this plan. Jefferson sought to integrate a mathematically rational system of measurements into the codification of laws and weights and measures and coinage for the new republic based on metrical and decimal systems coalescing in Europe, especially France. Archaic and traditional means of measurement, often wildly variable and imprecise, would yield to the beauties of mathematics, the omnipresent square. The system had its critics, particularly Southerners more used to irregular patterns, and over the long run led to ecologically short-sighted settlement trends, but the federal determination to employ rectangularity had a long-running definitive impact on land distribution and settlement over the next couple of centuries as anyone who has driven through or flown above the Midwest and plains can attest. As Vernon Carstensen remarked, “The patterns imposed on the American land by the rectangular survey influenced enormously the economic, political, and social life of the people who came to make their farms and villages and cities on a land marked out in squares of townships and sections, quarter sections, and forties.” Eventually some 70 percent of land in the lower 48 states received such rectangular plotting. Carstensen thought also that the patterns specifically helped reduce the feuding and wrangling over irregularly surveyed parcels farther East. Perhaps the patterns also influenced recreational activities such as baseball.
Rectangularity was the main feature of the new surveying system used for the 1785 national grid ordinance, as illustrated by this plat map of the first seven ranges surveyed in what is now eastern Ohio (source: USGenWEB at http://www.tngenweb.org/tnland/seven-ranges/).
Rectangular surveying was not new in the 1780s. Romans had featured such shapes in their centuriation field patterns. As early as the early 1680s, William Penn had promulgated a grid system for the streets of the proposed city of Philadelphia. The towns of Savannah, New Haven, and Charleston had also developed along a grid pattern center. Pittsfield, Massachusetts, famous recently for its 1791 sports ordinance, contained some rectangular, even square, parcels in its landholding patterns in the early 18th century. The national grid system applied most directly at first to what became eastern Ohio, known then as the Virginia Military District. Much helter skelter, crazy quilt patterns of town and city development persisted in colonial and Revolutionary America as both center villages increased along with dispersal to unitary farmsteads some distance from village centers. But by the 1780s the federal government had envisioned a more orderly geometric plan that would rationalize American westward expansion. Rectangularity based on squarely surveyed sections would add a more consistent precision missing in previous decades. Second, from the colonial era onward, matters of surveying, mapping, and territorial ownership preoccupied Euroamericans. Surveyors were very important participants in these legalities, and many a colonist had some surveying skills. Indeed, scratch below the surface descriptions of many prominent Americans—Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Daniel Boone—and their relationship to surveying becomes obvious. Famous surveyors such as Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker carried on the federal mission of measuring the landscape. Third, some towns, especially in New England, had already created commons and town squares that reflected this rectangularity, sections they devoted to public uses such as communal grazing or school support. Fourth, farmers had long been performing one perennial task on the farm in relentlessly rectangular fashion, namely crossplowing, the process of plowing new or waste ground at right angles to make the soil more friable. Later, with the rectangular survey plots, farmers found encouragement to plow long, straight furrows.
Some terms from surveying vocabulary may have found a few echoes in baseball terminology. The most obvious example is “baseline.” Surveyors, seeking to establish a line from which to measure other lines and parcels, called that first or most important line a baseline. One dictionary of surveying terms defined it: “A surveyed line established with more than usual care, to which surveys are referred for coordination and correlation.” In baseball, of course, a baseline came to demarcate between fair and foul territories and designate a running path to which runners are technically supposed to hew from base to base. The baselines serve theoretically to confine the running actions in baseball. But, as such, a baseball baseline retains some of the importance of a surveying baseline. The very common surveying term “bound” served as a synonym for “base” in the Massachusetts Game, although in baseball the word was more likely to refer to the actual bouncing action of the ball. Similarly, various surveying uses of the word “corner” may have found an echo in the various meanings of the word in baseball. The use of a three-foot pace in surveying found implementation in stepping off the distances between bases later in the National Pastime.
Is it merely coincidental that baseball in America grew in the very years and decades that land expansion increasingly adhered to a grid pattern? Or did those first waves of baseball enthusiasts survey their own squares, laying out the fields, pacing out the basepaths, incorporating the right angles, marking those corners with bases, and then redesigning a game that would fit these fields—a contest that rewarded hitters with the privilege of running around this square, accumulating bases and by extension acquiring the described property? Many Americans would answer that the sport most identified with territorial acquisition would be American football, indeed a sport whose use of the term “gridiron” fairly shouts out rectangularity—first downs, 10 yards at a time demarcated by chainbearers and linesmen, ferocious marches to possess desirable acreage in the end zones. But the chronology does not match here; football did not develop contemporaneously with Early National and antebellum expansions. A version of an athletic contest answering to that name really was more of a shin-kicking free-for-all. The game gaining American favor as the rallying phrase of Manifest Destiny sounded as a clarion call by the mid–1840s was baseball, not football.
Rogations and Perambulations
Another type of surveying may have had some influence on the development of baseball and baseball-type games, namely the Christian observance of Rogation and one of its practices, a walking of the boundaries known as perambulation. Rogationtide was a moveable holiday because it depended on when Easter and Holy Week fell during the spring. Rogation week followed the fifth Sunday after Easter, contained Ascension Day, and was two weeks before Whitsunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter. Generally the message of this Christian rite was to emphasize the role of God as the great provider. One of the major parts of the ceremony was the perambulation. Simultaneously remembering and reaffirming older land claims and inspecting and protecting current ones, perambulation constituted an important procession for the congregation. Customs varied in England and other parts of Britain, but usually some group of parishioners accompanied by a religious official traversed the metes and bounds or in other cases paid a gang of persons to walk said boundaries and destroy or dismantle any encroachments. The custom was known by several different names: Cross-Week, Grass-Week, and Gang-Week; Scots referred to it as “riding the Marches.” The more Catholic aspects of the ceremonies came under criticism from Protestants, but generally the custom survived the Reformation, fading away in the 18th and 19th centuries due to land enclosures and expense. Christianity organized other processions throughout the year, including some that involved reviewing property boundaries in other seasons, but Rogationtide connected with other springtime rituals of renewal.
Colonial Americans did not always transfer homeland customs exactly, and even jettisoned some of them to make way for practices that they thought served better in the colonies. But apparently perambulation persisted, at least according to Charles MacLean Andrews in his study of colonial Connecticut River towns:
The ancient right of perambulation, or going the bounds, was in full operation in the Connecticut colony. The custom dates back very far in history, and was, in early Saxon times, attended with considerable ceremonial [sic]. The bounds of manors, and later of parishes, were fixed by trees, heaps of stones and natural marks, and the perambulation of half the parishioners from mark to mark was made yearly for the purpose of resetting the bounds if destroyed, or of reaffirming them and seeing that no encroachments had taken place. The Connecticut settlers were familiar with the old custom and early applied it, but in a less pretentious fashion than that which in the mother country.
Andrews then quoted from colonial records requirements that selectmen in adjoining towns had to appoint at least three persons to make such a collaborative walking inspection of boundary markers yearly. Colonial Virginians also observed their own landmarking processions, carrying the English practice across the ocean. Virginia courts frequently heard disputes over such perambulations and attempted to regularize the custom among the Anglican parish vestries. Even when the commonwealth of Virginia disestablished the Anglican church, perambulation phased into a secular custom in October 1785, not that long after Congress initiated the national grid-survey system. As William Seiler noted, “The regular enforcement of land processioning in eighteenth-century Virginia indicates that it was an accepted feature of the colony’s land policy and that it contributed in an essential way to the determination of property lines within the colony.”
Did baseball, as it developed in Europe and America, reflect some sort of connection with perambulations and other similar processions, some sublimated continuation of the rituals of property inspection and marking? To be sure, ballplayers ran around the bases at speeds faster than perambulators trekked around the boundaries. But whatever the speed, baseball may have been a symbolic act of running possession—a faster perambulation—whose purposeful circlings acquired bases at the corners of a rectangular plot, station to station until the closure of the square occurred.
Rounding the Square: Circularity Versus Linearity
Against this backdrop baseball emerged in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Even in town ball days, baseball-type games featured rectangularity, departing from whatever irregular patterns had existed in rounders, stoolball, trapball, wicket, cricket, and the like. Perhaps as important as the rectangularity are some of the uncanny similarities to surveying. The stakes that town ball employed resembled nothing so much as surveying stakes, marking so many rod-and-chain lengths. Baseball dispensed with the perpendicular stakes but continued the idea of boundedness. Although it is much easier to see a sport such as football as a war for territorial dominance—Demos classified baseball as the circular game and football as the linear game—it is just as likely that early Republic Americans saw in baseball and baseball-type games a reaffirmation of territorial possession, that the bases and baselines bounded a piece of territory that the runner and offensive team symbolically owned and the defense likewise competed for. Early settlers, at least in New England, even referred to a piece of potentially productive land as a “pitch.” In Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Vermont Tradition, for example, she recreated a probably typical conversation among would-be Connecticut emigrants in the 1760s eyeing land in what would later become Vermont: “Save a pitch for us. One with good fishing. We’ll be after you soon.” Every run around the bases presaged the later land runs and booms that energized Manifest Destiny, a phenomenon that coincided with the Knickerbockers and the concretization of baseball in Manhattan in the 1840s.
The notion of transition brings yet one other possibility. As fewer Americans were directly involved in farming, as the Industrial Revolution accelerated, and as a burgeoning middle class drew sustenance from service economy positions, several fundamental changes reverberated throughout American culture. One was a surge in sentimentalism and nostalgia about the agrarian lifestyle, following the typical pattern in America of glorifying groups and former lifestyles as they were disappearing or in decline. Second, urbanization, still small by modern ideas, undercut traditional family and church institutions, freeing up individuals who gloried in individualism or re-formed a sense of communitas with new organizational and associational forms. A third was, as Demos analyzed, a transition from “the logic of circularity” to linear, and rectangular, thinking. The old agricultural rhythms, diurnal, lunar, and seasonal in nature, gave way to unit time measurements, statistical thinking, mechanistic calibrations, mathematical calculations and numeracy.
Many commentators, especially Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden, have documented the first trend, and baseball scholars have been assiduous in locating the pastoral imagery in baseball. Warren Goldstein showed in Playing for Keeps how the second development resulted in modern organized baseball coalescing in a city context, particularly in the urban environs of Manhattan, among such cohorts as the Knickerbockers and other early amateur baseball clubs. Cities, such as New York, provided ambitious middle-class groups who energized the former versions of baseball, speeded up and streamlined the game, and eventually sensed the commercial possibilities of city-based entertainment. Indeed shortly after more formalization, praises for baseball often championed it as a game whose action and pace matched the faster-paced rhythms of city life. Add onto that the American penchant for city boosterism—that the fortunes of one’s city found a mirror in the qualities of its baseball teams—and the connection of baseball and cities was firm.50 But Demos’s analysis and its possible connection to baseball remain unexplored.
Did baseball emerge as an attempt to reconcile the logic of circularity with increasingly linear and rectangular thinking? Runners circle the bases, which are resolutely rectangular in format. Baselines extend in a straight direction, but so much of the other action in baseball moves in more fluid, swooping, even circular motions. To return to the phrase “rounding the bases,” there is a similar phrase in carpentry and furniture-making whereby artisans would abrade or smooth off corners and edges for esthetic, safety, or comfort reasons. Did the very actions of baseball reflect this central tension of a traditional, agricultural, cyclical mentalité conflicting with the nexus of 90-degree angles forecasting the future?
1. Block, D. 2005. Baseball before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game; Altherr, T. 2000. “‘A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball’: Baseball and Baseball-Type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic,” NINE 8.2, 15–49; Altherr, T. 2008. “Chucking the Old Apple: Recent Discoveries of Pre–1839 North American Ball Games,” Base Ball 2.1, 29–43.
2. Thompson, G. 2001. “New York Baseball, 1823,” The National Pastime, 6–8; Thorn, J. 2007. “1791 and All That: Baseball and the Berkshires,” Base Ball 1.1, 119–126.
3. For a convenient exposition of this theme, see: Grella, G. 1975. “Baseball and the American Dream,” Massachusetts Review 16, 556–567.
4. For a historical analysis of these practices in New England, see: Cronon, W. 1983. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (ch. 6).
5. Cronon 1983, 111.
6. For a look at the extent of wood use in the construction of fences, see: Meredith, M. 1951. “The Nomenclature of American Pioneer Fences,” Southern Folklore Quarterly 15.2, 109–151.
7. See: Rasmussen, W. 1981. “Wood on the Farm,” in Material Culture of the Wooden Age, ed. B. Hindle, 15–34.
8. Metro, C., and T. Altherr. 2002. Safe by a Mile (pp. 480–481).
9. “Merry England,” Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction: Jan. 6, 1825, p. 557.
10. Mumford, L. 1934. Technics and Civilization (pp. 119–120).
11. For fuller descriptions and illustrations of many of these tools, see: Sloane, E. 1964. A Museum of Early American Tools; Partridge, M. 1973. Farm Tools through the Ages.
12. Johnson, C. 1907. The Country School (p. 16).
13. Green, H. 2006. Wood: Craft, Culture, History (pp. 337–338).
14. Gelber, S. 1983. “Working at Playing: the Culture of the Workplace and the Rise of Baseball,” Journal of Social History 16.4, 3–22.
15. Dickson, P. 2009. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, Third Edition (p. 328).
16. Ibid., 431–432.
17. See the quotation by Samuel Dewees in Altherr 2000, 25.
18. Johnson 1907, 16.
19. Newbery, J. 1744. Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly (p. 88).
20. Wood, J. 1997. The New England Village.
21. Dennis, F. 1917. The Norfolk Village Green (pp. 5–6).
22. Adams, I. 1976. Agrarian Landscape Terms: a Glossary for Historical Geography, Special Publication Number Nine (pp. 82–83).
23. For a detailed examination of the varieties of infield and outfield configurations in western and central Europe, see: Uhlig, H. 1961. “Old Hamlets with Infield and Outfield Systems in Western and Central
Europe,” Geografiska Annaler 43.1/2, 285–312.
24. Wood 1997, 47.
25. Higginson, T. 1898. Cheerful Yesterdays (p. 30).
26. Kammen, M. 2004. A Time to Every Purpose: the Four Seasons in American Culture; Demos, J. 2004. Circles and Lines: the Shape of Life in Early America (especially Chapter One).
27. For discussions of the customs linked to Lady Day, see: Hutton, R. 1996. The Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in Britain (p. 173); Wright, A. 1938. British Calendar Customs, England, Volume II: Fixed Festivals January–May, Inclusive (pp. 166–168); Banks, M. 1939. British Calendar Customs, Scotland, Volume II: the Seasons, the Quarters, Hogmanay January to May (pp. 189–191).
28. See: Linklater, A. 2002. Measuring America: How the United States Was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale in History; Stilgoe, J. 1982. Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845 (pp. 99–107).
29. Partial text of the ordinance quoted in Linklater 2002, 70. For the full text of the act and a concise commentary, see: White, C. 1982. A History of the Rectangular Survey System (pp. 11–15).
30. Linklater 2002, chapters 7–9.
31. Pattison, W. 1957. Beginnings of the Rectangular Land Survey System, 1784–1800, Department of Geography Research Paper No. 50 (ch. 12).
32. Carstensen, V. 1985. “Patterns on the American Land,” in Plotters and Patterns of American Land Surveying, ed. R. Minnick (pp. 94, 100).
33. Thrower, N. 1966. Original Survey and Land Subdivision: a Comparative Study of the Form and Effect of Contrasting Cadastral Surveys (pp. 8–11).
34. See the 1738 map of Pittsfield reproduced in Trewartha, G. 1946. “Types of Rural Settlement in Colonial America,” Geographical Review 36.4, p. 579.
35. Johnson, H. 1976. Order upon the Land: the U.S. Rectangular Land Survey and the Upper Mississippi Country (pp. 40–49).
36. Friis, H. 1985. “Highlights in the First Hundred Years of Surveying and Mapping and Geographical Exploration of the United States by the Federal Government 1775–1880,” in Minnick 1985, 109–118; Brown, J. 2000. The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718–1806 (pp. 49–55).
37. Bedini, S. 2001. With Compass and Chain: Early American Surveyors and Their Instruments (pp. 152–173).
38. Carstensen 1985, 98.
39. Definitions of Surveying and Associated Terms (1978, p. 17).
40. Dickson 2009, 129.
41. For further explanation of Rogation perambulations, see: Bushaway, B. 1982. By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England 1700–1880 (pp. 81–88).
42. For a detailed account of Rogationtide variations, see Hutton 1996, 277–287.
43. Andrews, C. 1889. The River Towns of Connecticut: a Study of Wethersfield, Hartford, and Windsor, Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Seventh Series, VII–VIII–IX (p. 98).
44. Seiler, W. 1949. “Land Processioning in Colonial Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly 6.3, 416–436. Quotation is on p. 435.
45. Demos 2004, 81–82.
46. Fisher, D. 1953. Vermont Tradition: the Biography of an Outlook on Life (pp. 35–36).
47. Demos 2004, especially ch. 2.
48. Ibid., 62. See also: Cassedy, J. 1969. Demography in Early America: Beginnings of the Statistical Mind, 1600–1800; Cohen, P. 1982. A Calculating People: the Spread of Numeracy in Early America.
49. Marx, L. 1964. The Machine in the Garden: the Pastoral Design in American Culture. See also Grella 1975, 556–567; Gaughran, R. 1989. “Baseball Literature’s Complex Pastoralism,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,
50. Goldstein, W. 1989. Playing for Keeps: a History of Early Baseball (especially ch. 1).