State Championship Wicket Game in Connecticut: A Hearty Hurrah for a Doomed Pastime

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

Larry McCray

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] The earliest of these reports places the game on Boston Common in about 1725,[6]  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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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,[10] 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,[11] 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.”[12]


Notes

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.

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