The Oldest Wicket Game, Newly Found
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
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:
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:
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:
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.”
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.
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:
and to the several citations at Early Baseball Milestones: