Ball Games Go West

Civil War Baseball at Fort Pulaski; Savannah, Georgia.

Civil War baseball game at Fort Pulaski, Savannah, GA

The coventional tale is that baseball spread via the Civil War, as returning veterans of both sides who had played the game in their camps or in those of the enemy, as prisoners, brought it back home with them. A pretty tale but not an accurate one, as baseball is documented in many parts of what would become the transcontinental United States well before the Civil War. Larry McCray, mastermind of the invaluable Protoball site, resolved to document the spread of the game via its earliest citations, state by state, territory by territory, and nation by nation (see: Even in some western regions, the first record of baseball is startlingly early.

Congregationalists of a missionary bent emanating from Connecticut to spread the faith while seeking their fortunes may well have spread that state’s favored game, wicket, not only to the Western Reserve (Michigan, Ohio) but even as far away as Hawaii. Ball games spread in part via the establishment of missionary settlements (filled with people who came for economic opportunity, not for the free practice of their faith, which had been unfettered back home). Missionaries and proselytizers of all stripes, including those whose aim was to convert Native Americans, established wilderness communities and the folks who settled in them brought their ballplaying ways with them. Thus we have the appearance, for example, of wicket in Michigan and Iowa and Hawaii. No sermon from the pulpit prompted anyone to play ball.

Lady of the Hawaiian Islands, 1856

Lady of the Hawaiian Islands, 1856

Hawaii presents a particularly interesting example of the spread of bat-and ball games, even if the claims for baseball play in the 1840s are suspect. Were Hawaiians playing bat and ball games in 1841 and earlier, particularly at the Punahou school? Almost certainly. Were these adapted from the Massachusetts Game of Baseball, at that time and for a hundred years previous, the ascendant model? I have my doubts.

“One game they all enjoyed was wicket, often watched by small Mary Burbank. Aipuni, the Hawaiians called it, or rounders, perhaps because the bat had a large rounder end. It was a forerunner of baseball, but the broad, heavy bat was held close to the ground.” [Source: Ethel M. Damon. Sanford Ballard Dole and His Hawaii, Pacific Books, Palo Alto, 1957, page 41.] This quotation is a recollection within Chapter III of the book, covering the years 1855-66, and is given context by two earlier passages:

“In 1855, when the Doles moved to Koloa to live, Dr. Wood’s partner and manager was his brother-in-law, Judge Samuel Burbank, still another Maine man, a young lawyer who by good fortune had been bred a farmer. All of these young New Englanders were men of character and integrity which set a high level in the new community.” [p. 36]

“One of the little girls of this Koloa school, Mary Burbank, daughter of the plantation manager, still recalled it seventy-five years later, if people asked her about it. Across the road from the Smiths’ was the big adobe Hawaiian church, built in Father Gulick’s time; just above that was the large Hawaiian school taught by a Hawaiian teacher. Below it, on the site occupied by the present public school, was a thatch-roofed house with clapboard sides. Here the new Dole school opened, in a thicket of indigo bushes, with a clearing to the road in front where the boys played a bat-and-ball game called wicket. The schoolhouse was a simple one without a ceiling, all the rafters in the interior exposed where not covered by blackboards around the sides.” [pp. 38-39]

House in Puna, 1856

House in Puna, 1856

The Doles built their school in 1855 and enlarged it at a new location in 1857. So it might be best to place this reference to wicket play as 1855-57. When I came upon this source some fifteen years ago I instantly thought, how did wicket, the game whose hotbed was Litchfield County, Connecticut, get to Hawaii?

This from Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography:

OBOOKIAH, Henry, missionary, born on the island of Hawaii about 1792; died in Cornwall, Connecticut, 17 February, 1818. He was brought to New Haven, Connecticut, in a merchant vessel in 1809. After he had obtained an excellent English education in the families of friends in Andover, Massachusetts, and Goshen and Cantata, Connecticut, the ministers of Litchfield county, Connecticut, formed the plan of a special school to prepare natives of heathen countries for missionary service. He was active in soliciting money for the proposed mission-school, which was established at Cornwall, Connecticut, in 1817. There were brought into it other Kanakas besides Obookiah, as well as pupils from Hindustan and some North American Indians. While there he was seized with a fatal fever, after nearly completing a Hawaiian dictionary, grammar, and spelling-book, besides translating the book of Genesis into his native language….

Memoirs of Henry Obookiah, 1818

Memoirs of Henry Obookiah, 1818

Obookiah’s “Memoirs” were published (The Office of the Religious Intelligencer, New Haven, 1818, 187 pp.) in the year of his death. The book was composed of four separately paginated pieces: The Memoirs, A Sermon Delivered at the Funeral of Henry Obookiah, A Sermon delivered at the inauguration of the Rev. Hermon Daggett, and An Inauguration Address delivered at the opening of the Foreign Mission School.

In New Haven Obookiah (né Opukahaia) met and befriended Samuel J. Mills, a student at Yale who would become one of the leaders of the foreign missions movement. After following Mills to Andover, Obookiah experienced an evangelical conversion in 1812, became a member of the Congregational church at Torringford, Connecticut, three years later, and the following year joined the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

Though he died in Connecticut in 1818, he had already persuaded ministers to take up a mission to Hawaii. These Nutmeggers arrived at Kohala, Hawaii, March 31, 1820, according to “Hawaiian Oddities,” a booklet published ca. 1960 by Robert D. Seal of Seattle. The book’s author is Mike Jay, at the time a sportswriter for the News-Call Bulletin of San Francisco. The booklet bears no publication date and it is unpaginated.

Obookiah was not himself an Episcopalian but the more profound connection for our purposes may be to Litchfield County, home to a significant Episcopalian community and the game of wicket. While he could not have brought wicket to Hawaii he may well have played it in Litchfield.

Wicket in 1821, engraved by John Cheney

Wicket in 1821, engraved by John Cheney

And let’s not neglect the role of the military in spreading bat and ball games before the Civil War, notably in the Mexican fracas and the ensuing Gold Rush years.

The New York Volunteer Regiment reached California in April 1846 after the end of the Mexican War, and helped to occupy the province. They laid out a diamond, made a ball from gutta percha, and used a mesquite stick as a bat. “Largely because of the baseball games, the Spanish-speaking people of Santa Barbara came to look upon the New Yorkers as loudmouthed, uncouth hoodlums. . . . the hostilities between Californians and Americanos continued to fester for generations.” [Source: “Baseball Began Here in 1847,” It Happened in Old Santa Barbara (author unidentified), pages 77-78. Found in Giamatti Center “Origins” file, 2003.]

In 1847 Adolph Engelmann, an Illinois volunteer in the Mexican War, wrote in his diary on January 30, 1847: “During the past week we had much horse racing and the drill
ground was fairly often in use for ball games.” [Source: “The Second Illinois in the Mexican War: Mexican War Letters of Adolph Engelmann, 1846-1846,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 26, number 4 (January 1934), page 435.]

Angus Macfarlane has done groundbreaking work on the introduction of baseball to San Francisco by former members of New York’s Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, as early as 1851. See:

The Knickerbockers: San Francisco’s First Base Ball Team?

The Knickerbockers: San Francisco’s First Base Ball Team? Part Two


And let’s not forget that New England-based whaling ships, and US navy vessels, stopped off at Honolulu all the time. Protoball lists an 1868 game played by the sailors of the USS Mohongo. Doubtless they, as well as the missionaries, brought New England sports with them, and earlier than 1868.

Thanks for this, Bruce.

Great article, John. Chock full of historical sleuthing.


Sent from my iPhone


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