Southern Ball-Games: Chermany, Round Cat, Etc.
The article below, by Tom Altherr, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. His Fall 2011 article “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 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 below, 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 1850.38, reflects that it is the thirty-eighth entry for the year 1850. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
Item 1850.38, Southern Ball-Games: Chermany, Round Cat, Etc.
Thomas L. Altherr
Chumney was similar to baseball,played with two teams, and had batters, pitchers, catchers, and fielders.
Two games with roots in the mid–19th century, both of them pastimes associated with the American South, have come to light only recently: chermany and round cat.
The most common spelling, “chermany,” suggests that there may have been some connection to Germans—that perhaps German immigrants brought the game to Virginia. Diligent searches through many sources about Virginia and other areas of the South, however, have found no connections of chermany to Germans. There were Germans in colonial Virginia onward, but so far there was no mention of a baseball-type game called chermany. Virginia humorist George William Bagby addressed this matter in what is so far the fullest discussion of chermany. Stating the he had purchased a former female academy in Buckingham with plans to convert it to a fiddlers’ college, Bagby revised his goals: “I abandoned the original plan and consecrated the Institute wholly to the instruction of able-bodied young men in the ancient and manly games of ‘Chermany’ and ‘Ant’ny Over.’ The etymology of the former game is obscure. It may have been ‘Germany.’ Though I have never known a Dutchman [i.e., a German] to play it or even be aware of its rules and regulations.”
Whatever the term’s origins, Bagby considered chermany a superior game:
My aim was to supplant the vile pastimes of base-ball and billiards which befell the Commonwealth [of Virginia] as a part of the loathsome legacy bequeathed us by the war. I could not, indeed, believe that these debilitating and abnormal sports would perpetually exclude the time-honored and patriotic game to which Virginians had been accustomed, but my fear was that after the base ball business the awful thing called cricket might follow, and that I could not have borne. Those silly wickets and those absurd bats are to my mind execrable, inexcusable, and unfounded upon reason and common sense.
Indeed, Bagby saw chermany as one of the numerous skills a Virginia boy of his generation had to master around eight years old.
A couple of the sources, however, also referred to a game called chumney, which would lead to a reasonable conclusion that chermany was a variant of chumney or vice versa. In his History of Prince Edward County, Virginia, Herbert Clarence Bradshaw defined chumney thus:
Chumney was similar to baseball, played with two teams, and had batters, pitchers, catchers, and fielders. The pitcher tried to pitch a good ball, and the batter tried to knock the solid rubber ball out of sight. A Runner had to be hit when in motion to down him, and to go around the ring, which was larger than a baseball diamond, twice was a “real accomplishment.”
William Cabell Bruce’s biography of John Randolph of Roanoke provokes additional questions about chumney. Bruce stated that as an adult Randolph enjoyed playing games “then most common” with the local boys, including chumney. While most sources place chermany later, in the 1830s and onward, Randolph was playing chumney in the 1820s. If chumney was an earlier name for the game later termed chermany, then again the game may have had no connection to Germans.
Then where did the name “chumney” come from? None of the older dictionaries consulted lists the term, and a search of British place names did not turn up a locale of that name. There may have been some confusion with “chumley,” which itself is a variant of “Cholmondeley,” the family name of a longtime ruling clan in Cheshire in northwest England. Did a variant of baseball obtain the name in that region and transplant it to Virginia?
The second game under consideration here is round cat. References to this game are few and sporadic, none of them providing conclusive detail. The 1917 Scribner’s story that mentioned chermany also listed round cat, and placed it in the Richmond area in the 1860s. Apparently round cat was thus different from chermany. A listing in an 1892 number of Dialect Notes cited Washington novelist Angelo Hall playing “round-cat” in Georgetown and then compared it to a New England game called scrub, defined as “that form of base ball played when there are too few players to have opposing sides.” An Ohioan named Isaac Fenton King remembered in his autobiography that boys played a variety of ball games including “round cat,” and Virginian E. M. Babb referred to round cat as a Sunday recreation for young males in southern Virginia around 1890. Yet the mode of play remains elusive. One clue may be a description of “round cat” in an 1858 British book, The Playground, but even there the game seems to have been an impromptu mixture of cat games and rounders, employing a wooden cat rather than a ball.
The most sustained references to round cat, however, were in novels of Bernice Kelly Harris. Harris was an eastern North Carolina novelist working in the local color tradition that emerged in the 1930s. Her books seem to have centered in that region of North Carolina and time periods ranged from turn of the century to the 1930s and 1940s.
In Purslane (1939), the first round cat reference occurred: “At first Calvin talked incessantly, following Dele around to take the heavier part of her work, pitching ball to the little round-cat batters on Saturday afternoon. . . .” Earlier in the book, another account of a Sunday baseball game established the image of Calvin as an accomplished baseball player, a home run hitter who played for a minor league team in Alabama. Here mention of round cat suggests that the game was not baseball, but rather a children’s game, an activity that a baseball player would indulge in goofing around.
Two years later in Portulaca (1941), Harris included a short scene in which a few boys played a game of round cat after church. Mostly the episode functioned as mockery of one of the character’s baggy corduroy pants. There were no details about the game, yet the dialogue includes razzing one of the boys about thinking he was Dizzy Dean, which would seem to indicate that the contest imitated baseball and was set in the 1930s.
Sage Quarter (1945) featured the third round cat reference. This one involved a tenant farmer boy named Rough-Dried at school recess playing a ball game with Vic and the other higher-class boys. Vic would allow the new boy to use his bat. But then at one point Vic walked away “to join the boys at round cat.” This sentence injected some confusion about round cat. Was round cat the first game of ball they were playing or a different one? Again there was no information on rules or play other than that round cat employed a bat and ball.
The fourth, and last, round cat usage appeared in Wild Cherry Road (1951). Toward the end of an extended account of a neighborhood baseball team organizing and practicing for an upcoming season, Harris inserted the term round cat into a series of insults the fans threw at an opposing pitcher during a game:
“Better go home and pitch horsehoes!” a wag called from the bleachers.
“Or stick to round cat!” another shouted.
Clearly, whatever round cat was, eastern North Carolinians considered it an inferior version of baseball—a kids’ game for substandard players. For Bernice Kelly Harris, though, round cat seems to have been a common enough, and important enough, childhood game to include it in four novels. Southerners, apparently, with chermany and round cat, had no shortage of baseball-type games.
13. Harris, B. 1951. Wild Cherry Road (p. 172).