Ballplaying and Boston Common: A Town Playground for Boys . . . and Men
The article below, by Brian Turner, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Brian works at Smith College and is conducting research on ballplaying in the Colonial, Federalist, and New Republic eras. His past baseball publications include The Hurrah Game: Baseball in Northamption 1823–1953 (co-authored with John Bowman: Historic Northampton, 2002) and articles in The National Pastime and Base Ball.
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 1726.2, reflects that it is the second entry for the year 1726. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see:
Item 1726.2, Ballplaying and Boston Common: A Town Playground for Boys . . .
. . . and Men
Sam. Hirst got up betime in the morning, and took Ben Swett with him and went into the (Boston) Common to play at Wicket.
Since 1634, Boston Common has been celebrated as “the outdoor stage on which many characteristic dramas of local life have been enacted.” One such drama—cited in Protoball 1856.20 and 1858.35—was the duel between the Massachusetts version of baseball and that of New York. In 1856 the Olympic Club of Boston conducted “trial” matches of the Massachusetts game on the Common; in 1858, the Common hosted the first New England match by New York rules. Those games, unambiguously baseball, were the culmination of two centuries of Boston ball-play.
Protoball 1700c.2 refers to much earlier games played on the Common. Two histories present identical assertions, but neither gives a source: Mary Farwell Ayer (1903) and Samuel Barber (1916) write that in the late 1600s and early 1700s the “favorite games” were “wicket and flinging the bullet [bullit, in Barber’s version, probably the original spelling].” (The latter involved throwing cannonballs. We know less about 17th century wicket.) Protoball 1700c.2 to Protoball 1858.35, therefore, encompass Boston ballplaying from “wicket” to the New York game.
Evidence that wicket was played in Boston before 1700 comes from Cotton Mather’s autobiographical manuscript Paterna. Born in 1663, Mather recalled that he began preaching “at an Age wherein I See Many Lads playing at their marbles or Wickets in the street.” Mather’s remembrance places “Wickets” as early as the mid–1670s. The name wicket could refer to the stumps in cricket, or arise from a meaning well known at the time, i.e., a small opening in a fortified gate, large enough to duck through. The term was often used as a metaphor to convey the narrowness of the opening through which one might enter heaven’s gate. We don’t see Wickets (or Wicket) again until fifty years later. In his 1726 diary, in an entry that qualifies as primary evidence, Samuel Sewall expressed displeasure when his grandson, then 20, skipped morning prayers “to play at Wicket on the Common.”
H. L. Mencken defined Puritanism as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Historians have painted a more nuanced portrait of colonial attitudes toward pleasure and recreation, which, in moderation, had their place. If ball-play broke the Sabbath, however, a Reverend or a Magistrate brought out his diary to take note; such disapproving voices have dominated the historical record. One need not be a Puritan to regard life in New England as a struggle: Winters were long; summers short. A Boston man who stood watch on Beacon Hill in the 1630s would have gazed east upon the Atlantic and west into wilderness. His emotions cannot be known, but exhilaration and terror would have been reasonable. Would he have scouted for “a place leavel enough to play ball”? Not yet, I suspect. A ceaseless labor awaited him, from which no one was exempt, not even his children.
Some children were fortunate enough to go to school. In 1635, the Public Latin School opened on the north side of School Street. Where students played then isn’t clear, but the Common beckoned. As the conditions of life improved, and grandfathers and fathers pushed back the wilderness, children had more of a chance to play. Of schoolboys in the 1700s, Edward Ellsworth Brown wrote, “In the few hours that could be given to out-door sports, they had skating and coasting in winter, and in summer swimming, and a variety of games, including some with bat and ball.” More schools started, more schoolboys flooded onto the Common as classes let out. In time, Boston Latin’s “playground was that corner of Boston Common lying between the path from West Street to the Old Elm, and Park Street and Beacon Street.”
As long as anyone could remember, “Boston Common was the playground of the Boston School Boys.” In 1831, the young Samuel Gray Ward observed, “There are a great many boys all the time on the Common now playing bat and ball.” In 1840, a former Bostonian recalled in the Honolulu Polynesian, “There’s good old bat and ball, just the same as when [we] ran from the school house to the ‘Common’ to exercise our skill that way….” Between 1851 and 1854, J. Pierpont Morgan attended Boston English School and “in between school and work, played ‘bat and ball’ on Boston Common.” Boyhood play gave rise to nostalgia, which resulted in positive accounts of ballplaying that offset news of boys crushed beneath the wheels of a wagon during a game of ball or adult men struck down by “surfeit, playing ball.”
Thomas Wentworth Higginson and James DeWolf Lovett, from Cambridge and Boston respectively, celebrated their sporting days. During the early 1830s Higginson was fitted for Harvard in the private school of William Wells, an Englishman. “Athletic sports, as well as the humanities, were warmly encouraged by Mr. Wells, and the afternoons spent in cricket, football, and skating on Fresh Pond….” The cricket recalled by Higginson, Harvard Class of 1841, “was the same then played by boys on Boston Common … very unlike what is now called cricket. Balls, bats, and wickets were all larger than in the proper English game; the bats especially being much longer, twice as heavy, and three-cornered instead of flat….”
Higginson was many things: an abolitionist, Civil War officer, women’s rights advocate, and author of many books and articles. James DeWolf Lovett, by contrast, was first and foremost a sportsman who wrote one book, Old Boston Boys and the Games They Played (1906). Lovett’s descriptions have a substance previous accounts lack, partly because society no longer looked down upon a sportsman’s enthusiasms: “The ready-made ball of those days, for sale, was either a mushy, pulpy feeling thing, with a soft cotton quilting over it which wore out in a few days; or else a rubber one, solid or hollow, as one preferred; but all equally unfit for batting purposes.” Clearly, this ball could be used for hitting the runner without risk of injury. That such a ball was available in stores implies that customers purchased them for games familiar and popular.
Lovett was restless with the “mushy” ball, so his father made him a lively one: “The balls my father taught me to make were made of tightly wound yarn, with a bit of rubber at the core, quilted with good, rough twine, and would last a long time; and when needed new jackets could be put upon them….” His father made him “a little bat of black walnut. I can see it now; it had a round handle for about a foot and gradually widened out into two flat sides, being perhaps an inch and a half thick.” Lovett expressed impatience with the batting that resulted: “This mode of back-striking was carried so far that bats not more than twelve or fifteen inches long with a flat surface were used, and instead of making any attempt to strike with it, this bat was merely held at a sharp angle and the ball allowed to glance off it, over the catcher’s head.”22
The Common was Lovett’s playground. “A lot of mechanics, firemen, etc. of the West End occasionally used to meet on the Common for a game.” The conditions there suited some games but not others. “The Common was an impossible place for cricket, the hard baked ground making a good wicket or crease out of the question…. I and others drifted into baseball.” Later, after his baseball career ended, Lovett joined the Longwood Cricket Club.
Even before Lovett made the transition to the New York game, he yearned for another style of play: “the black walnut bat … broke; but by this time I had outgrown it and wanted one like the others in use, that is, round and not square.” When he did play the New York game, his ball club, the Lowells, called the Common its home field.
In the end, the Massachusetts game, like Boston itself, was eclipsed by New York. But Boston games have their story to tell and much to tell historians of baseball.
1. Protoball 1726.2: “Diary of Samuel Sewall,” in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, vol.
7, ser. 5 (p. 372).
2. DeWolfe, M. 1910. Boston Common: Scenes from Four Centuries (p. 7).
3. Protoball 1856.20. A letter to a newspaper, cited in this Protoball entry, evokes “round ball” as precursor of the Massachusetts game. Many Protoball “round ball” entries come from Henry Sargent, based on his letters to the Mills Commission in 1905. The earliest reference to “round ball” remains Robin Carver’s Book of Sports: “It is sometimes called ‘round ball.’ But I believe that ‘base’ or ‘goal ball’ are the names generally adopted in our country” (Protoball 1834.1). Carver no doubt had cause to mention “round ball,” yet he presents the name gingerly, as if unsure of its general usage.
4. Protoball 1858.35. A telling sidelight to the advent of the New York rules in Massachusetts comes from James DeWolf Lovett’s Old Boston Boys and the Games They Played (1906). In addition to the Tri-Mountains of Boston, four other Massachusetts clubs played the New York game in 1858 (p. 42). The apostate cities were Westfield (Atwater), Springfield (Pioneer), and Northampton (Union and Nonotuck),
roughly 90 miles west of Boston. Why such a cluster of clubs using New York rules? The answer, in part, is that these cities dated to the 1600s, when the earliest settlers followed the seacoast and rafted up the Connecticut River long before attempting the state’s interior wilderness. By 1858, of course, river travel was less common. But railways followed the path of least resistance, along the Connecticut River. Hence, New York rules came to western Massachusetts almost as soon as they came to Boston.
5. Ayer, M. 1903. Boston Common in Colonial and Provincial Days (p. 8). Barber, S. 1916. Boston Common: A Diary of Notable Events, Incidents, and Neighboring Occurences (p. 47).
6. Mather, C. (ed. R. Bosco). 1976. Paterna (p. 25).
7. Protoball 1726.2.
8. Mather and Sewall participated in the 1692 Salem witch trials.
9. 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 (p. 15). Altherr’s title comes from Henry Dearborn’s journal, written in 1779.
10. Brown, E. 1905. The Making of Our Middle Schools (p. 138).
11. Abbot, E. 1902. The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, vol. 57 (p. 300).
12. Barber 1916, 238–239. The quote is from Curtis Guild’s address to the Sixth Reunion of the “Old Boston School Boys” (1885).
13. Samuel Gray Ward papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
14. Protoball 1840.38.
15. Carosso, V., and R. Carosso. 1987. The Morgans: Private International Bankers, 1854–1913 (p. 41).
16. “Deaths,” New York Spectator: Sept. 11, 1811.
17. Wells, as it turns out, was the grandfather of William Wells Newell, who compiled Games & Songs of American Children (1883). Indeed, at the time Newell published his book of games, he lived in the same rambling structure in Cambridge that had once housed his grandfather’s school.
18. Higginson, M. 1914. Thomas Wentworth Higginson: The Story of His Life (p. 15).
19. Protoball 1840c.39. I invite readers to imagine a three-cornered bat. I can’t picture anything other than a triangular post-like object, certainly not the shovel or spoon-like bat of Berkshires-style wicket.
20. Lovett, J. 1906. Boston Boys and the Games They Played (p. 133).
21. Ibid., 134.
22. Ibid., 132.
23. Ibid., 137.
24. Ibid., 72–73. Lovett also reported playing “Tip-cat” on Boston Common in the 1850s, though his description is limited to the specific feat of “Charlie Troupe … a fine player of the old ‘Massachusetts’ game of baseball…. With the three strokes which were allowed in this game, I have seen a cat … sent from the Spruce Street path on the Common over the Public Garden fence” (46–47).
25. Ibid., 137.