February 2013

The Letters of Abner Graves

Abner Graves

Abner Graves

The following are the two letters submitted by Abner Graves in 1905 describing the purported invention of baseball by Abner Doubleday. The first of these was addressed to the editor of the Akron, Ohio, Beacon-Journal newspaper in response to an article in that paper by Albert G. Spalding. The second letter was sent directly to Spalding. Graves’ original spelling and punctuation are largely preserved. These letters may be termed the invention of the invention of baseball, as prior to this date no one had imagined that the game sprung from the mind of a lone individual at a specific point in time. The real story of how baseball began, as an outgrowth of earlier games of ball, has been on display here at Our Game. Recent book length studies by David Block (Baseball Before We Knew It) and myself (Baseball in the Garden of Eden) give the fullest picture of the rise of the game and the history of its history, real and fabricated, while Robert Henderson’s Ball, Bat and Bishop (1947) is a pioneering classic. These books address the Graves claims–whether confused or fabricated–with specificity.

Letter #1

[FROM:] Abner Graves, Mining Engineer, 32 Bank Block, P.O. Box 672, Denver,Colo.

April 3rd, 1905

[TO:] Editor Beacon Journal, Akron, Ohio

Dear Sir:

I notice in saturdays “Beacon Journal” a question as to “origin of ‘base ball'” from pen of A. G. Spalding, and requesting data on the subject be sent to Mr J E Sullivan, 15 Warren Street, New York.

The “American game of Base Ball” was invented by Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, New York, either the spring prior, or following the “Log Cabin & Hard Cider” campaign of General Harrison for President, said Abner Doubleday being then a boy pupil of “Green’s Select School” in Cooperstown, and the same, who as General Doubleday won honor at the Battle of Gettysburg in the “Civil War.” The pupils of “Otsego Academy” and “Green’s Select School” were then playing the old game of “Town Ball” in the following manner.

Abner Doubleday 1861

Abner Doubleday 1861

A “tosser” stood beside the home “goal” and tossed the ball straight upward about six feet for the batsman to strike at on its fall, he using a four inch flat board bat, and all others who wanted to play being scattered all over the near and far field to catch the ball, the lucky catcher then taking his innings at the bat while the losing batsman retired to the field. Should the batsman miss the ball on its fall and the tosser catch it on its first bounce he would take the bat and the losing batsman toss the ball.

When the batsman struck the ball into the field he would run for an out goal about fifty feet and return, and if the ball was not caught on the fly, and he could return to home goal without getting “plunked” with the ball thrown by anyone, he retained his innings same as in “old cat.” There being generally from twenty to fifty boys in the field, collisions often occurred in attempt of several to catch the ball. Abner Doubleday then figured out and made a plan of improvement on town ball to limit number of players, and have equal sides, calling it “Base Ball” because it had four bases, three being where the runner could rest free of being put out by keeping his foot on the flat stone base, while next one on his side took the bat, the first runner being entitled to run whenever he chose, and if he could make home base without being hit by the ball he tallied. There was a six foot ring within which the pitcher had to stand and toss the ball to batsman by swinging his hand below his hip. There was eleven players on a side, four outfielders, three basemen, pitcher, catcher, and two infielders, the two infielders being placed respectively a little back from the pitcher and between first and second base, and second and third base and a short distance inside the base lines. The ball used had a rubber center overwound with yarn to size some larger than the present regulation ball, then covered with leather or buckskin, and having plenty of bouncing qualities, wonderful high flys often resulted. Anyone getting the ball was entitled to throw it at a runner and put him out if could hit him.

William Henry Harrison Brooch, Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

William Henry Harrison Brooch, Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

This “Base Ball” was crude compared with present day ball, but it was undoubtedly the first starter of “Base Ball” and quickly superceded “town ball” with the older boys, although we younger boys stuck to town ball and the “old cats.” I well remember several of the best players of sixty years ago, such as Abner Doubleday, Elihu Phinney, John C Graves, Nels C Brewer, Joseph Chaffee, John Starkweather, John Doubleday, Tom Bingham and others who used to play on the “Otsego Academy Campus” although a favorite place was on the “Phinney farm” on west shore of Otsego lake.

“Baseball” is undoubtedly a pure American game, and its birthplace Cooperstown, New York, and Abner Doubleday entitled to first honor of its invention.

Abner Graves

32 Bank Block, Denver, Colorado.

Letter #2

[FROM:] Abner Graves, Mining Engineer, 32 Bank Block, P.O. Box 672, Denver, Colo.

November 17th, 1905

[TO:] A G Spaulding Esq.

126 Nassau Street, New York City

Dear Sir:

Your letter of 10th regarding origin of Base Ball received and contents noted. You mention sending me copy of “Spaldings Base Ball Guide for 1905,” which I have not received, although I would like it to note the discussion mentioned. I am at loss how to get verification of my statements regarding the invention of base ball made in my letter of April 3rd 1905 to the “Akron, Ohio, Beacon-Journal,” the carbon copy of my original draft of which I herewith enclose, this giving full particulars, and which after using, please return for my files.

A. G. Spalding 1910

A. G. Spalding 1910

You ask if I can positively name the year of Doubledays invention, and replying will say that I cannot, although am sure it was either 1839, 1840 or 1841, and in the spring of the year when we smaller boys were “playing marbles for keeps” which all stopped when ball commenced, as I remember well Abner Doubleday explaining “base ball” to the lot of us that were playing marbles in the street in front of Coopers tailor shop and drawing a diagram in the dirt with a stick by marking out a square with a punch mark in each corner for bases, a ring in center for pitcher, a punch mark just back of home base for catcher, two punch marks for infielders and four punch marks for outfielders, and we smaller boys didn’t like it because it shut us out from playing, while Town Ball let in everyone who could run and catch flies, or try to catch them. Then Doubleday drew up same diagram on paper practically like diagram I will draw on back of another sheet and enclose herewith. The incident has always been associated in my mind with the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign of General Harrison, my Father being a “Militia” Captain and rabid partisan of “Old Tippecanoe.”

I know it was as early as spring of 1841 because it was played at least three years before April 1844 when I started for Leyden Mass. to live that summer with my Uncle Joseph Green, the last prominent thing that I remember before starting being a big game of Base Ball on the “Phinney Farm” half a mile up the west side of Otsego Lake, between the Otsego Academy boys (Doubleday then being in the Academy), and Professor Green and his Select School boys. Great furore and fun marked opening of the game on account of the then unprecedented thing of “first man up, three strikes and out.” Elihu Phinney was pitcher and Abner Doubleday catcher for Academy, while Greens had innings and Prof. Green was first at bat, and Doubleday contrary to usual practice stood close at Green’s back and caught all three balls, Green having struck furiously at all with a four inch flat bat and missing all, then being hit in the back by the ball as he started to run.

While everyone laughed and roard at Green’s three misses he claimed that Doubleday caught every ball from in front of the bat so there was no ball to hit, and that made the furore greater. I was an onlooker close up to catcher, and this incident so impressed me with the glories of Base Ball that on arriving at Leyden, Mass. I tried to get up a game but couldn’t find anywhere near 22 boys so we had to play “Old Cat.” Abner Doubleday unquestionably invented Base Ball at Cooperstown, N.Y. as an improvement on Town Ball so as to have opposing sides and limit players, and he named it Base Ball and had eleven players on each side. If any Cooperstown boys of that time are alive they will surely remember that game between the “Otsego’s” and “Green’s” which I surely identify as early in April 1844 before my start to Massachusetts, and I am certain it had been played at least three years earlier under same name and the larger boys had become proficient at it. Although I never saw any mention of ball playing in a newspaper when I was young, it might be that some mention of the game was made in the “Otsego Republican” about that time, said paper then (and now) being leading paper in Cooperstown.

Abner Doubleday was I think about 16 or 17 years old when he invented the game: he lived in Cooperstown but I do not know if born there. His cousin “John Doubleday” (a little younger) was born there and his father was a merchant with a store in the main four corners in Cooperstown. The Phinneys were run a large Book Bindery there, and I believe one in New York at same time. Of course it is almost impossible to get documentary proof of the invention, as there is not one chance in ten thousand that a boys drawing plan of improved ball game would have been preserved for 65 years as at that time no such interest in games existed as it does now when all items are printed and Societies and Clubs preserve everything.

The United States Primer,  H. & E. Phinney, Cooperstown, NY, 1820

The United States Primer, H. & E. Phinney, Cooperstown, NY, 1820

All boys old enough to play Base Ball in those days would be very old now if not dead, and this reminds me of a letter. I have a letter dated April 6th 1905, from Mary, wife of “John C Graves” mentioned in my printed letter saying, “Dear Cousin, I received a paper this eve from Akron,Ohio, with an article you wrote about Base Ball! Every one of the boys you named are dead except John, and perhaps you do not know that John has been sick over a year with the gout, and now his mind is very weak so sometimes he does not know me.” She was mistaken in saying all for I am aware that Nels C Brewer whom I mentioned now lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and I think his address is 230 Superior Street, or near that, and although he is aged he may possibly remember about the Base Ball.  John C Graves is about 85 and still lives in Cooperstown.

Also I have a brother (Joseph C Graves) still in business in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I have added a few years experience since Base Ball was invented, but am still young enough to make a lively hand in a game, as I did last July, and I attribute my youth to the fact that I left Cooperstown and New York early in winter of 1848-9 for the Goldfields of California and have lived in the west ever since where the ageing climate of New York hasn’t touched me. My Typewriter thinks this is a pretty long letter on one subject and I guess that is about correct, but your letter asked for as full data as possible and I have given you all the items I can in a rambling sort of way, but I think you have hea[r]d enough to pick out the gist of it and be better satisfied than if I had been less explicit or prolix. Just in my present mood I would rather have Uncle Sam declare war on England and clean her up rather than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball.

Yours truly

Abner Graves, E.M.

The World’s Colored Championship

1924 World's Colored Championship Official Program


1924 World’s Colored Championship Official Program

By 1920 the best black players were not barnstormers but men who played in a real league, with regular schedules, rules, and umpires. Former pitcher and highly successful manager Rube Foster was the founding father of the Negro National League. Using his own money and superb organizational abilities, he made sure the league was strong. He was the sole boss, yet because he continued managing, other teams thought Foster’s men got the better of the umpires’ decisions. And why not? Foster wrote the umps’ checks.

This is the program from the first interleague World’s Colored Championship, in 1924. Foster’s counterpart and founder of the Eastern Colored League was Ed “Chief” Bolden, a retiring and dapper little man who worked for the post office. His quiet style was the opposite of Foster’s bulk and bluster. Bolden ran the Hilldale team when they were just semipros and built them into professionals, before joining with other owners to create the new league in 1923. But Bolden had a nervous breakdown in 1927, and, without his keen organizational skills, the league collapsed. Six years later he recovered and founded the Philadelphia Stars, who became members of the Negro National League. Meanwhile Foster, who had been confined to an asylum for the mentally ill since 1926, had died in 1930.

Ed Bolden at the 1924 WS

Ed Bolden at the 1924 WS

Hilldale’s opponents in this Series were the Kansas City Monarchs, who went on to become a perennial powerhouse with stars like Bullet Joe Rogan, Newt Allen, Chet Brewer, and of course, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige. But the star of this Series for the victorious Monarchs was an old-timer, José Mendez, who in postseason exhibitions in Cuba in 1911 had defeated Christy Mathewson. Mendez’s brilliance in a one-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds three years earlier, followed by his handcuffing of Ty Cobb in a series in 1909, had prompted John McGraw to say he would pay $50,000 for him if only he were white.

But Mendez was not, so he was available to star in the 1924 Negro League World Series. At age 37, he appeared in four games, with a 2–0 record including a shutout in the ninth and deciding  game.

Carl Hubbell Remembers

Carl HubbellWhen Carl Hubbell won his eighth straight start to begin the 1937 season, he had completed twenty-four consecutive wins over two seasons. It’s no wonder that Giants fans referred to him as “The Meal Ticket.” Hubbell’s out pitch was the devastating screwball, thrown like a curve but with an opposite twist of the wrist. He threw it so often that his arm wound up permanently bent backward.

Hubbell’s screwball was never better than in the All-Star Game of 1934, when he used it to perfection, striking out–in succession–future Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin. “I figured those guys had hit better fastballs than mine and better curves,” he said. “If they were going to hit me, it would have to be my best.”

Hubbell was actually signed by the Tigers, but manager Ty Cobb didn’t like that screwball thing and refused to let him throw it. Three years later the released Hubbell was picked up out of Texas League ball by the Giants. Christy Mathewson’s famous screwball (known then as a fadeaway) was more of a change-up, and he threw it seldom, spotting it only in crucial situations, because of the wear and tear on his arm. Since then the true followers of the Hubbell-style (fast and deadly) lefthanded screwball have been Warren Spahn, Tug McGraw, and Fernando Valenzuela. Here King Carl tells John Carmichael of the Chicago Daily News about his greatest day in baseball.

As far as control and “stuff” is concerned, I never had any more in my life than for that All-Star game in 1934. I can remember Frankie Frisch coming off the field behind me at the end of the third inning, grunting to Bill Terry: “I could play second base fifteen more years behind that guy. He doesn’t need any help. He does it all by himself.” Then we hit the bench, and Terry slapped me on the arm and said, “That’s pitching, boy!” and Gabby Hartnett let his mask fall down and yelled at the American League dugout, “We gotta look at that all season,” and I was pretty happy.

But I never was a strikeout pitcher like Bob Feller or “Dizzy” Dean or “Dazzy” Vance. My style of pitching was to make the other team hit the ball, but on the ground. It was as big a surprise to me to strike out all those fellows as it probably was to them. Before the game, Gabby Hartnett and I went down the lineup … Charlie Gehringer, Heinie Manush, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey and Lefty Gomez. There probably wasn’t a pitcher they’d ever faced that they hadn’t belted one off him somewhere, sometime.

We couldn’t discuss weaknesses … they didn’t have any, except Gomez. Finally Gabby said, “We’ll waste everything except the screwball. Get that over, but keep your fastball and hook outside. We can’t let ‘em hit in the air.” So that’s the way we started. I knew I had only three innings to work and could bear down on every pitch.

Hubbell and Gomez, starters

Hubbell and Gomez, starters

They talk about those All-Star Games being exhibition affairs, and maybe they are, but I’ve seen very few players in my life who didn’t want to win, no matter whom they were playing or what for. If I’m playing cards for pennies, I want to win. How can you feel any other way? Besides, there were 50,000 fans or more there, and they wanted to see the best you’ve got. There was an obligation to the people, as well as to ourselves, to go all out. I can recall walking out to the hill in the Polo Grounds that day and looking around the stands and thinking to myself, “Hub, they want to see what you’ve got.”

Gehringer was first up and Hartnett called for a waste ball just so I’d get the feel of the first pitch. It was a little too close, and Charlie singled. Down from one of the stands came a yell, “Take him out!”

I had to laugh.

Terry took a couple of steps off first and hollered, “That’s all right,” and there was Manush at the plate. If I recollect rightly, I got two strikes on him, but then he refused to swing any more, and I lost him. He walked. This time Terry and Frankie Frisch and “Pie” Traynor and Travis Jackson all came over to the mound and began worrying. “Are you all right?” Bill asked me. I assured him I was. I could hear more than one voice
now from the stands, “Take him out before it’s too late.”

Well, I could imagine how they felt with two on, nobody out and Ruth at bat. To strike him out was the last thought in my mind. The thing was to make him hit on the ground. He wasn’t too fast, as you know, and he’d be a cinch to double. He never took the bat off his shoulder. You could have pushed me over with your little finger. I fed him three straight screwballs, all over the plate, after wasting a fastball, and he stood
there. I can see him looking at the umpire on “You’re out,” and he wasn’t mad. He just didn’t believe it, and Hartnett was laughing when he threw the ball back.

So up came Gehrig. He was a sharp hitter. You could double him, too, now and then, if the ball was hit hard and straight at an infielder. That’s what we hoped he’d do, at best.

1934 All-Star Game Program

1934 All-Star Game Program

Striking out Ruth and Gehrig in succession was too big an order. But, by golly, he fanned … and on four pitches. He swung at the last screwball, and you should have heard that crowd. I felt a lot easier then, and even when Gehringer and Manush pulled a double steal and got to third and second, with Foxx up, I looked down at Hartnett and caught the screwball sign, and Jimmy missed. We were really trying to strike Foxx out, with two already gone, and Gabby didn’t bother to waste any pitches. I threw three more screwballs, and he went down swinging. We had set down the side on twelve pitches, and then Frisch hit a homer in our half of the first, and we were ahead.

It was funny, when I thought of it afterward, how Ruth and Gehrig looked as they stood there. The Babe must have been waiting for me to get the ball up a little so he could get his bat under it. He always was trying for that one big shot at the stands, and anything around his knees, especially a twisting ball, didn’t let him get any leverage. Gehrig apparently decided to take one swing at least, and he beat down at the pitch, figuring to take a chance on being doubled up if he could get a piece of the ball. He whispered something to Foxx as Jim got up from the batter’s circle, and while I didn’t hear it, I found out later he said, “You might as well cut… it won’t get any higher.” At least Foxx wasted no time.

Of course the second inning was easier because Simmons and Cronin both struck out with nobody on base and then I got too close to Dickey and he singled. Simmons and Foxx, incidentally, both went down swinging and I know every pitch to them was good enough to hit at and those they missed had a big hunk of the plate. Once Hartnett kinda shook his head at me as if to say I was getting too good. After Dickey came Gomez and as he walked into the box he looked down at Gabby and said: “You are now looking at a man whose batting average is .104. What the hell am I doing up here?” He was easy after all those other guys and we were back on the bench again.

We were all feeling pretty good by this time and Traynor began counting on his fingers: “Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, Simmons, Cronin! Hey, Hub, do you put anything on the ball?” Terry came over to see how my arm was, but it never was stronger. I walked one man in the third … don’t remember who it was … but this time Ruth hit one on the ground and we were still all right. You could hear him puff when he swung. That was all for me. Afterwards, they got six runs in the fifth and licked us, but for three innings I had the greatest day in my life. One of the writers who kept track told me that I’d pitched 27 strikes and 21 balls to 13 men and only five pitches were hit in fair territory.

The Oldest Wicket Game, Newly Found

On The Green, Manchester CT

On the Green, Manchester CT

Fishing the auction listings and sometimes bidding on the minnows within my means, I have occasionally landed a whale. This is precisely what happened, only two weeks ago. It started with a routine notice for an auction to be held in my neck of the woods on January 20, 2013. Although I have moved around a bit in my thirty-six years in New York’s Hudson River Valley—Saugerties, Kingston, Catskill—one constant pleasure has been attending Jay Werbalowsky’s auctions of ephemera, books, art, and musty, dusty householdiana. Weeks before the auction date, Jay posted this advance word at his website, http://jmwauctions.com:

This will be part III of the Pennsylvania estate hoard, collection & inventory of Ephemera & more. Huge quantity of quality ephemera from 17th century to 20th century. Allow yourself plenty of preview time! Partial listing includes tons of manuscripts & documents, autographs, maps, atlases, advertising, photographs, Valentine collection, rare books, whaling & nautical related journals and account books, posters, celebrity & movie, historical & political, billheads, artwork (paintings & prints), important collection of postage, envelopes, postmarks, and related material, over 50 albums filled with material from his private collection, Military, Civil War, and much more. Do not miss this sale!

I reviewed the 761 lots online and was, frankly, disappointed. Hundreds of them were postals, billheads, correspondence, and box lots of, well, paper—valuable to others but not to me. I tend to collect visual materials—and not, as you might think, baseball stuff at all, unless it is exceptionally early. I spun on through page after page of the listed lots until I was brought short by this:

Lot 482: Rare Reward of Merit Engraving Muscalus Collection 11-85, as he had it marked. It appears to be an engraving, with Men playing a game using what looks like hockey sticks, ball is in air. Measures 6 1/2″ x 9″ (whole paper). Signed J Cheney Sc. [abbreviation for Sculpsit, “he engraved it”] He had EXTREMELY RARE, 1800.00

John Cheney, Reward of Merit, auction image

John Cheney, Reward of Merit, auction image

Here came the fun part, truly as much fun as winning the prize at auction. So many details to research or decipher. Where to begin? With the visual, of course. What were these young men doing? They were “playing ball,” surely, that generic term covering, in the years before 1845, a wide swath of distinct ball games of differing rules. But the image that JMW Auctions provided was murky, indistinct. A ball was in the air, certainly, but the curved ends of the “hockey sticks” were too big for field hockey; might they be shinty sticks? The Penny Magazine of January 31, 1835 described the game thus:

Game of Shinty 1835

Game of Shinty 1835

The shinty is played with a small hard ball, which is generally made of wood, and each player is furnished with a curved stick somewhat resembling that which is used by golf players. The object of each party of players is to send the ball beyond a given boundary on either side; and the skill of the game consists in striking the ball to the greatest distance towards the adversaries’ boundary, or in manoeuvring to keep it in advance of the opposing side. 

“Is this shinny/shinty … or wicket?” I asked my friend Larry McCray in email. Larry is the creator of the Protoball website, which forms the basis of MLB’s Early Baseball Milestones, at: http://mlb.mlb.com/memorylab/chronology/index.jsp. I rather suspected it was wicket.

Larry responded within hours, with all the right questions as well as answers:

John – I’d have to vote for wicket. 

[a] aren’t those wickets near the road and opposite that, receding from the left foot of the top-hatted fan?

[b] If the game is shinty/bandy, why don’t the fielders have sticks?

[c] The ball seems nice and large.

Isn’t that a wicket bat in the right hand of the crossing runner?

If the batsman is about to reach the left wicket, does that typify “reward of merit,” where merit is a successful hit?

Aren’t those wicketkeepers behind each wicket?  [But if so, one team would number 4, and the other 2.  So this would be a scrub form of the game?]

Do we have a date or location for the drawing? 

By then I had done some more digging related to the engraver, John Cheney, which I hastened to share with Larry. Courtesy of Google Books I had located Catalogue of the Engraved and Lithographed Work of John Cheney and Seth Wells Cheney by Sylvester Rosa Koehler, 1891. Itemizing each of the extant works by these brother engravers, it offered this detailed description, absent an illustration:

Cheney Catalogue 1891

Cheney Catalogue 1891

1821. 2. Reward of Merit. Six boys or young men in shirt-sleeves are playing ball. The ball is in the air in the middle of the sky. At the left two lookers-on are seated on a log, on the right stands another. On the extreme left part of a large tree is seen, on the right a grove of poplars. In the background a school-house, a church, and other houses, two poplars, bushes, and a hill. Octagon, oblong, surrounded by two fine lines, with a heavier one between them. On the right, below, between the heavy and the lighter border-line: 2’d Plate. Outside of the border lines: J. Cheney Sc. 1821. | Reward of Merit. | To M        from h   teacher . [Signifying "To Master or  Miss "Smith" from his or her teacher.] 

Engraved surface from outer border-line to outer border-line: 137 X 67 mm. (5  3/8 X 2 5/8|”.)

Plate-mark: 154 X 97mm. (6 1/16 X 3 13/16”.) 

[The plate is in the possession of Mrs. Ednah D. Cheney. See "Memoir of John Cheney," page 10. As it is dated and marked "2'd Plate," it is a reliable document for the early history of the engraver.]

In Cheney’s memoir (a different volume) we get this lovely detail, from Memoir of John Cheney, by Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney [the woman cited above, widow of Seth Wells Cheney], 1889:

John Cheney (1801-1885)

John Cheney (1801-1885)

When confined by a lame foot he made drawings on the walls of his room, which are still preserved; they are full of promise. He studied engraving from an encyclopaedia, and made a printing-press before he had ever seen an Engraver. He cut a piece from an old copper kettle and engraved on it a sketch of boys playing ball, to be used for a Reward of Merit. This plate still exists.  

Precisely where might this plate have existed in 1889, I wondered. Navigating through the clues provided, I managed to locate it as “Early Trial Plate” in the collections of Boston’s  Museum of Fine Arts, as part of a massive gift by Mrs. Cheney in 1890. An engraving of this reward of merit appears to be there, too–no image is provided, and the archivists did not reply to my email inquiry–but seemingly nowhere else.

A “reward of merit,” I told Larry with needless pedantry, was a long-practiced form of recognizing scholarly accomplishments at the elementary or grammar school level. “It is a copiously documented form of ephemera, but this one [of wicket play] is impossible to find as pulled from the artist’s hastily improvised copper plate.”

Cheney Wicket 1821, high resolution

Cheney Wicket 1821, high resolution

Happily, I went on to win the engraving, but the fun of research did not end there. I made a high-resolution scan and analyzed the detail. The wide, low wickets confirmed the identity of the game. The crudely depicted schoolhouse in the distance was, I deduced, that on the Green in Manchester, a Connecticut city carved out from Hartford shortly after the date of the engraving. This two-story brick structure was built in 1816, when Manchester was still Orford Parish, a part of East Hartford. The building’s second floor later served as the meeting rooms of Masonic Lodge #73.

Old Brick School, Manchester CT

Old Brick School, Manchester CT

John Cheney, who grew up here and attended this school, went on to a notable career in some measure forgotten today. S. R. Koehler was Curator of the Section of Graphic Arts, Smithsonian Institution, and of the Print Department, Museum Of Fine Arts in Boston. In his Introduction to the Catalogue of the Cheneys’ works, Koehler placed him at the head of his class:

In work of the kind which it fell to John Cheney’s lot to do,— plates, that is to say, for annuals and similar books, — he stands at the head of the engravers of his time in his country, and shoulder to shoulder with those of Europe, and I cannot agree with my friend Charles Henry Hart when he places him second to Asher Brown Durand.

All of this detail about the engraving and its creator tended to support the valuation placed on it by ephemera collector Dr. John Muscalus (1909-86), a great expert in obsolete currencies whose collection formed the core of the JMW auction. He was an active writer at least from 1935 to 1978, with some eighty pamphlets to his name. But Muscalus could not have known that this was the earliest depiction of an ancient game that had largely vanished by the time Koehler wrote those words in 1891.

What was wicket, you ask? What do we know about its rules and history, documented as far back as 1725 and possibly even earlier, in 1704? Having reached the end of my space here, I refer you to fuller descriptions previously published here at Our Game:

http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/07/17/the-old-time-game-of-wicket/

http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/08/17/championship-wicket-game-in-connecticut/

and to the several citations at Early Baseball Milestones:

http://mlb.mlb.com/memorylab/chronology/index.jsp?sub_section=wicket

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