“The Bat and Ball”: A Distinct Game or a Generic Term?

Here is a Brian Turner doubleheader, following yesterday’s post from 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 1755.6, reflects that it is the sixth entry for the year 1755, which was a very good year for developments in baseball, especially in England (Bray, Kidgell). As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see:


Item 1755.6, “The Bat and Ball”: A Distinct Game or a Generic Term?

Brian Turner

Even at the celebration of the Lord’s supper [the Dutch boys] have been playing bat and ball the whole term around the house of God. [1]

Early American sources often refer to “playing ball” or “ball-playing” or “games of ball.” When one reads such references, or that boys played games with bat and ball, the terms appear to be generic. Relatively few sources unambiguously refer to a game called “bat and ball,” but such references do exist.

Evidence suggests that, as with so many American pastimes, “bat and ball” originated in England. The Field Book: Sports and Past Times of the British Isles (1833) observes, “The game of club-ball, plebian brother to cricket, appears to have been no other than the present well-known bat-and-ball, which with similar laws and customs in the playing of it, was doubtless anterior to trap-ball.”[2]

A colonial reference comes from the Reverend Gideon Hawley, in a letter written in 1794, in which he recalled his mission to the Native Americans in upstate New York between 1753 and 1756. He kept a diary, it seems, for in his letter he named days and dates: on the “27th, Lord’s Day,” he attended a “Dutch meeting . . . [a]t the nearest houses between fort Hunter and Schoharry.” The 27th falls on a Sunday in April 1755,[3]  so that is probably the year: “Those who are in meeting behave devoutly. . . . But without, they . . . have been playing bat and ball . . . around the house of God.”[4] Had Hawley, writing in 1794, recreated his diary entries verbatim, this sighting might qualify as primary evidence. But he may also have applied “bat and ball” forty years after the fact, influenced by his decades as a minister in Mashpee, Massachusetts. A look at the original diary, if it exists, would be required to judge the quality of his observations.[5]

One reference to “bat and ball” that qualifies as primary evidence appears in the diary of Benjamin Glazier, ship’s carpenter. In 1758, Glazier recorded that “Captain Gerrish’s Company” played “bat and ball” near Fort Ticonderoga.[6] Glazier, an Ipswich man, a coastal town some 15 miles north of Salem, deployed a term also used in Salem. Salem, not Boston, was where references to “Bat & Ball” first appeared in newspapers. The game, if it was a distinct game, was explicitly banned in 1762,[7] implying that it had been played earlier. This may be primary evidence, but it is not unambiguously a distinct baseball-like game.

The 1791 diary of Reverend William Bentley of Salem puts flesh on the bones of “bat and ball”: In May, he observed that young boys played “the Bat & Ball [emphasis added] and the Game of Rickets.”[8] Bentley described the implements of “Bat & Ball”: “The Ball is made of rags covered with leather in quarters & covered with double twine, sewed in knots over the whole. The Bat is from 2 to 3 feet long, round on the back side but flatted considerably on the face, & round on the end for a better stroke.” Especially telling is the “flatted . . . face,” together with the “round . . . end.” A cricket bat, at least in England after the 1760s, would be “flatted” on both sides.

In his diary entry, Bentley returns to another season for playing “Bat & Ball”: “The Snow & ice determine the use of Skates & Sleds. . . . The Bat & Ball as the weather begins to cool.”[9] The seasons that Bentley specified, spring and autumn, provide a counterweight to an assertion by the folklorist William Wells Newell in his description of hockey: “The game is much played on the ice. . . .  The name of ‘Bat and Ball,’ also given to this sport, indicates that in many districts this was the usual way of playing ball with the bat.”[10] Playing bat and ball on ice is too good an idea not to have been tried, and Newell may have been right that in some places such a game was called “Bat and Ball.” But Reverend Bentley’s contemporaneous account specified that “Bat & Ball” was a game played in the spring and autumn. And the “bat and ball” sightings, immediately below, tend to confirm Bentley’s observations.

Decades later—in Maine, an enclave of Massachusetts until1820—the Eastport Sentinel twice refers to “the game of Bat and Ball.”[11] One Sentinel report, in 1827, reprinted from the Portland Christian Mirror, recalls “the game of Bat and Ball” played during the 1790s.[12] In the latter, the writer describes how children, mimicking adult militia, used their wooden rifles as bats. The use of “the,” in each instance, implies a game distinct from others; the article reprinted from a Portland paper shows that “the” was not one writer’s usage. Bentley, too, used “the” in his diary.

The isolation of some New England communities preserved English forms, according to Alfred L. Elwyn’s Glossary of Supposed Americanisms (1859). When Elwyn composed his entry for “ball,” his example was “bat and ball” played in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he was born in 1804. “The one we call ‘bat and ball’ may be an imperfect form of cricket, though we played this [cricket] in the same or nearly the same manner as in England, which would make it probable that the ‘bat and ball’ was a game of Yankee invention.”[13]

At this point we have contemporaneous references to the game of “bat and ball” from northernmost Maine (Eastport) to central Maine (Portland) to Salem, ranging from 1791–1827. And we also have Elwyn’s detailed reminiscence—in the service of philology—placing “the bat and ball” in Portsmouth, halfway between Boston and Portland. Elwyn provides this description:

[S]ides were chosen, not limited to any particular number, though seldom more than six or eight. . . . The individual . . . first chosen, of the side that was in, took the bat position at a certain assigned spot. One of his adversaries stood at a given distance in front of him to throw the ball, and another behind him to throw back the ball if it were not struck, or to catch it. . . . After the ball was struck, the striker was to run; stones were placed some thirty or forty feet apart, in a circle, and he was to touch each one of them, till he got back to the front from which he started. If the ball was caught by any of the opposite party who were in the field, or if not caught, was thrown at and hit the boy who was trying to get back to his starting place, their party was in; and the boy who caught the ball, or hit his opponent, took the bat. A good deal of fun and excitement consisted in the ball not having been struck to a sufficient distance to admit of the striker running round before the ball was in the hands of his adversaries. If his successor struck it, he must run, and take his chance, evading the ball as well as he could by falling down or dodging it. While at the goals he could not be touched; only in the intervals between them.[14]

Given that Elwyn set out to compile, categorize, and analyze words and phrases that had survived in original English form, we can hope that he paid at least as much attention to the accuracy of his description of “bat and ball.” Using stones for bases fits Carver’s 1834 description of “base or goal ball.” Elwyn also specifies that an inning was “one out, all out,” a feature of the Massachusetts game codified in 1858. Elwyn’s description is useful, although written forty years after the fact.

How long did it take for bat and ball—the name, the game—to travel from Portsmouth to Boston? Samuel Gray Ward, writing to his father in 1831, observed, “There are a great many boys all the time on the Common now playing bat and ball.”[15] Here we have the term, but do we have the game? The same holds true nine years later, in 1840, when a former Bostonian wrote in the Honolulu Polynesian:

One evidence of the increasing civilization in this place, and not the least gratifying, is to see the ardor with which the native youth of both sexes engage in the same old games which used to warm our blood not long since. 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.[16]

Before 1854, J. Pierpont Morgan attended Boston English School and “in between school and work, played ‘bat and ball’ on Boston Common.”[17] Henry L Satterlee, writing in 1939 about the future financier’s ballplaying—and perhaps mindful of the debate over origins that accompanied the opening of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown—asserts that “bat and ball” was the precursor to baseball.[18] Satterlee’s claim that “bat and ball” gave birth to baseball is rather too bold. “Bat and ball” was an uncle—the eccentric one.

The evidence presented here clarifies that “bat and ball” was, in different places and at different times, regarded as a distinct game. For all its encroachments upon the New England coastline, “bat and ball” did not travel far into the interior. In the 1840s and thereafter, central Massachusetts communities referred to “round ball” as a baseball-like game. Farther west, into the Connecticut River valley, Northampton’s 1791 ban specified only “bat ball.”[18] Pittsfield’s famous 1791 ban on “base ball,” along with cricket, wicket, and “bat ball,” included neither “bat and ball” nor “round ball.”[20]

Whether “round ball,” “bat ball,” and “bat and ball” were similar games using different names, or so different as to be distinct, is a subject that deserves further study; equally deserving, too, is the extent to which any of these games influenced the Massachusetts game.

        1. Protoball 1755.6: Hawley, G. 1753. Rev. Gideon Hawley’s Journal(p. 1041).

        2. Sports and Pastimes of the British Isles (1833) (p. 140).

        3. Protoball 1753.1 cites the year that the journal begins.

        4. Hawley 1753, 1041.

        5. Protoball 1753.1 mentions that the journal resides in the collection of Tom Heitz. Hawley also wrote a letter in 1794, donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society, in which he used the journal.

        6. “French and Indian War Diary of Benjamin Glazier of Ipswich, 1758–1760” (1950). Essex Institute, Historical Collections, vol. 86. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

        7. Protoball 1762.2.

        8. Bentley, W. 1905. The Diary of William Bentley, D.D. (vol. 1) (p. 254). Bentley described “violent” running as Rickets’ distinguishing characteristic. In baseball-like games, running is episodic, and in cricket, confined to the crease between wickets. Based on Bentley’s “violent” running, it would seem that Rickets was a type of field hockey.

        9. Ibid., 253–254.

        10. Newell, W. 1883. Games & Songs of American Children (p. 184).

        11. Eastport Sentinel: 1822 and 1827.

        12. Ibid., 1827. This article, among others, was compiled in a book, Essays on Peace and War (1828), attributed to “Philanthropos.”

        13. Elwyn, A. 1859. Glossary of Supposed Americanisms (p. 18).

        14. Ibid., 18–19.

        15. Samuel Gray Ward papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

        16. Protoball 1840.38. One wonders what Alexander Cartwright would have thought upon arriving in Honolulu with the New York rules and Knickerbocker ball in hand, only to find New England’s version of the game being played by indigenous people.

        17. Carosso, V., and R. Carosso. 1987. The Morgans: Private International Bankers, 1854–1913 (p. 41).

        18. Satterlee, H. 1939. J. Pierpont Morgan: An Intimate Portrait (p. 66).

        19. Trumbull, J. 1902. History of Northampton (vol. 2) (p. 529).

        20. Smith, J., ed. 1869. The History of Pittsfield (Berkshire County), Massachusetts, From the Year 1734 to the Year 1800 (pp. 446–447). Pittsfield was settled late, 1752. For decades politically powerful claimants from New York and Massachusetts squabbled over the land. In the end families made their way east from Hudson River communities, north from Connecticut, and west from Westfield and Northampton. The heterogeneity of Pittsfield, the result of its later settlement, may account for the large number of games the selectmen felt obliged to ban. According to this hypothesis, Northampton’s ban would reflect its much earlier settlement, 1654, and the cultural homogeneity of its more settled population.

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