A Canadian Ball Game of 1838

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.

9 Comments

According to the analysis of the letter you provide a link to, this letter is quite credible. What caught my attention was the declaration that the “old grayheads” Silas Williams and Ned Dolson used to play some version of baseball when they were boys themselves. This must have been sometime in the late eighteenth century. There is not enough information in the letter to say if the ball game played then had the same playing rules as the 1838 version (other than that both were played until 21 runs were scored by the winning side), but I would expect that the rules had changed little if at all in that time.

All in all, this is a fascinating and quite informative window in the state of one version of baseball being played in 1838. If only similar, and equally detailed, accounts were available from 50 years earlier! Maybe one day such an account might turn up.

I agree that the specificity is credible. I have no reason NOT to think that a variant of baseball was played in Canada in the 1830s and far earlier, as I suspect that baseball in the U.S. dates to the 1730s, and we have documentary evidence for it in the 1780s. What makes Ford’s “recall” suspect is that he witnessed this game when he was seven.

Of course there is Gutsmuths’ 1793 description of “English baseball”, which gives a good account of that game, so there is at least one good description from the late eighteenth century of a baseball variant. I was also interested in the Gutsmuths description of Schlagball in the same book. I cannot help but wonder if features of the two games were combined at some point (perhaps by Gutsmuths himself?) to produce an original version that closely resembled early nineteenth-century baseball, with Schlagball’s hitting for distance with a bat added to the English game. Certainly, as an advocate for sports and physical education, Gutsmuths himself would have been in a good position to combine the two games, if this had not already been done by others.

Has anybody ever looked at his papers (if any) at the Schnepfenthal school where he taught? I have no idea if anything survives today, but if they do, they could represent an important resource about early baseball variants.

Gutsmuths’ papers are no longer at the Salzmann School in Schnepfenthal, having been sent along with other old records of the school to the University of Jena. It is my understanding that no papers of his related to his work on games and sports have survived.

I discussed my views of Dr. Ford’s letter in my book “Baseball before We Knew It” published in 2005. It is not credible to me that, 48 years after the fact, a person could recall such explicit details about an event he had witnessed when he was barely seven years of age. I believe that if there is any basis for what he wrote about the game itself, he must have obtained the information from another, as yet unidentified source. Relying upon uncorroborated reminiscences to document the occurrence of an early baseball event can be perilous, as evidenced by Abner Graves’ Doubleday-Cooperstown story.

As Mickey Mantle said after following Casey Stengel to the microphone at the Kefauver hearings of 1958, “”My views are just about the same as [David’s].”

The Burdick family referred to in Dr. Ford’s story came to the Beachville area in Canada in the late 1790s – James and Phoebe and their eight children, ranging in age from 10 years to 30 years. They were originally from Lanesborough, Massachusetts, which is the town next to Pittsfield in Berkshire County that is famous for the 1791 bylaw forbidding baseball games near the town meeting house, for fear its windows might be broken by flying balls. Amongst other things, James Burdick was a Baptist preacher and spoke out in favour of the British cause, which got him into trouble with the local Committee of Safety during the Revolution, and he was fined, disarmed and confined to his farm. By the time he brought his wife and family (four sons, four daughters) to Canada, the oldest children were married with families of their own, so there was quite a Lanesborough influx to the Beachville area in that period. The extended Burdick family included the Williams and Dolson families named in Dr. Ford’s story.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that there is such an early record of a baseball game in Beachville, because around the same time, these and a number of other Berkshire families had come to the same neighbourhood in Ontario, ninety miles west of Niagara, to what was then known as the Township of Oxford-on-the-Thames, a wilderness tract of 64,000 acres. Points of origin for the others included the towns of Great Barrington, New Marlborough and Mount Washington, also all in Berkshire County. They and the Burdick clan all had come under the leadership of Major Thomas Ingersoll of Great Barrington, who was authorized by the government of the province to assign lands in the township to those he considered suitable to form the new settlement. The Town of Ingersoll, Ontario is named after him. It is three miles down the Thames River from Beachville.

All the communities in that part of Ontario have always been very keen about baseball, and there’s no question it is a cradle for the growth of the game in Canada. The first Canadian Base Ball Championship was organized there in the 1860s, with teams competing to take possession of a Silver Ball trophy that was created by fans of the game in Woodstock, the county town five miles up the Thames River from Beachville. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame is located a bit to the north of Beachville, in a town founded by two of Thomas Ingersoll’s sons, known as St. Marys, Ontario, on another branch of the Thames River.

A festival to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the game described by Dr. Ford is taking place over the next two weekends (May 24-25, and June 1-2) in a meadow that forms part of the grounds of the Beachville Museum. Details can be found on its website at http://www.beachvilledistrictmuseum.ca/. There will be vintage base ball matches for all ages in the course of the festival. Everyone welcome! Still a few game slots available if anyone wants to help form up additional teams. The Beachville Cornstalks have been organized to defend home turf, and already have matches on the program with the London Tecumsehs and the Woodstock Actives, two well-known vintage clubs that have been playing matches in vintage tournaments for decades.

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