November 30th, 2012

Thoreau’s Diary Entry, and Other Tiny Clues as to Who Played Early Ball, and on What Occasions (Especially Holidays)

Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

The article below, by Larry McCray, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball for which Larry served as guest editorHe is the founder of the invaluable Protoball Project, a website where many of the early game’s top scholars have shared their finds. He is also a panelist on Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee, which I chair.

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 For example, the article below, indexed as 1830c.2, reflects that it is the first entry for the approximate year 1830. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see:

Item 1830c.2, Thoreau’s Diary Entry, and Other Tiny Clues as to Who Played Early Ball, and on What Occasions (Especially Holidays) 

Larry McCray     

April 10. Thursday. Fast Day. . . . I associate this day, when I can remember it, with games of base-ball played over beyond the hills in the russet fields toward Sleepy Hollow, where the snow was just melted and dried up.[1]

Henry David Thoreau’s 1856 journal entry is typical of the quality of evidence that is available to those of us who want to understand the evolution of American ballplaying. It is clear enough that the Bard of Walden remembers seeing ballgames played in the past, and that he linked such games with Fast Day, a religious observance in New England from the late 17th century to the late 19th century. The specific years he is recollecting (our guess is c. 1830, when Thoreau was in his teens), the age range of the players, and the rules of the games he saw, are wide open to speculation. It is a dim but tantalizing glimpse of the full story of ballplaying in eastern Massachusetts six generations ago.

But such skimpy anecdotes are all we have, and if we wish to form, or to verify, general notions about baseball’s early evolution, they will have to do, for now. Among the interesting scholarly generalizations that one may encounter are these two:

1. Prior to the Knickerbockers, American ballplaying was largely confined to children.

2. Because of the lack of leisure time, a lot of the ballplaying occurred either in schoolyards, on holidays, or at social occasions, like barn-raisings.

This essay entails an attempt to test these two conjectures against the evidence for the period 1770–1830 as compiled in version 11 of the Protoball Chronology.[2]

Ballplayers’ ages

The Protoball Chronology now contains over 200 fairly specific references to ballplaying from 1770–1830, including the Thoreau journal entry. Most of these appear to refer to games included in the “baseball family,”[3] but about one-quarter of them describe cricket and wicket play. Well over half of these “baseball” accountsdo not specify the name of the actual game played,[4] but employ terms like “playing at ball” and “a game of ball,” and we need to remember that such terms may possibly have denoted ballgames that are outside the baseball family.

For about 150 of the references to baseball-type games, it is possible to form an educated opinion as to whether the games’ players were juveniles (preteens), youths (early/mid-teens), or adults.

We find that while over one-third of these accounts involved adult play, and about one-third involved youths, far fewer than one-third involved younger children. For the first half of this period (1770–1800) adult ballplaying actually accounts for about one-half the total of US ballplaying references, owing to the frequency of accounts of military play during the Revolutionary War.

Fast Day Proclamation March 16, 1776

While there will be interesting region-to-region variation that readers may wish to investigate further, the body of evidence that researchers have contributed to Protoball, inexact as it might be, seems hard to square with the traditional idea that adult play was rare before 1845 and the rise of the New York game.

The settings for early US ballplaying

Thoreau’s account is clearly an instance of holiday play. Many other Protoball entries refer to play in schools and colleges. Some appear to refer to what we might today call ordinary local pickup games, where the venue might be a street, open area, or town common.

For about one-half of the collected references, neither the occasion nor the venue for play is indicated. However, that leaves about 100 of the 1770–1830 references to baseball-type games for which one can determine the game’s setting, as tabulated below: 

US Ballplaying References, 1770–1830, for Which the Setting Can Be Inferred

Age Group Local Play[5]
School College Military Holiday Social Event Total
Adults 14 17 9 2 42
Youth 6 6 21 2 35
Juveniles 8 12 20
Total 28 18 21 17 11 2 97

Source: Version 11, Protoball Chronology

Caveat: For many references, the setting is inferred from context, but is not explicit in available text.

Reminding the reader that this exercise is nothing like an exact science, and merely uses the available heap of anecdotal accounts collected through 2010, we can see some possible patterns that may be worth further consideration:

  • Adult play in US towns, and in military settings, was not rare.
  • Holiday play is found,[6] but is not particularly frequent.
  • Special social events were not common ballplaying venues.[7]
  • Ballplaying at colleges was fairly common before 1830.[8]

Holiday play to 1830 and beyond

About one reference in ten was to holiday play—but which holidays were closely associated with baseball in the pre-professional era? The full Chronology, which extends through 1862, includes more than thirty entries that, like Thoreau’s, mention holiday play.

Manuscript journals of Henry David Thoreau

The holiday that appears to have the strongest association with ballplaying is Fast Day, the New England tradition. The earliest of the 14 references to Fast Day play appears in an autobiography covering the 1820s, which slyly reports that although Fast Day ballplaying was then unlawful under Connecticut code, certain “wicked boys” would find a secluded place to play anyway.[9] An 1883 history of Phillips Exeter Academy observes that “old residents will readily recall with what regularity Fast Day used to be devoted to the base ball of the period.”[10]  In one Massachusetts town, separate games were traditionally organized for boys and for men.[11]  In 1862, two Civil War regiments from Massachusetts made a point on Fast Day of playing ball in their Maryland and Virginia camps.[12] As reflected in Thoreau’s observation that snow had recently covered the playing area, multiple accounts state that Fast Day, an April observance, was really a celebration of “opening day” for local ballplayers, as it marked the first time that year that the local Common was open to ballplaying.

July Fourth and political holidays account for 10 ballplaying references. In 1861, The Clipper reported that all the local clubs were active to mark the national birthday, “that day, like Thanksgiving, being a ball playing day.”[13] Thirty-five years earlier, celebrants in little Troy, Michigan had marked the county’s 50th birthday with “A fusillade, patriotic readings, a dinner of pork and beans . . . and a game of base-ball.”[14]Election Day was associated with “the old annual ball game” in Barre, Massachusetts in the 1840s, and even earlier, communities in Western Massachusetts would arrange town vs. town matches of wicket.[15]

In some areas, Thanksgiving seems to have marked the end of the playing season. In 1855, “every vacant field on the out skirts [of New York] was filled with Base Ball clubs on that ‘raw and cold’ Thanksgiving Day, and the Continental and Putnam clubs pledged to play a special day-long match to 63 aces (“let’s play three?”).[16] In New Bedford, it was reported that 1,000 spectators watched the season-closing game, and ceremonies, on Thanksgiving Day of 1858.[17]

But in at least five years we know of, November still wasn’t the end of ballplaying. In Plymouth, Mass., in 1621, in New Hampshire in 1771, in Mystic, Conn., in 1816, in New York in 1851, and in South Carolina in 1862, balls were flying on Christmas Day.


      1. Torrey, B. 1962. Journal of Henry David Thoreau, vol. 2, p. 270.


      3. See item 1621.1 for a recent definition of the “baseball family” of games.

      4. While American use of the term “baste-ball” dates back to 1786, and “base-ball” to the Pittsfield prohibition of 1791, through the year 1830 we have only five confirmed contemporary uses of such labels in our knowledge base. That is why we must rely on accounts that use other, more general, phrasings for the type of ballplaying that is described.

      5. In general, these references are consistent with what we would consider ordinary pickup games, but it is of course possible that their actual setting (e.g., college, holiday celebration) was simply omitted from the account. Five of the accounts in this category indicate that such games were regular local occurrences.

      6. Holidays that were occasions for ballplaying in these 11 Protoball entries were Sundays, Fast Day, July 4, Christmas, Election Day, and the celebration of a new session of the Connecticut Legislature. A compilation of 33 entries though 1862 citing holiday play is found at:

      7. The two cases of social settings were a church-raising get-together (Protoball 1820.24) and play at “base” as advertised by a New York tavern (Protoball 1821.5; see also Hershberger essay 1821.5 in this journal).

      8. See, for instance, Lewis essay on ballplaying at Harvard at 1781.1 above. A compilation of 75 entries citing university play through 1862 is found at:

      9. See Protoball 1820s.14.

      10. See Protoball 1835c.5.

      11. See Protoball 1840s.30.

      12. See Protoball 1862.14 and 1862.19.

      13. See Protoball 1861.6.

      14. See Protoball 1826.2.

      15. See Protoball 1845.22 and 1820s.25.

      16. See Protoball 1855.28. They only made it through 12 innings, and to a 36–31 score.

      17. See Protoball 1858.45.