November 13th, 2012

The Ancient History of Base Ball, According to Chadwick

Henry Chadwick, the only writer ever to earn a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame alongside the players, executives, and other pioneers, launched The Base Ball Players’ Chronicle on June 6, 1867. It ran for about a year, though it was renamed as The American Chronicle of Sports and Pastimes midway. The article below ran in this publication early in its brief history, on July 18, 1867. Although forty years later his rounders theory of baseball’s origin would be dismissed by the Mills Commission in its headlong rush to identify a single inventor, Old Chad’s views remain of interest today. David Block, in his masterful Baseball Before We Knew It, has effectively challenged Chadwick’s belief that rounders preceded baseball, historically or nominally.


In the old days of the gallant Edward the Third, in the first half of the fourteenth century, there came into fashion, among the youths and children of England, a game called “barres,” or bars, which consisted in running from one bar or barrier to another.  It grew to be so popular that it at last became a nuisance, so that the barons of England, as they went to the Parliament House, were annoyed by the bands of children engaged in playing it.  They were at last obliged to pass an act of Parliament which declared, in the quaint Norman French of the period, that nul enfaunt ne autres ne jue a barres in the avenues which led to Westminster Palace.  The name of this game was subsequently corrupted to “base,” and two hundred years after Edward’s day, Spenser, in his “Faery Queen,” alluded to it as follows:

So ran they all as they had been at bace, They being chased that did others chace.

And Shakespeare, in his “Cymbeline,” shows that he was familiar with its character, for he makes one of his characters say:

He with two stripling lads more like to run

The country base, than to omit such slaughter.

Even now men frequently indulge in this pastime, and so late as 1770 there was a celebrated game of “bars” or “base” played in London, in the field behind Montague House, which has since been transformed into the British Museum. It was played between a select party of persons from Derbyshire and another from Cheshire, and was witnessed by all London. Derbyshire won, and a great quantity of money changed hands on the occasion.  In the process of time, from a peculiarity in the method of playing it, and to distinguish it from other games which had sprung out of it, it was called “prisoner’s base,” and as such still affords amusement to the children of England and America. The skill in this game consisted simply in running with agility and swiftness, in such a way as not to be caught by the opposing party, from one “bar” or “base” to another. After a while somebody thought of uniting with it the game of ball, and thus formed the game of “rounders,” “round ball,” or “base ball.” “Rounders” took its name from the fact that the players were obliged to run round a sort of circle of bases. The method of playing it is thus described in an English work:

The game is played by first fixing five spots, called “bases,” at equal distances of fifteen or twenty yards, forming a pentagon, and marked by a stone or hole. In the centre of this is another place, called the “seat,'”  where the “feeder'”stands to give or toss the ball to the one who has the bat … called the “home,” or ‘house.” Two sides are chosen as in football, one of which goes in while the other is out, this being decided by tossing up the ball and scrambling for it, or by heads and tails, or any other fair mode. There should not be less than ten or twelve players in all, and twenty-four or thirty are not too many. The inside begin by standing at the ‘home,’ one of them taking the bat, while the feeder, who is one of the out party, standing at his “seat,” tosses (not throws) a ball at his knees, or thereabouts, after calling play. The rest of the out party are distributed over the field, round the outside of the pentagon.

When the ball is thus given, the batsman’s object is to hit it far and low over the field; and he is put out at once–first, if he fails to strike it; secondly, it he tips it and it falls behind him; thirdly, if it is caught before it falls to the ground, or after a single trap or rebound; or fourthly, if he is struck on the body after leaving the base, and while not standing at another base. The in-player may refuse to strike for three balls consecutively; but if he attempts and fails, or if he does not strike at the fourth ball, he is out. 

The score is made by the in party as follows: Each player, after striking the ball, runs from his base to another, or to a second, third, fourth, or even all around, according to the distance he has hit the ball, and scores one for each base he touches; and if while running between the bases he is hit by the ball, he is put out. If the ball falls among nettles or other cover of the same kind, ‘lost ball’ may be cried by the out party, and four only can be scored.  After one of the in party has hit the ball and dropped the bat, another takes his place, and, on receiving the ball as before, he strikes it or fails as the case may be. If the latter, he is put out: but the previous striker, or strikers, if they are standing at their bases, are not affected by his failure. If the latter, he drops his bat like his predecessor, and runs round the pentagon also like him, being preceded by the previous strikers, and all being liable to be put out by a blow from the ball. The feeder is allowed to feign a toss of the ball, in the hope of touching some one of the players, who are very apt to leave their bases before the hit, in the hope of scoring an extra one by the manoeuvre. When only one of the sides is left in, the others being all put out, he may call for ‘three fair hits for the rounder,’ which are intended to give him and his side another innings if he can effect the following feat: The outs, with the feeder, stand as usual, the rest of the striker’s side besides himself taking no part. The feeder then tosses the ball as usual, which the striker may refuse as often as he pleases:  but if he strikes at it, he must endeavor to run completely round the pentagon once out of three times, he being allowed three attempts to do it in. If he is struck on the body, or caught, or if he falls in getting around, he and his party are finally out, and the other side go in again for another innings, but have not afterwards another such chance of redeeming their play. The out field are disposed on the same principle as at cricket, part for slight trips, and the remainder for long balls, and catch, stop or return them just as in that game.

This game of rounders first began to be played in England in the seventeenth century, and was the favorite ball game in the provinces until it was generally superseded by cricket at the close at the last century.  It is still, however, occasionally practiced in remote localities. It was brought to our country by the early emigrants, and was called here “base ball” or “round ball.” Sometimes the name of “town ball” was given to it, because matches were often played by parties representing different towns. But, so far as we know, the old English title of “rounders” was never used in America. The reason of this is that so many of our old New England settlers came from the eastern counties of England, where the term “rounders” appears never to have been used. In Moor’s Suffolk Words he mentions among the ball games “base ball,” while in the dialect glossaries of the northern and western counties no such word is to be found.

English “base ball,” or “rounders,” was a mild and simple amusement compared with the American sport which has grown out of it. Even the hardy girls and women of England sometimes played it. Blaine, an English writer, says: “There are few of us, of either sex, but have engaged in base ball since our majority.” Think of American ladies playing base ball! Yet the English “rounders” contained all the elements of our National game. All that it needed was systematizing and an authoritative code of rules. This it did not obtain until after 1840–and not completely until 1845. Previous to that date base ball was played with great differences in various parts of the country. Sometimes as many as six or seven bases were used; and very frequently lengthy disputes arose among the players as to the right method of conducting the game. It is a little noticeable that in laying down rules for base ball there is not one technical term that has been borrowed from cricket–a game long since reduced to a science. Of course the two sports, being both games of ball, necessarily have many terms in common, but there is not a base ball phrase which can be recognized as originating among cricketers.

On the other hand, it is quite probable that cricket owed many of its peculiar words, such as “field,” “fieldsman,” “run,” and “bat,” to the older “rounders.” In relation to the word “base,” we may say that, in addition to the origin which we have given–namely, that it comes from a corruption of “bars” in the game styled “prison bars,” or “prisoners’ bars”–there is another somewhat plausible derivation. It has been suggested that as the object of each side in the game of “bars” was to keep the other party at bay, the places where they were so kept, that is the “bases,” were styled “bays,” of which “base” is a corruption. But this whole subject needs elucidation, and a careful study of the rural sports of the mother country would undoubtedly throw much light upon the history of base ball.