Basepaths and Baselines: The Agricultural and Surveying Contexts of the Emergence of Baseball

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] 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….”[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]

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.”[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] Did the several baseball uses of the word “hook” derive from some agricultural origin by way of vaudeville?[16] 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.[17] 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.”[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] 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.”[21] 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.”[22] British farmers had long characterized such field divisions, and early New Englanders carried on the custom.[23] 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.[24]

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.[25]

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.[26] 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.[27] 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. [28] 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….”[29] 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.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32] 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

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.[33] Pittsfield, Massachusetts, famous recently for its 1791 sports ordinance, contained some rectangular, even square, parcels in its landholding patterns in the early 18th century.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36] Famous surveyors such as Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker carried on the federal mission of measuring the landscape.[37] 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.[38]

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.”[39] 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.[40] 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.[41] 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.[42] 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.[43] 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.”[44]

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.[45] 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.”[46] 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.[47] The old agricultural rhythms, diurnal, lunar, and seasonal in nature, gave way to unit time measurements, statistical thinking, mechanistic calibrations, mathematical calculations and numeracy.[48]

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.[49] 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,
Lehigh University.

50. Goldstein, W. 1989. Playing for Keeps: a History of Early Baseball (especially ch. 1).


Very interesting. I’m writing a book about the origins of baseball in the Cincinnati area prior to its professional beginnings. Unlike the East Coast where it was an urban game, I’ve always believed that out west it was more agrarian. Your research indeed validates much of my thinking. Thanks.

Excellent marshalling of cultrally linked phenomena. One more place to look: the emergence of urban parks, including memorial parks, precisely coincident with the antebellum growth of business-oriented urban clusters. F L Olmstead’s Central Park, of course, is, well, central to this story.

Pingback: “A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball”: Baseball and Baseball-type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic « Our Game

This, like all your postings, is a well-written article, however as one who gave numerous seminars on the Congressional Survey System for nearly 30 years I would contend that base lines in the Congressional Survey System have as much relation to baseball as strikes in baseball have to sudden attacks on Iraqi oil fields. They are completely dissimilar. In the CSS base lines run only due east and west and do not connect to anything, thus can never return to the place of beginning. They are periodically intersected at right angles by meridians. The point of intersection is then used to count off six mile squares called townships, usually in all four directions, from the point of intersection. It is also interesting to note that the original act provided for townships of 49 square miles, but was amended a week later, presumably to eliminate the hassle of subdividing by a prime number (7).
The CSS does not use feet but rather rods and chains, 16.5 feet and 66 feet respectively. One can still easily find countless legal description laid out in multiples of 16.5. An acre is based upon 10 square chains (43,560 square feet) so that, for example, if one laid out a rectangle with a depth of 40 chains (one half mile) its acreage is exactly the same as its frontage in rods. For the record, a baseball infield has an acreage of .18595+ acres within its base lines.
If baseball were based upon the CSS bases would probably be either 5 rods (82.5 feet) or 6 rods (99 feet). I suspect that baseball used feet rather than rods and chains because it relatively easy to quickly step off approximate distances in feet and quickly set up a ball field. Nevertheless, rods and chains were still the standard of the time

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