May 21st, 2013
The article below, by Richard Hershberger, appeared in print in the Spring 2010 number of the journal Base Ball. Richard lives and works in Maryland. He has, in a few short years, become a leading fact-finder in our field, as he pursues his personal goal of understanding the social and organizational history of U.S. baseball from the 18th century to 1880. His recent articles in Base Ball include one on Philadelphia Town Ball (2007), one on baseball and rounders (2009), and two on, respectively, baseball in New York in 1821 and Philadelphia in 1831.
A recent serendipitous discovery has brought to light a previously unknown club playing a previously unknown form of baseball in early 1860s western Massachusetts, including the rules and a diagram of the playing field.
These were obtained by Shawn England, a collector of “early baseball anything,” in fall 2008. He found on eBay a diagram showing a peculiar baseball field, and purchased it for $150. The seller later offered him additional related documents, which he purchased for $50. The collection was reported by the seller to be from the estate of one Carrington Phelps of Colebrook, Connecticut, who had been a student at the South Berkshire Institute in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, in the 1860s. Mr. England then began to research what it was he had bought. This search eventually led him to John Thorn, who directed him to me. He also contacted Jon Swann of the editorial team of the New Marlborough 5 Village News, who provided information about the local history.
The documents include portions of an autograph album signed by students at the South Berkshire Institute. This contains 46 signatures, some of which include epigrams and some with dates in December 1863. Also among the documents are a single sheet (17.5 by 8 inches) titled “Rules and Regulations of the New Marlboro.’ Match Base Ball Co.” The sheet lists 10 rules and was signed by a committee with four signatures. Finally, the documents include a 15.5 by 10 inch sheet, folded lengthwise, depicting a diagram of the playing field and signed by the same committee.
New Marlborough is a town in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, about 26 miles south of Pittsfield. Pittsfield is the site of the earliest known purely American use of the term “baseball,” showing the deep ballplaying tradition of the region. The South Berkshire Institute was a coeducational preparatory school founded in 1856 and closed in 1883.
The four signatory committee members are Charles J. Townsend, Willis I. Taft, William L. Camp, and David I. Bushnell. Of these, two can be positively identified.
William Lewis Camp, in addition to being a committee member, provided a particularly florid autograph. It is the opinion of Shawn England that Camp created all three documents, based on decorative scrollwork signed in one place with the initials W.L.C. Born in Michigan in 1846, at age six Camp was adopted by a relative, Moses Camp, head of a major mercantile firm in Litchfield County, Connecticut. He was sent to be educated at the South Berkshire Institute, before returning to Connecticut as a store clerk. He went on to become a member of the firm and a bulwark of the community.
David Ives Bushnell was born 1846 in Sheffield, Massachusetts. The story told later was that he was expelled for carrying a calf into the belfry, tying it there to out-sound the bell with its bellowing. His father gave him $25 and sent him to make his way in the world. He eventually obtained a position as a clerk in St. Louis with the Northern Packet Line, and later became a prosperous grain merchant and amateur archaeologist. He died a millionaire.
Charles J. Townsend is not as easily identified. A Charles J. Townsend was a corporal in the Forty-Ninth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, a nine months regiment, volunteering from Monterey, which lay immediately to the north of New Marlborough. The regiment served in Louisiana before being mustered out September 1, 1863. This might be the same person, returning to school after his service, but this is uncertain.
This is a small sampling, but it shows the classic pattern for baseball clubs of this era. They typically consisted of young professionals and members of the mercantile class. The New Marlboro club is the junior, academic version of this, except for the remarkable fact that they codified their own version of the game.
Baseball in 1863
Baseball, in its premodern state, was played across Anglophone North America in innumerable regional versions and called by various names, the most important being “base ball,” “town ball,” and “round ball.”
This began to change in the mid–1850s, as the version played in and around New York City began to spread. By the start of the Civil War, the “New York Game” was played in major cities across the country.
The New York Game had several competitors. Cricket was an older, established, and prestigious game. The version of baseball played in and around Boston, known as the “Massachusetts Game,” spread into upstate New York. Some regional versions developed local centers of competition, most notably in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, and many others were played by isolated organized clubs.
This changed almost immediately after the end of the Civil War. Cricket went into a long decline through the remainder of the century. The Massachusetts Game and the Philadelphia version were in decline even before the war began. Cincinnati and northern Kentucky were the last holdouts, with clubs competing in the local game through the 1866 season. These premodern forms of baseball would be relegated to the playground, the backwoods, and exercises in nostalgia.
The students of the South Berkshire Institute in 1863 were bucking the trend, rejecting both the up-and-coming New York Game from their west and its chief competitor to their east. As will be seen, the rules show signs that they knew of the New York Game, which was played in Pittsfield since at least 1859. Their studied decision to favor their local version and their awareness of the broader trend might explain why they decided to formalize their activity.
Sources on Early Baseball Rules
There are four broad categories of sources on how early baseball was played: books of games, personal reminiscences, contemporary accounts, and formal sets of rules. Each has advantages and disadvantages.
The earliest information we have comes from books of children’s games. These have the advantage of being fairly complete descriptions. Their major disadvantage is a lack of chronological and geographical context, since they often copy earlier works published in other locations. It is hard to judge how accurately they described (or influenced) actual practice or where and when this practice actually took place. Other categories of sources show that the game varied widely, so books of games with their homogenized descriptions need be regarded with care.
Reminiscences avoid these problems, typically being descriptions of the game when the author was a boy. Often the author can be identified, narrowing the description to a specific time and place. However, they are also often very incomplete, focusing on one or two specific points that differ from the modern game (a typical example being the practice of throwing the ball at a baserunner). And of course any account written decades after the fact must be read with an eye to the vagaries of memory.
Contemporary accounts can be presumed to be largely accurate, but are almost always very incomplete. (Imagine trying to deduce the rules of modern baseball by reading a newspaper sports page.) Occasionally there are enough different accounts that can be combined effectively with reminiscences to reconstruct a version, but this is rare.
Formal rules would seem to be the gold standard, but even they require qualification. They were not intended to be comprehensive, but rather to clarify points of possible contention. For example, the oldest version of the New York rules do not specify the pitcher’s location. Additionally, there can be little assurance that the rules outlined were consistently followed in practice. The early New York rules had the two sides playing to 21 runs, but we know from the Knickerbocker club books that the vast majority of their games ran to considerably higher scores. The 21 rule seems to have been applied to special occasions such as match games against other clubs, but this is not explicit.
The biggest limitation on formal rule sets is that they are extraordinarily rare. Prior to the New Marlboro finding, there were only two known sets: the Knickerbocker Club rules of 1845 (as published in 1848) and versions derived from this (i.e., the New York Game) and the Olympic Club of Boston rules published in 1857 and derived versions (i.e., the Massachusetts Game).
The New Marlboro Rules
There are 10 numbered rules. They follow the typical pattern in that they are incomplete, intended to resolve specific points that might be subject to confusion or variation in the informal game. Widely understood aspects not needing clarification were not addressed. The New Marlboro Club’s rules are scanty but, when combined with the broader context of early baseball, they give many clues to how they played the game:
First: The choice of choosing the first player shall be decided by the throwing up of the bat between the chooser’s [sic].
Second: The side which shall have the first innings shall be decided as in Rule First.
Third: The chooser’s [sic] on either side shall by this Act be required to strike first.
The need for a system of choosing sides shows that the rules were intended for internal club use, rather than for match games against other clubs. The method of choosing shows that they were using a round bat, probably two-handed. Other options in early baseball included flat bats (sometimes characterized as “paddles”) and/or one-handed bats. Areas which used flat bats often had an equivalent system of determining priority, but one party would spit on the bat and toss it in the air. The other party could call “wet” or “dry,” like calling “heads” or “tails” in a coin toss. Round bats were certainly used in New York and Boston.
The requirement that the chooser must strike (i.e., bat) first was likely designed to prevent him from striking last, which, as will be seen, was a particularly advantageous position.
The use of the plural form “innings” was old-fashioned by 1863 in baseball, but had been common earlier and is still standard in cricket.
Fourth: There shall not be any person at or around the stakes when the striker is making his round.
Fifth: The thrower must stand at the point designated for him when throwing the ball to the striker.
Sixth: The striker must when striking stand within the circle designated for him.
Seventh: If the thrower or catcher desire to throw the ball at any person in the game running his round he must stand within his circle.
The stipulation of the pitcher and catcher having designated areas (shown on the diagram of the playing field) seems obvious today, but, as has been already noted, this was not inevitable in early versions. The reason in this case is shown by the fourth rule, which is unique to the New Marlboro rules. The runner was put out by a fielder throwing the ball at him and hitting him while between bases. This was the most common form, and it is made clear by the seventh rule.
The modern rule of tagging the runner or his destination base was one of the distinctive features of the New York Game. A secondary effect of the New York rule was that some of the fielders positioned themselves at the bases, while in other versions of baseball they usually spread themselves strategically in order to catch the batted ball. (The modern “shift” applied to some pull hitters is a throwback to this older strategy.) This seems to have suggested a new strategy to the New Marlboro players of having fielders position themselves near the bases—not to tag the runner or base but to act as relay men, receiving the ball from an outfielder and in turn having an easy shot at the runner. The club drafted rules prohibiting this unsporting strategy.
The use of the word “thrower” indicates that the pitching was overhand. Underhand pitching was more common at the time, and was used in the New York Game. “Pitcher” is a holdover from that time, as to pitch an object was to toss it underhand, as in the modern sense of “pitching” horseshoes. An overhand delivery was a variant characteristic of the Northeast, attested in New England, upstate New York, and Canada, so its use in New Marlboro is expected. That the player was called the “thrower” makes this explicit.
Eighth: If the thrower and catcher pass the ball 3 times between themselves while the last striker is making his round he is by this Act out.
Ninth: The last striker can choose another person to take his place after he has been around 5 times, by which he himself is out for that game.
Most early versions had the inning end when the entire lineup had been put out. (The Massachusetts Game was unusual in ending the inning with the first out.) This required provision for the last batter to avoid his being left on base: not put out, but with no way to be batted home. The eighth and ninth rules show that in this version the final batter attempted a series of what we now call home runs. The pitcher and catcher were given a special method of putting him out, either in addition to or in place of the usual methods. The batter’s chance of success was enough that a special provision was made lest he be winded. That this puts him out for the “game” rather than the “innings” suggests that one inning constituted a full game, though this does not eliminate the possibility of a series of games.
Tenth: There must be two persons chosen as judges, one from each side, to decide any difficulty that may arise. The players are to abide by their decisions.
The necessity of the umpire was apparent from an early date. The scheme of having each team appoint one was a common solution, but it raised the question of what to do when they disagreed with each other. The solution in the New York Game was a third, neutral party to act as referee when the umpires could not come to agreement. The two club appointees were later abandoned as superfluous. The New Marlboro rules show an early stage of this progression.
Finally, there is the diagram of the playing field. This is the real prize, as many descriptions of early forms are vague about the base layout and distances between them. This diagram shows a basepath of 120 feet. (The runner probably did not have to return to his original position, but completed his run at the final base.) This is smaller than the modern field, but about average for earlier forms. The use of stakes for bases, rather than the bags favored in New York, was widespread.
What the diagram does not show is foul lines. Foul territory was a peculiarity of the New York Game, perhaps introduced to accommodate limited playing space. The more common practice was that a ball hit in any direction was in play.
The New Marlboro Rules in Perspective
The New Marlboro rules are not the Massachusetts Game. They are not radically different from the Massachusetts Game, sharing regional characteristics such as overhand pitching, but they have clear differences, the most important being the unique playing field and all-out innings. The mere fact that the New Marlboro club was not playing the Massachusetts Game is perhaps the most significant finding.
The Massachusetts Game holds a peculiar place in baseball history. It was the only competitor to the New York Game whose rules were published and never entirely forgotten. Because of this, it was drafted to serve as all things to all people. Any form of baseball obviously not the New York Game is often assumed to be the Massachusetts Game, if only because of a failure to consider other possibilities. The Massachusetts Game has been assumed to be both the universal form played throughout the country before the New York Game arose, and (contradictorily) to have spread across the country concurrently with the New York Game, locking the two in an epic struggle for the hearts of ballplayers.
This notion has been wearing thin in recent years, as more is learned about premodern baseball. The games played in Philadelphia and Cincinnati bear no strong resemblance to the Massachusetts Game. Many reports that have been taken by modern writers to refer to the Massachusetts Game in various far-flung locales actually say nothing of the sort, referring rather to “town ball” or “old fashioned base ball.” The idea that the Massachusetts Game represents the primeval state of baseball has not been supported by the evidence. On the other hand, there are some signs of expansionism. Clear examples of its play are to be found as far west as Erie, Pennsylvania. Counter to this, there are also examples of baseball games in western New York that are neither the New York nor the Massachusetts Games. While the Massachusetts Game did expand from its home territory, this expansion was modest and short lived.
The question remains: How extensive was this home territory? Reports of games tend to be inconclusive, often providing only the final score. A game to 100 runs is a feature of the formal 1858 Dedham rules, but that was a late development. An 1857 match, for example, between the Olympic and the Bay State Clubs of Boston, played on the Boston Commons, consisted of the best two out of three games, each game played to 25 runs. Such matches required negotiation of the terms. The Dedham rules were formalized in part to remove this obstacle, but it cannot be assumed that the 100 run rule was universally accepted.
Occasionally details are given that hint at the form of the game. A match in Colebrook, Connecticut (10 miles from New Marlborough), in 1859 started late and ended after only two innings, with the score tied at 59 runs. This result would be odd in the formal Massachusetts Game, with its one-out innings, suggesting that the region retained all-out innings, the Dedham rules notwithstanding. The New Marlboro rules confirm this suspicion in as much detail as one could reasonably ask.
The conclusion is that the Massachusetts Game, in its strict sense, was actually the game of Boston and its environs. The game in the surrounding regions was similar in some respects, such as overhand pitching and similar dimensions, but not so similar as to be indistinguishable.
Finally, the New Marlboro rules show resistance to the encroachments of outside standards. Not everyone welcomed these “scientific” versions. With these rules we see this resistance in freeze frame, with the club responding to new strategies typical of the New York Game and trying to maintain the old ways.
The attempt was in vain. The time of the old game was already passing. With the end of the Civil War the New York Game would complete its rise to dominance. Two decades later a game played under the Massachusetts rules was a curiosity. The judgment of a reporter was that the game “furnishes amusement for two or three innings, and then becomes monotonous.” Local versions such as the New Marlboro rules would not be remembered even as a curiosity.
1. The orthography of “New Marlboro’” probably indicates that this spelling was regarded as an abbreviation of “New Marlborough.” The shorter spelling of names ending in “-borough” was common in the 19th century. “Co.” presumably is short for “Company,” which is an unusual construction in the context of baseball. It parallels similar constructions used by organizations such as volunteer fire companies.
2. Spalding, J. 1891. Illustrated Popular Biography of Connecticut (p. 300).
3. D. I. Bushnell papers, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis; unidentified newspaper clipping hand dated May 29, 1921, Necrology Scrapbook, Vol. C, Missouri Historical Society.
4. Several local games using the New York rules are reported in the Pittsfield Sun in 1859.
5. Erie Observer, June 15, 1865, reporting on a match game ending in a tie at 56 tallies, with “no prospect of finishing the 100 points before dark.” Playing to 100 is characteristic of the Massachusetts Game in it most formal version.
6. E.g., a report in the Buffalo Morning Express ( July 10, 1860) with 15 men on a side, three-out innings, and a final score of 60–42 in 12 innings.
7. The Erie Observer of July 26, 1866, reports on a match between the “nines” of two clubs—a clear indication of the New York Game. All later reports of matches are of the New York Game.
8. Spirit of the Times, May 30, 1857.
9. Pittsfield Sun, Sept. 29, 1859.
10. Worcester Daily Spy, Oct. 17, 1879.