January 29th, 2013
Initially published in NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, Number 8, 2000, this article–here published in the second of three parts–helped lay the foundation for the golden age of early baseball research that was to follow. Tom Altherr is a history professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver; among his courses is one on baseball history that he has taught since 1991. He has continued to make valuable contributions all along the way. “Basepaths and Baselines” won the McFarland-SABR Research Award for 2012. The present article won that same award in 2001. The first part was published yesterday at: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/01/28/a-place-leavel-enough-to-play-ball/.
“A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball”: Baseball and Baseball-type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic (continued)
Thomas L. Altherr
It is unclear whether or not the Revolutionary War accelerated the familiarity of baseball in North America, as the Civil War clearly did eighty some years later. It would be useful to ascertain if prisoners-of-war taught their captors how to play the games and learned from each other during those incarcerations. Similarly, did officers play the games more often than enlisted men, or vice versa? Were the officers’ games more formalized than those of the troops? The sources indicate that both sets of soldiers played, but don’t make any detailed distinctions. What is discernible is that during the war, baseball-type games provided needed recreation for troops within a matrix of other sports. As Montague, Massachusetts farmer Joel Shepard recalled baseball at a bivouac near Albany, New York, late in the war, about 1782: “We passed muster and layed in Albany about six weeks and we fared tolerable well, and not much to doo, but each class had his amusement. The officers would bee a playing at Ball on the comon, their would be an other class piching quaits, an other set a wrestling, . . . “
Like the soldiers, students at the academies and colleges took a shine to the ball games. Students probably played the games, taking advantages of study breaks and lapses in college discipline to pour out onto the common for a match or two. The practice apparently could get quite rowdy. Some colleges attempted to ban the ball games because of potential property damage to windows and buildings. As early as 1764, Yale College tried to restrict hand and foot ball games. The statute, in Latin at first, and in later laws in English, read: “9. If any Scholar fhall play at Hand-Ball, or Foot-Ball, or Bowls in the College-Yard, or throw any Thing against [the] Colege by which the Glass may be endangerd, . . . he shall be punished six Pence, and make good the Damages.” Later renditions changed the monetary amount to eight cents and this restriction carried into the next century with little change. Dartmouth College followed suit with its own ordinance in 1780: “If any student shall play at ball or use any other diversion the College or Hall windows within 6 rods of either he shall be fined two shilling for the first offence 4 for the 2d and so no [on] at the discretion of the President or Tutors–“. In 1784, the University of Pennsylvania acknowledged that the yard was “intended for the exercise and recreation of the youth,” but forbid them to “play ball against any of the walls of the University, whilst the windows are open.” Williams College followed suit in 1805: ” . . . the students in the College and scholars in the Grammar School, shall not be permitted to play at ball, or use any other sport or diversion, in or near the College Edifice, by which the same may be exposed to injury.” Violations would result in fines and possibly dismissal. Bowdoin College added its own prohibition in 1817: “No Student shall, in or near any College building, play at ball, or use any sport or diversion, by which such building may be exposed to injury, on penalty of being fined not exceeding twenty cents, or of being suspended, if the offence be often repeated.”
Students continued to play, however, as Sidney Willard, son of Harvard president Joseph Willard, and himself later a Harvard professor, remembered in two passages in his 1855 memoirs. Referring to the campus Buttery of the 1760s, Willard wrote, “Besides eatables, everything necessary for a student was there sold, and articles used in the play-grounds, as bats, balls, &c.” Then recalling the campus play fields of the last decade of the century, he noted, “Here it was that we wrestled and ran, played at quoits, at cricket, and various games of bat and ball, whose names perhaps are obsolete, and leaped and jumped in rivalry.” Diarist John Rhea Smith recorded at least one baseball game at Princeton College in March, 1786: “A fine day, play baste ball in the campus but am beaten for I miss both catching and striking the ball.” Daniel Webster referred to “playing at ball” during his Dartmouth College years at the turn of the century. Baltimore poet Garrett Barry placed ball play in verse lament about college days, “On Leaving College”:
I’ll fondly trace, with fancy’s aid,
The spot where all our sports were made,
When in our gay…..our infant years,
While strangers yet to pain and tears,
When toil had “lent its turn to play,”
The little train forever gay,
With joy obey’d the pleasing call,
And nimbly urged the flying ball.
On April 11, 1824, Bowdoin College student and future poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote to his father, who was in Washington, about a surge in ball playing on the campus:
This has been a very sickly term in college. However, within the last week, the government, seeing that something must be done to induce the students to exercise, recommended a game of ball every now and then; which communicated such an impulse to our limbs and joints, that there is nothing now heard of, in our leisure hours, but ball, ball, ball. I cannot prophesy with any degree of accuracy concerning the continuance of this rage for play, but the effect is good, since there has been a thorough-going reformation from inactivity and torpitude.
Williams Latham played at Brown in the mid-1820s. On March 22, 1827, he declared, “We had a great play at ball to day noon.” But a couple of weeks later, on April 9, he was complaining about the quality of the play and pitching: “We this morning . . . have been playing ball, But I never have received so much pleasure from it as I have in Bridgewater They do not have more than 6 or 7 on a side, so that a great deal of time is spent runing after the ball, Neither do they throw so fair ball, They are affraid the fellow in the middle will hit it with his bat-stick.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. played at Harvard in 1829. Yale was not to be outdone, as a March, 1837 letter from student Josiah Dwight Whitney, later an eminent geologist in the American West, showed: “It is about the time now for playing ball, and the whole green is covered with students engaged in that fine game: for my part, I could never make a ball player. I can’t see where the ball is coming soon enough to put the ball-club in its way.” Anson Phelps Stokes, who also reprinted the letter in a book on Yale students, dismissed the game as “merely ‘one-old-cat’ or ‘two-old-cat’,” because he believed in the Doubleday origins story. But the game in which Whitney had such trouble placing the bat on the ball, a problem recognizable to us moderns, could have as easily been baseball. Older scholars may have had some interest in the game as well. Connecticut lexicographer and writer Noah Webster may have been referring to a baseball-type game when wrote his journal entry for March 24-25, 1788: “Take a long walk. Play at Nines at Mr Brandons. Very much indisposed.”
Indeed, the sabbath restrictions against ball playing were breaking down. In 1836, a Georgetown University student wrote to a friend, ” . . . the Catholics think it no harm to play Ball, Draughts or play the Fiddle and dance of a Sunday, . . . “ Such was the case apparently even in Rhode Island, according to James B. Angell: “[Sunday] was the day for visiting relatives and friends and largely for fishing and hunting and ball-playing. At least one minister played the game. In his diary, Rev. Thomas Robbins detailed his ball play and that of local boys, while a divinity student at Williams College and during his teaching days. “I exercise considerable, playing ball,” he wrote on April 22, 1796. In February and March, 1797, he noted that the Sheffield, Connecticut boys were playing ball, apparently “smartly” on one occasion. The April 24 entry recorded: “Play ball some. The spring as yet rather backward.” Three years later, at Danbury, Connecticut, on an unseasonably warm January day, Robbins remarked, “My boys play ball freely.” And right around Christmas that same year, in another warm spell, the boys were at it again. For December 27, Robbins wrote: “Boys play at ball till night without the least inconvenience.”
There was some dissent about the moral uses of the game. On August 19, 1785, Thomas Jefferson urged his nephew Peter Carr to avoid ball games and take up hunting as recreation. “Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind,” the future president counseled. Despite Jefferson’s opinion, however, children’s books continued to recommend or at least document baseball-type games for youths. Edgar and Jane, the protagonists of a British children’s book, published in Baltimore in 1806, The Children in the Wood, wandered into a British town where some children “were playing at trap and ball.” In an 1806 book of poems for children, Ann Gilbert described some sort of ball play as common on the village commons:
The Village Green
Then ascends the worsted ball;
High it rises in the air;
Or against the cottage wall,
Up and down it bounces there.
In a sequel volume published the next year, Gilbert included one warning boys about breaking windows during ball play:
MY good little fellow, don’t throw your ball there,
You’ll break neighbour’s windows I know;
On the end of the house there is room and to spare;
Go round, you can have a delightful game there,
Without fearing for where you may throw.
Harry thought he might safely continue his play,
With a little more care than before;
So, forgetful of all that his father could say,
As soon as he saw he was out of the way,
He resolved to have fifty throws more.
Already as far as to forty he rose,
And no mischief happen’d at all;
One more, and one more, he successfully throws,
But when, as he thought, just arriv’d at the close,
In popp’d his unfortunate ball.
Poor Harry stood frighten’d, and turning about,
Was gazing at what he had done;
As the ball had popp’d in, so neighbour popp’d out,
And with a good horsewhip he beat him about,
Till Harry repented his fun.
When little folks think they know better than great,
And what is forbidden them do;
We must always expect to see, sooner or late,
That such wise little fools have a similar fate,
And that one of the fifty goes through.
In an 1807 edition of The Prize for Youthful Obedience, a hermit who had been watching some children playing ball games approved of their play and promised “to provide bats, balls, &c.” at his next visit.” An 1802 volume, Youthful Sports, actually touted cricket as a sport superior to what it called “bat and ball”:
THIS play requires more strength than some boys possess, to manage the ball in a proper manner; it must therefore be left to the more robust lads, who are fitter for such athletic exercises. It must be allowed to be good diversion, and is of such note, that even men very frequently divert themselves with it. Bat and ball is an inferior kind of cricket, and more suitable for little children, who may safely play at it, if they will be careful not to break windows.
Two succeeding children’s recreation manuals in 1810 painted a rosier picture of trap ball. Youthful Amusements recommended it highly:
Without any exception, this is one of the most pleasing sports that youth can exercise themselves in. It strengthens the arms, exercises the legs, and adds pleasure to the mind. If every time the ball be bowled to the trap, the striker be permitted to guess the number of bat’s lengths from the trap, it greatly contributes to teach lads the rule of addition. And should he be so covetous as to overguess the distance, he will, as he deserves to do, forfeit his right to the bat, and give it to another playmate.
Youthful Recreations went even further, offering that it should be the right of every child to have an hour of recreation each day with sports, among bat and ball-type games: “To play with battledore and shuttlecock or with a trap and ball, is good exercise; and if we had it in our power to grant, not only to the children of the affluent, but even such of the poor as are impelled by necessity to pick cotton, card wool, to sit and spin or reel all day, should have at least one hour, morning and evening, for some youthful recreation; and if they could obtain neither battledore nor shuttlecock, trap, bat, nor ball, they should at least play at Hop-Scotch.” The next year, The Book of Games, a look at sports at a British academy, gave a ringing endorsement to trap ball and supplied the most detailed description of it in the period. Remarks on Children’s Play, in 1819, repeated the same comments of the 1810 Youthful Amusements book. By the time The Boy’s Own Book and Robin Carver’s The Book of Sports appeared in 1829 and 1834 respectively, with their descriptions of baseball, the game was probably quite familiar to the youth of the Early Republic.
Part Three, tomorrow.
38. John A. Spear, ed., “Joel Shepard Goes to the War,” New England Quarterly, v. 1, n. 3 (July 1928), 344.
39. Collegii Yalensis, Quod est Novo-Portus Connecticutensium, Statuta, a Præside et Sociis Sancita (New Haven, Connecticut: Benjamin Mecom, 1764), 9; and The Laws of Yale-College, in New-Haven, in Connecticut, Enacted by the President and Fellows (New Haven, Connecticut: Thomas and Samuel Green, 1774), 11.
40. Dartmouth College Laws and Regulations, 1780, Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections MS 782415.
41. RULES for the Good Government and Discipline of the SCHOOL in the UNIVERSITY of PENNSYLVANIA (Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1784).
42. The Laws of Williams College (Stockbridge, Massachusetts: H. Willard, 1805), 40.
43. “Of Misdemeanors and Criminal Offences,” in Laws of Bowdoin College (Hallowell, Maine: E. Goodale, 1817), 12.
44. Sidney Willard, Memories of Youth and Manhood, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: John Bartlett, 1855), v. 1, 31 and 316.
45. John Rhea Smith, 22 March 1786, in “Journal at Nassau Hall,” Princeton Library MSS, AM 12800. Smith’s use of “baste” instead of “base” is quite intriguing, suggesting a linguistic connection to striking the ball rather running to a base. Smith was quite literate and an excellent speller. An examination of the rest of his diary reveals no misspelled words. For more on Smith, see Ruth L. Woodward, “Diary at Nassau Hall: The Diary of John Rhea Smith, 1786,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, v. 46 , n. 3 (1985), 269-291 and v. 47, n. 1 (1985), 48-70.
46. Daniel Webster, Private Correspondence, Fletcher Webster, ed., 2 vols. (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1857), v. 1, 66. See also Vernon Bartlett, The Past of Pastimes (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 45.
47. Garrett Barry, “On Leaving College,” in Barry, Poems, On Several Occasions (Baltimore: Cole and I. Bonsal and John Vance and Company, 1807)
48. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Stephen Longfellow, April 11, 1824, in Samuel Longfellow, ed., Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with Extracts from His Journals and Correspondence, 2 vols. (Boston: Ticknor and Company, 1886), v. 1, 51.
49. Williams Latham, “The Diary of Williams Latham, 1823-1827” (unpublished), quoted in Walter C. Bronson, The History of Brown University, 1764-1914 (Providence: Brown University, 1914), 245. James D’Wolf Lovett remembered that Boston boys in that era didn’t find the shortage of players so problematic. If his crowd couldn’t summon up enough players for town ball or baseball, the boys reverted to playing the simpler games of one old cat, two old cat, three old cat, or whatever configuration fit. Lovett, Old Boston Boys (Boston: Riverside Press, 1906), 127-128.
50. John A. Krout, Annals of American Sport (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1929), 115.
51. Josiah Dwight Whitney to his sister, Elizabeth Whitney, March, 1837, reprinted in Edwin Tenney Brewster, Life and Letters of Josiah Dwight Whitney (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909), 20; and Anson Phelps Stokes, Memorials of Eminent Yale Men, 2 vols. (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1914), v. 2, 38.
52. [Noah Webster], “Diary,” reprinted in Emily Ellsworth Fowler Ford, ed., Notes on the Life of Noah Webster, 2 vols. (New York: pvt. ptg., 1912), v. 1, 227.
53. Georgetown student letter, August 27, 1836, Georgetown University Library, quoted in Betty Spears and Richard Swanson, History of Sport and Physical Activity in the United States,
Second Ed. (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown Company, 1983), 85.
54. James B. Angell, The Reminiscences of James Burrill Angell (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1912), 14.
55. Increase N. Tarbox, ed., Diary of Thomas Robbins, D.D. 1796-1854, 2 vols. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1886, v. 1, 8, 29, 32, 106, and 128.
56. Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 19, 1785, in Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 23 vols. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1953-), v.8, 407.
57. Clara English, The Children in the Wood, An Instructive Tale (Baltimore: Warner and Hanna, 1806), 29.
58. [Ann Gilbert], Original Poems, for Infant Minds, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Kimber, Conrad, and Company, 1806), v. 2, 120. Gilbert’s verse reappeared in several later editions and other children’s books, and in an 1840 pamphlet, The Village Green, or Sports of Youth (New Haven, Connecticut: S. Babcock), 5, with the word “worsted” changed to “favorite” and with an accompanying woodcut showing four boys playing baseball.
59. [Gilbert], Original Poems, for Infant Minds, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Kimber, Conrad, and Company, 1807), vol, 1, 88-89.
60. The Prize for Youthful Obedience (Philadelphia: Jacob Johnson, 1807), Part II, .
61. Youthful Sports, (Philadelphia: Jacob Johnson, 1802), 47-48.
62. Youthful Amusements (Philadelphia: Johnson and Warner, 1810), 37 and 40.
63. Youthful Recreations (Philadelphia: Jacob Johnson, 1810), no pagination.
64. The Book of Games; or, a History of the Juvenile Sports Practised at Kingston Academy (Philadelphia: Johnson and Warner, 1811), 15-20. The full text reads as follows:
WELL, young men, said the doctor, addressing himself to his two youngest sons, what think you of a game at trap-ball before you go to bed? there is plenty of time, and it is a fine evening for the purpose. Will you not, my dear Thomas, said he, turning to his new guest, accompany them; a little play will do you good after your long ride.
Thomas readily consented, and accompanied the boys into an field, adjoining the house.
“This is our play-place in fine weather,” said George Benson, “and a nice one it is. Well what is the game to-night? Trap-ball I believe my father proposed. Do you play at trap-ball, White?” “No,” replied White, “I know but little about it.”
George Benson. I suppose you know the rules of the game, however, and can join in our party. Who has got the trap?
James Benson. Here it is; but I think I had rather have a game at fives. If you and Price will play at trap-ball, and give White a lesson, Jackson and Seymore, and I, will go the high wall, and have a good game at fives.
George Benson. Very well. Away with you then, and I will hold you both, Price and White. Who has a half-penny, to toss up for the first innings? O, here is one; heads or tails? Tails did you say? Well then I have it, for it is heads. Now, are you ready?
Thomas White. What are we to do? I have forgot what little I have heard of the game; I never played at it but once.
George. Well then I will tell you; you know, of course, that when I hit the trigger, the ball flies up, and that I must then give it a good stroke with the bat. If I strike at the ball and miss my aim, or if, when I have struck it, either you or Price catch it before it has touched the ground, or if I hit the trigger more than twice, without striking the ball, I am out, and one of you take the bat, and come in, as it is called.
White. And we are to try to hit the trap, with the ball, are we not? and you will be out, as soon as we have done so? And do not you reckon one, every time we bowl without being able to hit the trap?
George. Yes, that is the way, we usually play: but I believe sometimes the person who is in, guesses how many bats length off the ball was stopped, and reckons as many as he guesses, if that is less than the real number; but if he guesses more than there really are, he is cast.
White. I do not clearly understand you.
George. Perhaps I do not clearly explain myself. Indeed I have never played the game in that manner: but Seymore says that they always did at the school he used to go to. Suppose now that I am in, and you bowl, and the ball stops there, just where I point, I guess that it is five times the length of the bat from the trap; if you think there are not so many, and order me to measure, should there be only four times, I am out; but if there should happen to be six or eight times, I may reckon them all though I had only guessed five. Now do you understand what I mean; though, it does not signify, as we play the other way?
White. I believe I do. What have you stuck those two sticks in the ground for?
George. To mark the bounds. You know the batsman is out if he does not strike the ball between them, or if it stops short of them; and he reckons one every time the other party miss the trap in throwing the ball. We have three innings a-piece, and he wins who gets most. But as you do not know so much of the game, and as Price is such a little fellow, I will play against you both. Now for it then; but I must take my coat off, for it is so hot. Now I am ready. There catch the ball, boys. Ay, you have missed it.
Price. I thought White would have caught it. Now I will bowl. Oh, it has not hit the trap.
White. Let me bowl this time. There you are out, I think, master George.
George. Upon my word, you bowl well. I am only one. It is your turn to go in now.
White took the bat, but as he was unused to the management of one, he held it very awkwardly, and struck repeatedly at the ball without being able to hit it. George, very good humouredly, shewed him the best method of holding the bat, and let him practise striking the ball several times before they continued their game. When they again began to play, White gave a noble stroke, and sent the ball to such a distance, that George could not, with all his strength, bowl it quite home; and Tom, with great pleasure, counted one.
But the next time he hit it so feebly, that George had no difficulty in bowling him out. It was then Price’s turn to come in, he also counted only one; for the next time, he drove it outside the boundary sticks.
“Ah, I shall beat you both, I dare say,” cried George, good humouredly taking the trap. “There, I think you will not bowl me out this time, White. You have indeed,” continued he, as he threw down the bat. “Why, how wonderfully you do bowl. You must have been used to that, I am sure.”
White. Yes, my father is fond of playing at bowls. We have got a bowling green, and I have often practised.
The peculiar skill which White possessed in bowling, made him a tolerable match for George Benson, and Tom felt no small degree of pleasure, when victory declared in favour of the two novices.
“You have won, I declare,” cried George, as he was bowled out by Thomas, after he had been twice in. “I did not expect to be beat by you, as you said you knew nothing of the game. Shall we go now and see what the fives players are about?”
65. Remarks on Children’s Play (New York: Samuel Wood and Sons, 1819), 32.
66. The Boy’s Own Book (Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1829), 18-19, and Robin Carver, The Book of Sports (Boston: Lily, Wait, Colman, and Holden). For a convenient reprinting of Carver’s section on “Base, or Goal Ball,” see Sullivan, comp. and ed., Early Innings, 3.