January 30th, 2013
Initially published in NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, Number 8, 2000, this article–here published in the third 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 second part was published yesterday at: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/01/29/a-place-leavel-enough-to-play-ball-part-2/
“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
At the turn of the century, baseball-type games continued to provoke clashes in cities, towns, and villages. Some of their governments responded with prohibitions on such games, much as did the province of New Hampshire for Christmas Day in 1771. At its town meeting in March, 1795, Portsmouth, New Hampshire attempted to abolish cricket and any games played with a ball. The ordinance read as follows:
VOTED III, That if any person or persons shall after the thirty-first day of May next, within the compact part of the town of Portsmouth, . . . play at cricket or any game wherein a ball is used, . . . he, she, or they, so offending, on conviction thereof shall forfeit and pay to the overseers of the porr of said town for the time being, for each and every offence, a sum not exceeding three dollars and thirty cents, nor less than fifty cents, and costs of prosecution,….
By the 1830s, however, players consumed egg-nog “between intervals of base-ball playing” on nearby Shapleigh’s Island and taunted the temperance forces. Down the coast, Newburyport, Massachusetts passed a similar restriction in 1797, adding soccer to its list of offending games: “12th. Voted and ordered, that if any person shall play at foot-ball, cricket or any other play or game with a ball or balls in any of the streets, lanes, or, alleys of this town, such person shall forfeit and pay a sum not exceeding one dollar nor less than twenty-five cents.” In 1805 the town of Portland, Maine promulgated a more detailed prohibition entitled “A By Law to check the practice of playing at Bat and Ball in the Streets”: “. . . [N]o person shall play at the game of bat and ball, or shall strike any ball with a bat or other machine in the streets, lanes, or squares of the town, on penalty of Fifty Cents for each offense.” By 1828, however, a Portland newspaper referred to boys playing at “bat-and-ball.” Twelve years earlier and fifty miles inland, Worcester, Massachusetts considered outlawing playing ball because of numerous complaints.
At a legal meeting May 6, 1816:
To see if the said Inhabitants will adopt any mode, or make such regulations as will in future prevent the playing Ball and Hoops in the public Streets in said Town, a practice so frequent and dangerous, that has occasioned many great and repeated complaints.
Note that the town council characterized ball playing as frequent. Troy, New York restricted baseball-type games in 1816: “[N]o person or persons shall play ball, beat, knock or drive any ball or hoop, in, through or along any street or alley in the first, second, third or fourth wards of said city; and every person who shall violate either of the prohibitions . . . shall, for each and every such offence, forfeit and pay the penalty of ten dollars.” Down the Hudson, New York City outlawed ball play in the Park, Battery, and Bowling-Green in 1817. The crowning irony to all of this came a month later in, of all places, Cooperstown, when that village promulgated an ordinance forbidding the playing of ball in the center of town fully twenty-three years before Abner Doubleday supposedly drew up his diamond and rules! The June, 1816 ordinance read as follows: “Be it ordained, That no person shall play at Ball in Second or West street, in this village, under a penalty of one dollar, for each and every offence.” Tom Heitz has suggested that the one dollar fine was equivalent to the cost of replacing a window in those days, so perhaps the law was setting up an insurance program of sorts to cover breakage and had little hope of completely discouraging players from playing.
Still boys and men continued to play ball. Keene, New Hampshire farmer Abner Sanger noted in his journal entry for April 27, 1782: “Caleb Washburn, young Benjamin Hall, Tom Wells, the younger and El play ball before my barn.” Ball games were familiar enough in northern New England that Vermonter Levi Allen could write to his brother Ira from Quebec on July 7, 1787: “Three times is Out at wicket, next year if Something is not done I will retire to the Green Mountains . . . “ The games went on at the private academies. At the turn of the century ball-playing at Exeter Academy was commonplace, according to a historian of that school: “The only games seem to have been old-fashioned ‘bat and ball,’ which, in the spring, was played on the grounds around the Academy building, and football. The former differed widely from the modern game of base ball, which was introduced later. The old game had fewer rules, and was played with a soft leather ball.” Note, however, the author’s characterization of the game as old-fashioned, implying a longevity of familiarity. In 1836 Albert Ware Paine recalled playing in Bangor, Maine in the 1810s and 1820s: “But a day seems to have elapsed since meeting with our neighboring boys, we took delight in flying our kite and prancing our horses on the green or engaged ourselves in the more active sports of ‘playing ball’ or ‘goal.’” New York City octogenarian Charles Haswell reminisced that if “a base-ball was required, the boy of 1816 founded it with a bit of cork, or, if he were singularly fortunate, with some shreds of india-rubber; then it was wound with yarn from a ravelled stocking, and some feminine member of his family covered it with patches from a soiled glove.” By the late 1830s, Buffalo, New York boys were even using fish noses for the ball cores, according to Samuel L. Welch: ” . .. the fish I bought as a small boy at that time, at one cent per pound, mainly to gets its noses for cores for our balls, to make them bound, to play the present National Game,” he wrote in 1891.
Sometimes memoirists mentioned baseball only to say that they avoided the game or regretted what they considered a waste of time and industry. Thus Wilmington, Delaware ship captain John Hamilton wrote about his boyhood in the 1790s that reading about foreign countries “took precedence [over] Kites, Marbles, Balls, Shinny Sticks, and all other Boyish Sports.” Similarly, Cannon’s Ferry, Delaware doctor William Morgan remarked about his adolescence in the 1790s, “My sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth yeares were spent in youthfull folley. Fidling, frolicking, ball playing and hunting as far as I could be spared by my father from his employ. These are called inocent amusements and ware not caried very far by me.” Sometimes, however, ball games led to further adventures. Jonathan Mason, Jr, a Boston merchant, remembered a special game of ball on the Boston Commons in the 1790s or early 1800s:
Another early remembrance of the common besets me. one morning, the day after what was called the Negro election, Benj Green, Martin Brimmer, George E Head, Franklin Dexter and myself were playing ball on the common before breakfast: and the ball fell into a hole where one of the booth’s stakes had been driven the day before, which was filled up with paper, rubbage etc. putting the hand down something jingled and we found several dollars in silver which had probably been put there for safety and the owner becoming intoxicated late in the day had gone off and forgotten them. I can’t recollect that we advertised them. We were small boys then all of us, and I was the youngest.
And even though he claimed he had never heard the word “baseball” in the 1820s, Middletown, Connecticut resident John Howard Redfield remembered that baseball-type games were pervasive:
The remainder of Election week was given more or less to relaxation and amusement. This period usually coincided with the vacation, or gap between the winter and summer terms of school. Ball was the chief amusement, and if weather permitted (and my impression is that it generally did permit) the open green about the meeting-house and the school-house was constantly occupied by the players, little boys, big boys, and even men (for such we considered the biggest boys who condescended to join the game), . . . These grown-up players usually devoted themselves to a game called “wicket,” in which the ball was impelled along the ground by a wide, peculiarly-shaped bat, over, under, or through a wicket, made by a slender stick resting on two supports. I never heard of baseball in those days.
Clearly, as these prohibitions, depictions in children’s books, and remembrances indicate, baseball and its predecessors were entrenched in the young republic’s athletic repertoire by 1820.
Other evidence hints that the games had spread to the South and to Canada. John Drayton, a South Carolina politician and historian, referred to ball playing in his state about 1802: “[A]musements are few; consisting of dancing, horse racing, ball playing, and rifle shooting.” Another South Carolinian, Charles Fraser, recalled, in 1854, how vibrant were the sports of his childhood in Charleston in the early art of the century: “The manly sports of ball, shinee, jumping, running, wrestling, and swimming, are now laid aside as unworthy of modern refinement. But they were as common among the elder boys of my time, as marbles, tops and kites were among the little ones.” Ely Playter, a York, Ontario tavernkeeper, may have meant baseball or a baseball-type game when he wrote in his diary for April 13, 1803: “I went to Town . . . walk’d out and joined a number of men jumping & playing Ball, perceived a Mr. Joseph Randall to be the most active . . . “ Incipient commercialism may also have been invading the games. The New York Evening Post for September 20, 1811 contained an advertisement for “Trap Ball, Quoits, Cricket, &c.” at Dyde’s Military Ground.
The most bizarre bit of evidence of baseball’s spread may have occurred in conjunction with a tragic incident just after the close of the War of 1812. The British were still housing numerous American prisoners at Dartmoor Prison in England, awaiting repatriation arrangements. Needless to say, tempers ran high, and the British officers occasionally tormented the Americans. As had other prisoners-of-war before them, some of the Americans whiled away their incarceration by playing baseball. For example, American prisoners-of-war back in North America at Cornwall, Ontario mixed ball with their boxing. Wrote one prisoner, “The men remained in the gaol yard and fought several times and in fact played [ball --the editor mistakenly translated the word as "hell"] all day.” Similarly one prisoner, Benjamin Waterhouse, recalled the Americans at Dartmoor were in “high spirits and good humour” about going home and reflected it in their play: “I distinctly remember that the prisoners appeared to enjoy their amusements, such as playing ball and the like, beyond what I had before observed.” The previous June, the British commander had opened the yards on the south side of the enclosure, which, according to prisoner Charles Andrews, “would admit of many amusements which that of No. 4 would not, such as playing ball, &c.”
On April 6, 1815, some of the prisoners were at such play. As inmate Nathaniel Pierce recalled, ” . . . first part of this day the Prisoners divirting themselves Gambling playing Ball &c.” During the afternoon, however, things went awry. A batter hit the ball over one of the interior walls and the British sentries would not allow the players to retrieve it. As prisoner Andrews later wrote, ” . . . some boys who were playing ball in No. 7 yard, knocked their ball over into the barrack-yard, and on the sentry in that yard refusing to throw it back to them, they picked a hole in the wall to get in after it.” Another inmate, Joseph Valpey, Jr., described the scenario in more detail:
On the 6th day of April 1815 as a small party of prisoners were amusing themselves at a game at ball, some of the number striking it with too much violence it went over the wall fronting the prison the Centinals on the opposite side of the same were requested to heave the ball back, but refused, on which the party threataned to brake through and regain the ball and immediately put their threats in execution, a hole was made in the wall sufficently large enough for a man to pass through….
The “Judicial Report of the Massacre at Dartmoor Prison” concluded indeed that ball playing figured in the incident: “It unfortunately happened, that in the afternoon of the 6th of April, some boys who were playing ball in No. 7 yard, knocked their ball over into the barrack yard: on the sentry in that yard refusing to throw it back to them, they picked a hole in the wall to get in after it.”97 The British officers misconstrued this breach of the interior wall as some sort of riot and ordered troops to fire at the ball players. By the end of the melee there were seven dead and thirty-one wounded prisoners. A poem by John Hunter Waddell, which ran in New York and Boston newspapers in June, 1815, referred to the ball playing as commonplace and summed up the tragedy:
Forsooth, there was great fear to dread, he [the British captain]’d search’d and found in wall
A hole was made for boy to creep, and get again a ball,
Which oft was thrown by boys at play, their usual daily sport,
In pastime who at prison wall, did ev’ry day resort;
And frequent would their balls bounce o’er out of the prison yard,
To get again their balls for sport, their pastime and their play,
And so their joy, was oft times spoilt, and ended for the day.
The boys thus baulk’d, and being griev’d to lose their balls and play,
Contriv’d to make a hole to gain, and get their balls again.
By the 1820s, the games were taking on the more organized form of clubs. In his autobiography, New York politician Thurlow Weed claimed to have been a member of a town ball club in Rochester in 1825:
Though an industrious and busy place, its citizens found leisure for rational and healthy recreation. A base-ball club, numbering nearly fifty members, met every afternoon during the ball-playing season. Though the members of the club embraced persons between eighteen and forty, it attracted the young and the old. The ball-ground, containing some eight or ten acres, known as Mumford’s meadow, by the side of the river above the falls, is now a compact part of the city.
Weed went on to list ten of the better players on that club and point out that a couple of them rose to prominence as lawyers in New York City. Although some historians think that the mounting popularity of baseball in the intervening decades may have colored Weed’s memoir, Samuel Hopkins Adams, in the story, “Baseball in Mumford’s Pasture Lot,” in his book, Grandfather Stories, corroborated Weed with a scene in which Grandpa Adams informed his grandson and friends that he had played baseball back in Rochester in 1827. “When I first came here, the Rochester Baseball Club met four afternoons a week. We had fifty members. That was in 1827,” the old man recounted. The club played in “Mumford’s pasture lot, off Lake Avenue.” Furthermore, he told them, “The cream of Rochester’s Third Ward ruffleshirts participated in the pastime,” which was clearly baseball, not town ball, as the old man described the positioning of the fielders and mentioned that it took three outs to retire the batting side.
Yet it would be a mistake to see baseball and baseball-type games as very modern by the 1820s, at least not in the sense that sport historians such as Allen Guttmann have stipulated. Presumably there was an equity in the rules, that each player played under the same conditions, but there may have been exceptions to that. There was certainly no bureaucratization overseeing baseball-type games. There may or may not have been specialization; players most likely played nonspecific positions on the playing field and probably the pitcher, or “feeder,” was not a very important position yet. How much players were experimenting to perfect the rules or methods of playing the game is also unclear. Quantification, at least in the form of statistics that carried over time, was nonexistent, and if there were any “records,” they didn’t make it into any “recordbook.” Local players may have kept up an oral memory of great players and great plays, but it is just as likely that the emphasis was on play, spontaneity, and communal recreation. Baseball and similar games were still folk games, with all their rubbery aspects and irregular patterns. That does not mean, however, that they were any less important to the populace than are modern sports today. Baseball and baseball-type games existed with some degree of frequency, because they filled a cultural hunger for physical play and communal recreation, a yearning of time immemorial. The above sources, and probably others still undiscovered in the record, attest to the American phase of this long process. Henry Dearborn and his fellow soldiers deserve thanks not only for helping to convince the British to lose the war, but for marching four miles that day in April, 1779 “to find a place leavel enough to play ball,” and all the ball-playing students merit our remembrances as well.
Finally though, the origins of the game may have to remain shrouded in mystery. Perhaps, as Harold Seymour wrote, “To ascertain who invented baseball would be equivalent to trying to locate the discoverer of fire.” Perhaps it was an entirely “natural” occurrence. As James D’Wolf Lovett stated, “It seems to be the natural instinct of a boy as soon as he finds the use of his arms, to want to ‘bat’ something.” Possibly the instinct is quite deep-seated and the Freudians and other psychoanalysts can weigh in with theories such as Adrian Stokes’ provocative interpretation that cricket developed as a form of sexual sublimation. Or maybe Kenneth Patchen’s explanation in his poem, “The Origin of Baseball,” comes as close as any:
Someone had been walking in and out
Of the world without coming
To much decision about anything.
The sun seemed too hot most of the time.
There weren’t enough birds around
And the hills had a silly look
When he got on top of one.
The girls in heaven, however, thought
Nothing of asking to see his watch
Like you would want someone to tell
A joke –’Time,’ they’d say, ‘what’s
That mean –time?’, laughing with the edges
Of their white mouths, like a flutter of paper
In a madhouse. And he’d stumble over
General Sherman or Elizabeth B.
Browning, muttering, “Can’t you keep
Your big wings out of the aisle?” But down
Again, there’d be millions of people without
Enough to eat and men with guns just
Standing there shooting each other.
So he wanted to throw something
And he picked up a baseball.
67. By-Laws of the Town of Portsmouth, Passed at their Annual Meeting Held March 25, 1795 (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: John Melcher, 1795), 5-6.
68. Charles W. Brewster, Rambles About Portsmouth, Second Series (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Lewis W. Brewster, 1869), 269.
69. Bye-Laws of Newburyport; Passed by the Town at Regular Meetings, and Approved by the Court of General Justice of the Peace for the County of Essex, Agreeably to a Law of this
Commonwealth (Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1797), 1.
70. The By Laws of the Town of Portland, in the County of Cumberland, Second Ed. (Portland, Maine: John McKown, 1805), 15. Italics in the original source. The 1817 town by-laws still contained this prohibition. “By Law to check the practice of playing at Bat and Ball in the Streets, &c.,” in The By-Laws of the Town of Portland, in the County of Cumberland (Portland, Maine: A. and J. Shirley, 1817), 12.
71. Will Anderson, Was Baseball Really Invented In Maine? (Portland, Maine: pvt. ptg., 1992), .
72. Worcester, Massachusetts Town Records, 6 May 1816, reprinted in Franklin P. Rice, ed., Worcester Town Records, 1801-1816, Vol. X (Worcester, Massachusetts: The Worcester Society of Antiquity, 1891), 337.
73. Laws and Ordinances of the Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonalty, of the City of Troy. Passed the Ninth Day of December, 1816 (Troy, New York: Parker and Bliss, 1816), 42.
74. “A Law relative to the Park, Battery, and Bowling-Green,” in Laws and Ordinances Ordained and Established by the Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonalty of the City of New York (New York: T. and J. Swords, 1817), 118.
75. Cooperstown, New York village ordinance, 13 June 1816, reprinted in the Cooperstown, New York Otsego Herald, n. 1107, 13 June 1816, 3.
76. Tom Heitz, conversations with the author, June and August, 1996.
77. Lois K. Stabler, ed., Very Poor and of a Lo Make: the Journal of Abner Sanger (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Peter E. Randall, 1986), 416.
78. Levi Allen to Ira Allen, July 7, 1787, in John J. Duffy, ed., Ethan Allen and His Kin, Correspondence, 1772-1819, 2 vols. (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1998), v. 1, 244.
79. Frank H. Cunningham, Familiar Sketches of the Phillips Exeter Academy and Surroundings (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1883), 281.
80. Albert Ware Paine, “Auto-Biography,” reprinted in Lydia Augusta Paine Carter, The Discovery of a Grandmother (Newtonville, Massachusetts: Henry H. Carter, 1920), 240.
81. Charles Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian 1816 to 1860 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1896), 77.
82. Samuel. L. Welch, Home History. Recollections of Buffalo during the Decade from 1830 to 1840, or Fifty Years Since (Buffalo, New York: Peter Paul and Brother, 1891), 353.
83. John Hamilton, “Some Reminiscences of Wilm’t’n and My Youthful Days –&c., &c.” Delaware History, v. 1, n. 2 (July 1946), 91.
84. Harold B. Hancock, ed., “William Morgan’s Autobiography and Diary [:] Life in Sussex County, 1780-1857,” Delaware History, v. 19, n. 1 (Spring-Summer 1980), 43-44.
85. Jonathan Mason, Jr., “Recollections of a Septuagenarian,” 3 vols., Downs Special Collections, Winterthur Library, Document 30, v. 1, 20-21.
86. Edmund Delaney, ed., Life in the Connecticut River Valley 1800-1840 from the Recollections of John Howard Redfield (Essex, Connecticut: Connecticut River Museum, 1988), 35. Italics in the original source.
87. John Drayton, A View of South-Carolina, As Respects Her Natural and Civil Concerns (Charleston, South Carolina: W. P. Young, 1802), 225.
88. Charles Fraser, Reminiscences of Charleston, Lately Published in the Charleston Courier, and Now Revised and Enlarged by the Author (Charleston, South Carolina: John Russell, 1854), 88.
89. [Ely Playter], “Extracts from Ely Playter’s Diary,” April 13, 1803, reprinted in Edith G. Firth, ed., The Town of York 1793-1815: A Collection of Documents of Early Toronto (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1962), 248.
90. New York Evening Post, n. 2867, September 20, 1811, 2.
91. G.M. Fairchild, Jr., ed., Journal of an American Prisoner at Fort Malden and Quebec in the War of 1812 (Quebec: pvt. ptg., 1090), no pagination.
92. [Benjamin Waterhouse], A Journal of a Young Man of Massachusetts, Late a Surgeon on Board an American Privateer, Who Was Captured at Sea by the British, in May, Eighteen Hundred and Thirteen, and Was Confined First, at Melville Island, Halifax, then at Chatham, in England, and Last, at Dartmoor Prison (Boston: Rowe and Hooper, 1816), 186.
93. [Charles Andrews], The Prisoners’ Memoirs, or Dartmoor Prison (New York: pvt. ptg. 1815), 92.
94. “Journal of Nathaniel Pierce of Newburyport, Kept at Dartmoor Prison, 1814-1815,” Historical Collections of Essex Institute, v. 73, n. 1 (January 1937), 40.
95. [Andrews], The Prisoners’ Memoirs, or Dartmoor Prison, 110. In another memoir, prisoner Josiah Cobb referred to the ball being thrown over the wall by accident, something that happened somewhat frequently. [Cobb], A Green Hand’s First Cruise, Roughed Out from the Log-Book of Memory, of Twenty-Five Years Standing: Together with a Residence of Five Months in Dartmoor, 2 vols. (Boston: Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1841, v. 2, 213-214. For the testimony of other prisoners, see John Hunter Waddell, Dartmoor Massacre (Pittsfield, Massachusetts: Phinehas Allen, 1815), 6-21.
96. [Joseph Valpey, Jr.], Journal of Joseph Valpey, Jr. of Salem, November, 1813-April, 1815 (Detroit: Michigan Society of Colonial Wars, 1922), 60.
97. “The Judicial Report of the Massacre at Dartmoor Prison,” reprinted in John Melish, Description of Dartmoor Prison, with an Account of the Massacre of the Prisoners (Philadelphia: J. Bioren, 1816), 7.
98. [John Hunter Waddell], The Dartmoor Massacre (Boston?: pvt. ptg., 1815?), 5.
99. Harriet A. Weed, ed., Life of Thurlow Weed, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1883), v. 1, 203. That same year, residents of Hamden, New York placed a challenge in the Delhi, New York Gazette of July 12th to any men of Delaware County to form a team and play a baseball match See Sullivan, comp. and ed., Early Innings, 1-2.
100. Samuel Hopkins Adams, Grandfather Stories (New York: Random House, 1955 ), 146-149.
101. Allen Guttmann, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), chapter 2, and Guttmann, A Whole New Ball Game: An Interpretation of American Sports (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 6.
102. Seymour, “How Baseball Began,” 376.
103. Lovett, Old Boston Boys, 125.
104. Adrian Stokes, “Psycho-analytic Reflections on the Development of Ball Games, Particularly Cricket,” The International Journal of Psycho-analysis, v. 37 (1956), 185-192.
105. Kenneth Patchen, “The Origin of Baseball,” in Patchen, Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1957), 15-16.