September 5th, 2013

The Story of William Bray’s Diary

David Block, 2007

David Block, 2007

This is a guest column by David Block. While filming the Major League Baseball documentary “Base Ball Discovered” in England, he and director Sam Marchiano met Tricia St. John Barry, who responded to a BBC piece on the film crew being in country, looking at the roots of baseball. (For more about that film, see: She claimed to possess a volume of a previously unknown William Bray diary that contained one of the earliest-known references — and at that time the oldest extant original reference–to baseball. Until the crew met her, the only known Bray diary volumes were held by Surrey History Centre, and dated from 1756-1832. The newly discovered journal, which covers Bray’s life from 1754-1755, contains this entry from Easter Monday, March 31st, 1755: “Went to Stoke church this morn.- After dinner, went to Miss Jeale’s to play at base ball with her the 3 Miss Whiteheads, Miss Billinghurst, Miss Molly Flutter, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Ford and H. Parsons. Drank tea and stayed til 8.”

Block’s landmark book on the subject, Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game, was the recipient of the 2006 SABR Seymour Medal, the 2006 NASSH award, and was named to the New York Times Reading List of sports books for 2005. David serves on MLB’s Origins Committee as well as on the editorial board of Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, in which this article appeared in the Fall of 2007.

The Story of William Bray’s Diary

David Block

During the course of my recent trip to England, I had the pleasure of tagging along for several days with a video production team from, which was over there collecting footage for a documentary film on the origins of baseball. I was serving as the project’s unofficial historian-in-tow, traveling through southern England with the filmmakers as they captured video images of various old bat-and-ball games that comprise baseball’s family tree.

Sam Marchiano

Sam Marchiano

One morning, as we drove away from a village in Kent—where the previous evening, in a pub yard, we had obtained images of a match of “bat and trap”—we abruptly smashed into a parked car. Our driver, an American, had not quite gotten the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road. Fortunately no one was hurt, but our rental van needed to be replaced, and there were insurance matters to be dealt with. Because these tasks required that two of the people stay behind, one of them being producer Sam Marchiano, I was deputized to be her substitute producer and interviewer.

Because our cameraman and soundman were driving in a separate car, I was able to proceed with them to our next stop, a girls’ school in the town of Horsham in Sussex. Our mission there was to obtain footage of a game of rounders, and conduct interviews with the players, school officials, and the director of the National Rounders Association.

As I was making my directorial debut, we had another unexpected development. A second video production crew—dispatched by BBC news—showed up at the school. Apparently the network had received word that the MLB filmmakers were touring the English countryside in search of baseball’s origins, and determined that this was a newsworthy event. So the BBC crew began filming our MLB crew, which was in turn filming the game of rounders. The BBC reporter also conducted interviews with me, the rounders official, and several other people at the scene.

Base Ball Discovered

Base Ball Discovered

That evening, the story of the film project appeared on BBC South’s 6 p.m. news program. It included clips of their interviews with us, and reported, among other things, that Jane Austen used the word baseball in her novel Northanger Abbey, first drafted in 1798. By the time of the BBC broadcast, the project members we had left behind in Kent had obtained a replacement van and had rejoined us in Horsham. As we were driving to cover a Little League baseball game (yes, American baseball is alive and well in Sussex!), Sam Marchiano’s cell phone rang. It was the BBC. It seems that immediately following their airing of the piece about us, they had received a telephone call. A woman from nearby Surrey had rung up their studio to report that she knew of a reference to baseball far earlier than Jane Austen’s. The caller said that she had an old diary in her possession, the work of a young man named William Bray, in which he wrote about playing baseball in the year 1755. Naturally, we were all excited by this news, as 18th century references to baseball are exceedingly rare, and for the film project to be the catalyst for the discovery of a new one would be an unexpected coup. We immediately phoned the woman—her name is Tricia St. John Barry—and arranged to visit her home the following morning.

Her home, it turned out, was a 16th century cottage down a country lane near the Surrey-Sussex border. At 11 A.M. we approached her door in force: Our group consisted of me, the four-person crew, fellow SABR member Larry McCray, and John Price, the head of the Sussex stool-ball association, who was our local host in Horsham. Tricia answered the door, but instead of the smiling welcome we were expecting, she was in a state of great agitation. She was mortified: She couldn’t find the diary! It had been in a Marks & Spencer bag next to her filing cabinet, she was certain of it, but it simply wasn’t there. She had been searching her house high and low all morning, but to no avail.

One look at her cottage and you could tell it would be easy to misplace something there. It was all a jumble, its small, ancient rooms filled with piles of books and papers. Tricia is a delightfully charming lady, but a tad disorganized, and it turned out she hadn’t actually seen the diary in several years. She had obtained it about twenty years ago, and was in the process of transcribing it, albeit very slowly. She had made photocopies of the whole thing, but, alas, she believed they were in the same bag as the diary. Still, she had no doubts whatsoever about its mention of baseball. She had first noticed the entry about fifteen years earlier and, knowing it to be an American game, had at that time taken it down the road to show it to some American neighbors.

So there we were—with a great story, but no diary. Tricia may be a little eccentric, but there was no reason to question her credibility, and we were all convinced that the diary was buried somewhere in her house. She insisted that it would come to light; it just might take a little time. So the team went ahead and interviewed her, and shot footage of her house and garden. We trusted that it was just a matter of time before the diary would appear.

Shortly thereafter the crew returned to New York, and I resumed my family vacation in England, hoping that Tricia would find the missing diary before I returned to the States myself. About a week later, while traveling in Northumberland, I received an email from her: “Eureka! I found it!” This was great news. I called Sam in New York to report the find, and she said she would try to line up a freelance cameraman
to accompany me to film the precious document. The next day I called Tricia to tell her I had received her message, and to arrange my next visit to her cottage. In the course of our conversation, one small detail became apparent. It seems Tricia hadn’t actually found the diary itself, but only the photocopies! True, this was better than nothing; but I had to bite my tongue to hide my disappointment. I consoled myself by knowing that at least I’d be able to return home with a copy of the 1755 reference—that is, if the photocopies hadn’t disappeared again before I returned to Tricia’s house.

William Bray Diary

William Bray Diary

Two days later, at a library in Cornwall, I had another chance to check my email. A new message from Tricia: “Eureka again! I really found it this time!” And she really had. So five days later, on my final day in the UK, my wife Barbara and I returned to Tricia’s cottage along with a cameraman. Also along for the big show was John Price of the stool-ball association, the BBC crew again (by now, they too had a stake in this discovery, and came to tape another spot for the evening news), and Julian Pooley, a Surrey archivist and historian who is the foremost expert on William Bray, the author of the diary.

William Bray

William Bray

As it happens, Bray was a notable historical figure of his day, a prominent 18th century lawyer and antiquarian who wrote a three-volume history of Surrey that is still the authoritative work on the subject. More importantly, Bray had a vast range of interests that spanned science, politics, literature, and the arts, and a lively curiosity in all of the new developments of his age. And he wrote about them diligently in the diaries and journals he kept. He lived to the age of 96 and his journals span almost all of his adult years. The bulk of these—beginning in 1756, when he turned 20 years of age—are located in the Surrey History Centre, and have been studied extensively because of their unusual insights into the goings-on of that era.

At some time in the past, a single volume of Bray’s diary—the one spanning the years 1754 and 1755—was separated from the others. Until recently, its very existence was unknown to scholars. It first surfaced 20 years ago when a neighbor of Tricia’s, knowing that she liked “old things,” gave her a call to see if she was interested in a stack of old papers. It seems this neighbor’s deceased ex-husband, who had once worked on the Bray estate, had stored a collection of old documents in a tea chest in a shed on their property. She was threatening to “dump them on the bonfire” unless Tricia wanted them. The William Bray diary was among this lot, and Tricia immediately recognized it as a treasure. It’s just taken her a bit of time to let the rest of the world know about it.

OK, now for the baseball part. William Bray doesn’t reveal anything about how the game was played; just that he played it and whom he played it with. His entry for Easter Monday, March 31, 1755, reads as follows:

Went to Stoke Ch(urch) this Morn.—After Dinner Went to Miss Seale’s to play at Base Ball, with her, the 3 Miss Whiteheads, Miss Billinghurst, Miss Molly Fluttor, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Ford, H. Parsons & Jolly. Drank tea and stayed till 8.

Bray Diary, the baseball text

Bray Diary, the baseball text

Despite its brevity, this early reference offers some tidbits of information that help inch forward our understanding of baseball at its infancy.

1. William Bray was 18 or 19 at the time of this entry (his birth year, 1736, is known, but not his precise birth date). From other writings in his diaries, we know that the companions he names as participants in this baseball game were all young adults like him, indicating that baseball was not simply a pastime for children in the 1750s.

2. Clearly, this baseball gathering involved both young ladies and young men, confirming the suggestion from other sources that the game in its earliest years was played by both sexes.

3. At this time, baseball was more of a social phenomenon than a sporting one. Bray’s diaries from these years suggest that he interacted with a circle of friends and acquaintances—men and women—numbering about twenty. They would gather at  different homes and estates for various activities: card playing, dancing, lawn bowling, and the like. Baseball seems to have been among these pastimes—something that was played for social entertainment rather than serious competition.

John Kidgell's The Card.

John Kidgell’s The Card.

I consider myself very fortunate to have found myself in the midst of this new, early baseball discovery. Curiously, earlier on my visit to the UK, while researching at the British Library, I had come across another reference to baseball from 1755. This one appears in a book entitled The Card, published in London by John Newbery, the pioneering children’s publisher. Newbery also wrote and published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, the 1744 work that is believed to contain the earliest reference to baseball. The actual author of the 1755 book, The Card, was not Newbery but John Kidgell, a disreputable and scandal-surrounded churchman who eventually had to flee Britain to avoid arrest. The book is a sarcastic and not-so-very-funny satire directed at a fellow writer, and would be completely forgettable if not for its mention of baseball:

… the younger Part of the Family … retired to an interrupted Party at Base-Ball, (an infant Game, which as it advances in its Teens, improves into Fives, and in its State of Manhood, is called Tennis).

A literal reading of this passage would suggest that Kidgell regarded baseball to be a rather rudimentary activity when compared to the more “sophisticated” pastimes of fives (handball) and tennis. Yet, because virtually every sentence in The Card is written with pen in cheek, the author’s intention may have been to poke fun at this family’s choice of baseball by exaggerating the simplicity of the game.

One curious aspect about the presence of the word baseball in The Card is that it hasn’t been detected before. Unlike William Bray’s diary, which was hand-written and buried in a tea chest for many years, The Card is a published book that survives, in its original edition, in more than thirty American libraries. And a reprint facsimile edition, published in 1974, exists in more than one hundred libraries! So while this particular reference to early baseball has been hidden up until now, it seems to have been hidden in plain sight.

Little Pretty Pocket-Book, 10th Edition, 1760

Little Pretty Pocket-Book, 10th Edition, 1760

Whether you consider the unearthing of references to baseball from 1755 to be of considerable historical significance, or simply to be quaint bits of trivia, their rarity cannot be disputed. Fewer than ten mentions of baseball from the 18th century are known, and most of those date from later in the century. That two such discoveries surfaced within two weeks of each other is an extraordinary coincidence. Moreover, these two references quite possibly may be the earliest tangible mentions of the term baseball in existence. Two frequently cited earlier appearances of the term—in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book from 1744 and Lady Hervey’s letter of 1748—are, in fact, only presumed to have existed. Though published in 1744, no known copies of the first edition of A Little Pretty Pocket-Book have survived, nor, for that matter, have any copies of that book’s first nine editions. The earliest example we know of is a single copy of the 1760 10th edition residing in the British Library. And in the case of Lady Hervey’s 1748 letter describing the family of the Prince of Wales playing baseball, it’s known only because her collected letters were published in book form in 1821. But that original letter of Lady Hervey’s from 1748 cannot be located. So, if you want to lay your eyes on actual surviving evidence of the term baseball from the mid–18th century, give Tricia a call to arrange a look at William Bray’s diary, or find yourself a library copy of The Card. [In 2013 the author revealed an earlier find in a 1749 newspaper, detailed here:]

My five-week odyssey to Britain culminated on that wonderful final day at Tricia’s house. We took new video images of her cottage, many shots of William Bray’s diary, and even went down the road to film the shed where Tricia had found the document 20 years earlier. After conducting interviews with Tricia and Julian Pooley, I switched sides of the camera and became the interviewee myself, with my wife Barbara, always a good sport, agreeing to toss me some questions. With any luck, some of the footage we took that day will survive the cutting room floor and make its way into the documentary, due to be released this fall.

When you go over to Britain and start mucking around, you never know what you’re likely to find.