Did you know that slugging average is older than the batting average, and was tossed aside in favor of it? And if so, do you know why? I did not, until I came upon Henry Chadwick’s “The True Test of Batting,” in The Ball Players’ Chronicle of September 19, 1867. (I was rummaging through old newspapers, looking for something else in another early baseball weekly; more on that soon.) Chadwick’s article is a genuine crossroads in the history of baseball statistics.
Bases on balls were still uncommon events, having been introduced for the 1864 season, and no one thought of them as batters’ achievements, nor would they for decades to come. So the need for an on base average was not evident. Chadwick had already posited a primitive version of the slugging percentage, with total bases divided by number of games; change the denominator from games to at bats and you have today’s slugging percentage—which, incidentally, was not accepted by the National League as an official statistic until 1923 and the American until 1946. Chadwick’s “total bases average” represented the game’s first attempt at a weighted average—a huge conceptual leap forward from, first, counting, and next, averaging. The weighted average is in fact the cornerstone of today’s statistical innovations.
Chadwick’s bias against the long ball was in large measure responsible for the game that evolved. What he valued most in the early days was the low scoring game marked by brilliant fielding. In the early annual guides, he listed all the “notable” games between significant teams—i.e., those in which the winner scored fewer than ten runs!
What I did not recognize until now was that the triumph of the batting average was not merely a product of Chadwick’s preference for the scientific style over the brutish slugging. It was his recognition that most runs were scored through some combination of errors (muffs), which were easily counted, and misplays, which were not. In the 1860s a single might easily become a tainted extra-base hit, indistinguishable in the box score from a legitimate one. So in discarding the old practice of crediting batters with only Outs (hit into or run into) and Runs, Chadwick held—and correctly, given the state of the early game—that times reached base on undeniably safe hits was a superior measure to the bases gathered on that hit. Here is his reasoning, with spelling unaltered but paragraph breaks added to what appeared originally as a single block of text.
The True Test of Batting
Up to the present year, and, in fact, up to the inaugural number of The Chronicle, the only recorded test of the skill of a batsman in a match was the number of outs and runs in the score of the game. In The Chronicle, however, the plan of estimating the batting by the number of times a batsman made his base by clean hits was introduced, and now this plan, varied by taking in the number of bases secured on hits, has become general, all the daily press reporting the game having accepted it.
Our plan of adding to the score of outs and runs the number of times—not the number of bases—bases are made on clean hits will be found the only fair and correct test of batting; and the reason is, that there can be no mistake about the question of a batsman’s making his first base, that is, whether by effective batting, or by errors in the field, such as muffing a ball, dropping a fly ball, or throwing badly to the bases, whereas a man may reach his second or third base, or even get home, through errors of judgment in the out-field in throwing the ball to the wrong man, or in not properly estimating the height of the ball, &c—errors which do not come under the same category as those by which a batsman makes his first base.
For instance, the first striker goes to the bat, and, by a sharp ground hit between short stop and third base, out of reach of both those fielders, easily secures his first. The second striker hits a ball, which is easily fielded by the short stop, and were he to throw it to first, the second striker would easily be put out, but as the point is to send it to second, to cut off the player forced from the first, striker No. 2 gets his first, not from his good hit, but from the ball having to go to second first.
Striker 3 now comes to the bat, and sends a high ball to third base, and the ball is dropped, whereupon B, the second striker, makes his second, and C, the third striker, his first. D now takes the bat, and, hitting a high ball to centre field, which ball gives a chance for a catch, runs for his second, sending C and B before him; the ball being badly judged, and, when fielded, thrown in badly, D runs for his third, and, without stopping, he risks a home run, and gets his run from another high ball.
Now, how stands the record of this play as ordinarily scored ? Why simply as follows: The man who made the best hit of the four strikers is put out at second by the poor batting of his successor, while B and C, who made their bases by poor batting, arc credited with one base each, while D gets four bases through the lack of skill of the out-fielder in judging a high ball, the result of the play being a credit for seven bases on hits and three runs, when, by a just estimate, only one man made his base by a hit, and he was the only one put out.
Now, this is the average result of the batting score in a match game. But again, in estimating bases on hits, any scorer will find that it is quite a difficult task to sift the chaff from the wheat after the first base has been made; that is, he will find that the second and third bases are made more by lack of judgment in the outer fielding, and by errors of play which are not exactly “muffs,” viz., balls handled but not stopped or picked up neatly, overthrows or miscatches; while in the in-field these errors seldom occur, the ball, generally speaking, cither being palpably muffed, thrown wildly, or not held when touched on the fly. In the scores the number of bases made on hits should be, of course, estimated, but as a general thing, and especially in recording the figures by the side of the outs and runs, the only estimate should be that of the number of times in a game on which bases arc made on clean hits, and not the number of bases made.
Chadwick prevailed, and Hits Per Game became the criterion for the Clipper batting championship and remained so until 1876, when the problem with using games as the denominator in the ratio at last became clear. If a team played several weak rivals who committed many errors, the number of at bats for each individual in the superior team’s lineup would increase. The more at bats one is granted in a game, the more hits one is likely to have. The batting average used in the 1860s is the same as that used today except in its denominator, with at bats replacing games. The suggestion for that may be credited to Hervie Alden Dobson’s letter to the Clipper of March 11, 1871.
The batting average, of course, makes no distinction between the single, the double, the triple, and the home run, treating all as the same unit—a base hit—just as its prototype, Runs Per Game, treated the run as its unvarying, indivisible unit. This objection was met in the 1860s with Chadwick’s Total Bases Average (per game), but, as one reads above, was rejected. Looking at some other data, Chadwick’s choice now seems more reasonable, less idiosyncratic.
In 1871, the first year of professional play and a mere four seasons after Chadwick’s article, only 41 percent of runs scored were earned. The fielding percentage of the National Association clubs was .833. (In 2012 the MLB fielding percentage was .983.) The number of errors per game in 1871 was 7.6 and the runs scored per game was 10.47. And these figures were for the best clubs in the country; Chadwick made his choice of batting average as the “true test of batting” while considering hundreds if not thousands of clubs in 1867, professional and amateur.
The number of runs scored per game has been remarkably consistent throughout baseball history. Here’s a chart I developed a few years back.
1871: 7.61 per game
1911: 3.66 per game
1961: 1.82 per game
2005: 1.22 per game
1871: 10.47 per game
1911: 9.03 per game
1961: 9.05 per game
2005: 9.18 per game
In effect, the relentless increase in home runs, doubles, strikeouts, and walks have balanced the decrease in errors and triples. Baseball is a game of delicate balance, and at the outset Father Chadwick was sensitive to its nature.
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: http://goo.gl/5M9h9P.) 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 MLB.com 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
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 MLB.com, 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.
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 MLB.com 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.
That evening, the story of the MLB.com 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 MLB.com 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 MLB.com 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 MLB.com 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 MLB.com 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: http://sabr.org/latest/new-discovery-sabr-member-david-block-confirms-baseball-was-played-royalty-england-1700s.]
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 MLB.com 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.
This is a guest column, penned by my friend and colleague, Richard Hershberger, who thinks and writes inventively about the early game. His recent articles in the journal Base Ball include one on Philadelphia Town Ball (2007), one on baseball and rounders (2009), “The New Marlboro.’ Match Base Ball Co.” of 1863, and two on, respectively, baseball in New York in 1821 and Philadelphia in 1831.
The annual convention of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) met on the evening of March 27, 1859. There were delegates from twenty-one of the twenty-five member clubs, as well as from nineteen clubs applying for membership. Among the applicants was the Tiger Club, and therein lies a minor mystery of baseball history.
Many clubs from this era are obscure today. Even specialists in early baseball history are unlikely to be conversant with the details of the Tiger club’s fellow applicants such as the Katydid or Esculapian clubs. But while these clubs are obscure, they aren’t mysterious. One could comb through newspaper accounts easily enough and find such details as where these clubs played and who were their officers, and find accounts of matches played against other clubs.
The Tigers, by contrast, are a cipher. There was, until recently, no known record of their existence apart from their membership in the NABBP. Not even their home city was known.
Furthermore, their name is unusual. The taxonomy of antebellum baseball club names is fantastically varied, but animal names are largely absent. In modern sports it is common to name teams after animals, particularly species holding traits a team might wish to emulate. This is a later pattern. The only prominent early club named after an animal was the Eagle Club of New York, and this was most likely chosen for its patriotic associations. So while “Tiger” is an unremarkable team name today, it is very unusual for 1859.
The mystery of the Tigers was solved when I examined the New York Sunday Mercury for 1858. The Sunday Mercury was one of the most important baseball newspapers before the Civil War. It is largely overlooked today, probably because the issues are scattered among various libraries. Researcher Robert Tholkes and I have undertaken to gather these scattered issues. (Unfortunately, the years 1855-1857 appear to be entirely lost.)
The issue for September 5, 1858 includes a brief notice solving the mystery of the Tiger Base Ball Club:
The members of the Light Guard have organized a new club, entitled the “Tiger Base Ball Club,” and will play at the Red House grounds, Harlem. Their dress consists of red pants, white shirt, with black patent leather body belt, and white cap trimmed with red cord.
The Light Guards were an example of the characteristic 19th century phenomenon of private military volunteerism. Vestiges of this remain today with formations such as the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. The Light Guard survives as part of the Old Guard of the City of New York.
The Light Guard was founded in 1827 as an independent company of the New York militia. The militia was reorganized in the 1850s, eliminating independent companies, instead requiring them to be part of regiments. The Light Guard first joined the 55th Regiment, which had been formed by French-American immigrants. It initially had six “French” and four “American” companies, including the Light Guard. This arrangement was short-lived, as the 55th soon reorganized as a fully French formation. The Light Guard needed to find a new regiment. In August of 1858 they voted unanimously to join the 71st Regiment, the “American Guard,” of the New York State Militia as Company A. This marriage of convenience would not be entirely happy.
The 71st Regiment was organized in 1850 with ties to the nativist “Know Nothing Party.” Their service included the riot of 1857 between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. The 71st was called out to assisting in putting down the riot, during which they captured an eight pound howitzer.
There were several sources of discontent between the 71st and its new Company A. The regiment retained its suspicion of foreigners. The Light Guard’s recent association with a French-American regiment did little to endear it. A rumor spread that the Light Guard included several members of foreign birth, resulting in a protest meeting by the other companies.
The regiment is put in a better light by its regarding itself as a “working” unit, with the ambition “to excel all others in their drill and efficiency as a military body,” while the Light Guards had a reputation more as a social company, being “too fond of pleasure trips, balls and dinner parties.” They might not have been placated by the advice that “We hope our friends of the 71st will not act hastily in the matter, but remember, in the first place, the ‘Light Guard’ is composed of gentlemen in every sense of that term, and when on parade, good soldiers.”
This concern was not baseless. The Light Guard’s soirees and outings and visits with other socially elite units were widely reported in the newspapers. Furthermore, the Light Guard never really tried to fit in with the rest of the regiment. They continued their tradition of company balls, always emphasizing the name “Light Guard” and overlooking their regimental affiliation. They also retained their own uniform: and a resplendent uniform it was, with epaulettes and sash and bearskin shako.
In the event, the regiment was called to three month duty in 1861, and fought at First Bull Run. While this was a rout of the Union forces, the 71st as part of Burnside’s Brigade reportedly performed its duty well. They mustered in for a second three month term in 1862, when they were deployed as part of the defenses of Washington, and again for 30 days as part of the emergency response to Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, where they skirmished with Confederate forces.
That an organization such as the Light Guards might form a baseball club in 1858 is seemingly unremarkable. New York City was in the grip of baseball fever. All sorts of organizations were branching out into baseball. Ball clubs were formed by everything from volunteer fire companies to literary societies. A militia company would seem to fit right in, but this is not the case. Baseball would be a frequent camp recreation during the war, but no other militia company is known to have organized a baseball club before the war. The Light Guard, in forming a baseball club, found another way to set itself apart from other companies, and it stayed aloof by not playing match games with other clubs, instead restricting itself to intramural play.
As for the “Tiger” name, this mystery is also explained. This was a common nickname among militia guard companies, including the New York Light Guards. While it was not a normal name for a baseball club, it was a natural choice for the Light Guards.
It is not known how long the Tiger Base Ball Club lasted. Clearly it was a going concern into 1859, but the only mention after that is as a member of the NABBP in 1860, where it is among the clubs not voting whether to adopt the fly game rule. It is not clear if it sent a delegate. There is no record of the Light Guards playing baseball while in the active army, or of the Tiger Club after the war. While no longer a mystery, they remain the most obscure member of the NABBP.
1. New York Sunday Mercury March 13, 1859.
3. Undated article from the New York Express, quoted in Lowen, George Edward, ed., History of the 71 st Regiment, N.G., N.Y. pp. 32-41; The Veterans Association 71 st Regiment, N.G.N.Y. 1919.
4. Ibid. p. 66.
5. Ibid. pp. 59-60, quoting the New York Express August 25, 1858 and New York Atlas August 29, 1858.
6. Reports of Col. Ambrose E. Burnside, http://www.civilwarhome.com/burside1stmanassas.htm
8. New York Sunday Mercury March 18, 1860.
This is the foreword I provided to Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century, a book published this week by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). I post it to Our Game for its own interest, but also to suggest that 19th-century baseball will hold considerable fascination for any fan of today’s game. My additional sly motive is to persuade those of you who are not yet SABR members that you consider joining; see http://sabr.org.
Modern baseball—the very mention of that hideous phrase will curl the lip of any real historian of the game, and ought to bring a sickly silence upon any who would consider a truncated set of great players, great seasons, great moments. And yet “modern baseball” has attained a broad currency among journalists, announcers, even advanced fans, for whom the term may signify different things. Some will hold that modern baseball begins with the turn of the century in 1901, for no other reason than the march of time. Others will say that modern baseball begins with the first World Series in 1903, ignoring the reality of postseason championships played under that and other names since 1884. Some will hold out for 1920, when Babe Ruth came to New York, hit 54 home runs, and single-handedly, in an instant, swept out the deadball era. The socially conscious fan will aver that until Jackie Robinson stepped on a big-league field on April 15, 1947, major league baseball was bush league. Others will point to the first year of expansion, 1961, as the dawn of the modern game.
Among those in this Baseball Babel, however, one truth is held in common: the national pastime of the 19th century was a morass of quaint custom, ill-considered rules, unmatchable records, and unconscionable exclusion. Major League Baseball’s record keepers, when they proclaim new “firsts” or search the archives to find an appealing nugget for broadcast chatter, dismiss the passé century without a moment’s misgiving.
This book, then, stands as something of a corrective. Its title, Inventing Baseball, is in part ironic, as the game was not invented but instead evolved. Yet it is a fine title, because baseball continued to change in so many fascinating ways, from the 1840s on, that an air of invention could be said to have characterized the entire era. Not only was baseball’s rise and flower unsteady and halting, its status as the nation’s game was by no means guaranteed by the creation of what only much later came to be called Major League Baseball. Baseball’s fate hung in the balance as the 20th century dawned, following upon a brutal decade of interleague warfare and suicidal cartel practices, and contemporary observers thought that college football or competitive bicycling might surpass it by the dawn of the new century.
Early baseball, however you define or pinpoint it in the years before 1901, was indeed different from the game we see on the field today, yet there can be no doubt that it was baseball. Players in the big-league parks of the 1880s, packed with thousands of paying spectators, knew they were playing the same game that had been staged for free at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken in the 1840s.
Take a football fan of today to a gridiron contest played by the rules of 1890 and he might fairly say that the game and its equipment were so different from the one he knew that it might not seem to be the same game at all. From the size of the players to the shape of the pigskin bladder, from the ban on passing to the restrictions on substitution to the point values accorded to field goals and touchdowns, football reinvented itself, from a low-scoring game of mass momentum and dangerous formations to one of quick strikes and long gains. The same might be said of basketball at the turn of the century—that with the center jump, lumpy ball, and brutal play at the rim, the low-scoring fracas seemed like football without the padding.
Yet baseball was always baseball, as Bruce Catton noted in American Heritage in 1959:
The neat green field looks greener and cleaner under the lights, the moving players are silhouetted more sharply, and the enduring visual fascination of the game—the immobile pattern of nine men, grouped according to ancient formula and then, suddenly, to the sound of a wooden bat whacking a round ball, breaking into swift ritualized movement, movement so standardized that even the tyro in the bleachers can tell when someone goes off in the wrong direction—this is as it was in the old days. A gaffer from the era of William McKinley, abruptly brought back to the second half of the twentieth century, would find very little in modern life that would not seem new, strange, and rather bewildering, but put in a good grandstand seat back of first base he would see nothing that was not completely familiar.
And that is precisely our point, we several authors of this project, to identify the hundred greatest games before the 20th century, some of them played decades before the idea of league play was even a glimmer in the eye of Harry Wright or William Hulbert. Undertaken by members of the 19th Century Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research, of whom I am proudly one, Inventing Baseball provides the intrepid reader with a peephole into a little known and unfairly neglected period of the game, populated not with old heroes, feats and tales but new ones … or, to paraphrase Satchel Paige—ones that ain’t never been heard of by this generation. Maybe the reader will know King Kelly or Albert Spalding or other men honored today with plaques in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but what of Doc Adams, or Jim Creighton, or Fleet Walker?
Until Bobby Thomson hit “the shot heard ’round the world” on October 3, 1951, most veteran baseball observers believed that another game involving Brooklyn—the victory by that city’s Atlantics over the Red Stockings of Cincinnati on June 14, 1870—was the greatest in the game’s history. Where it will rank for the reader as he considers the entire panoply of baseball’s epic contests cannot be guessed, but this writer, who thirty years ago wrote a book titled Baseball’s Ten Greatest Games and was constrained by its publisher from dipping into the 19th century, will find it hard not to include that game in his unconstrained top ten.
Roger Angell wrote an essay for the New Yorker some decades back in which Smokey Joe Wood, hero of the 1912 World Series, sat in the stands watching a dazzling pitching duel between Yale’s Ron Darling and St. John’s Frank Viola. “The Seamless Web” he called his piece, to signify that these three great pitchers, separated by seven decades, belonged to the same fraternity, were made from the same fabric, were part of it. The writers in Inventing Baseball know that Joe Wood was also part of a tradition into which he entered, one that went back to John Clarkson and Hoss Radbourn, to Asa Brainard, Frank Pidgeon and the legendary Creighton. They were heroes all, those who graced the game in its formative years. They lived and labored in a thrilling period of invention. They made the game we love.
And these men deserve to be recalled by all baseball fans of today in their greatest moments, in the glory of our times as well as theirs. To know that Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter are part of a seamless web with Roger Connor and John Ward makes the experience of today’s games richer than merely to compare our stars with those since 1901.
Some of the names and games in this book may seem obscure even to knowledgeable enthusiasts (as fans were called before that term was coined in the 1880s), but the story of baseball has been played out on fields other than those of the National League, and by others than those whose playing records may be found in the encyclopedias (because they played “major-league ball” in the years since 1871). The writers/selectors of these hundred games to follow will have their personal favorites, in some measure reflected by their decision to speak for the editor’s assignment of a particular game. But every game reported in this book had numerous advocates and may be commended to your attention.
Editor Bill Felber has charged his crew to select and depict games of historic significance as well as visceral thrills. It would have been easy to choose a hundred cliffhangers, but then we might have overlooked the game that was first to be played before a paid crowd, or the game that for a moment made Fort Wayne the capital of the baseball world, or another in which the forces of good and evil seemed to be pitted against each other (cast in the uniforms of, respectively, Boston and Baltimore) for the National League title of 1897.
I could go on, highlighting more personal favorites or piquant inclusions, but it is time to move on, to read about the first games, or some in the middle, or ones at the end. They are arranged chronologically rather than in any kind of ranking. However, one may dip into this book randomly, as if it were a box of Cracker Jack, and provide oneself with an individualized nonlinear experience.
This is the game we love, we who have compiled this book for you, and the years before 1900 form our favorite period. We may not convince archivists or reporters of Major League Baseball that the early game was as exciting as the one they are covering, but we hope to convince you.
This is a guest column, penned by my longtime friend Fran Henry, whose trove of Henry Chadwick materials I examined with her kind permission more than two decades ago. How did she come by such wonderful stuff? She is a direct descendant of the man who long before his death in 1908 was called The Father of Baseball. This was not because anyone believed that he invented it–he always credited baseball’s parentage to rounders–but for his hugely successful labors, over half a century, to make baseball America’s national game. In the coming weeks and months Fran will create a special section of MLB’s Memory Lab project. It will create, through first-hand documents and artifacts, a highly personal portrait of a man most of us today know principally by his plaque in Cooperstown, awarded in the year before that institution opened its doors. Let Fran Henry tell of her most recent attic find:
It seems trite to rifle boxes filled decades ago, unearthing items packed even years before that, perhaps before World War II. Do people still possess attics and basements left untouched for so long that no one alive has seen their contents?
Yet I find myself poring through issues of The New York Clipper from the summer of 1892. They had been folded after being clipped of articles. Perhaps the missing columns concern baseball, stories no doubt written by my great-great-grandfather Henry Chadwick four generations ago when he was a journalist of sports, an arbiter of rules, inventor of the box score, and proselytizer of the game. I wonder if my grandmother, who would have been twelve during that summer, might have helped him to cut and to create scrapbooks, as she later helped him to tally scores and to type what he had written.
I discover a hefty pile of the papers, most marked with a blue or red pencil. I find pictures of Henry’s family, his wife and daughter, and then of my grandmother when she looked eager for adventure and a future. Here also are a few pieces of silver. Henry’s wife Jane must have given a ladle to her granddaughter as it was inscribed “To Avis from Granny.” I wonder if she gave it for a graduation, a wedding, a firstborn. It would not have been for my grandmother’s last child, my father, for her Granny had died three years before my father’s birth in 1918.
Looking further I find a cigar box with a label indicating my grandfather gave the contents to Henry in 1907. I pull out a feather-light carving in wood. Again I wonder what brought this gift to Grandpa Chadwick, as my grandmother always referred to him. In that year, he was 83 and would not live through another. Another item: a metal engraving of a season pass for a ball park.
The occasion for my discovery in 2013 is cleaning the basement of my parents’ home, a place built by my father in 1949 for his new family. My father, John Chadwick Worden, was Henry’s great grandson. Avicia Mortimer Eldridge Worden, my grandmother, was Henry’s third grandchild. Avis had looked after her grandparents as a young woman and had been born and lived within a mile of her grandparents’ summer home in Sag Harbor, New York.
Combing through boxes in 2013 recalled my distress of years before, in 1980, when I came home to Sag Harbor after my grandmother’s death to help my father clean her small cabin of all that she could not let go of, both treasures and trinkets, in her 98 years. I found my father searching corners and heaving nearly everything into the yard. He had no patience for sorting. This legacy had been a burden to his childhood. He remembered when a teenager in the 1930s his mother paying the storage bills for her family’s belongings while the two of them lacked food for the table. With such deprivation, I could understand his desire to pitch all of it. But I asked him to slow down. I found sheaves of poetry by Henry to his wife Jane, memorabilia from her grandparents’ homes in Brooklyn and Sag Harbor, and a few items of baseball lore. And then too my father must have kept a few of his mother’s boxes untouched, and here they were, shelved and forgotten.
In 1978 when I rescued my grandmother’s treasures from certain destruction, I did so because of stories Grandma told me. Avis had stayed the longest near the family home and she had inherited the personal keepsakes. From her, I knew that her grandfather had given his baseball material to Albert Spalding, who gave it to the New York Public Library for cataloging and safekeeping. I remember her saying that Henry was known as Father of Baseball, but not at the Baseball Hall of Fame, where he was enshrined as a sportswriter with the first inductees in 1938. My grandmother had sown a seed of distrust that the Baseball Hall of Fame would see Henry in a fair historical light. I had held onto my grandmother’s heirlooms for a few decades, not knowing what to do with them.
By 2000 I had constructed my own rough outline of Henry and Jane Chadwick’s life. I sold the collection to a private individual, trusting it would be the kernel of a museum exhibit. Now I wonder what my grandmother had hoped would become of all that she had saved. To be kind to her memory and to her admiration of “Grandpa Chadwick,” I must not box these mementos again and forget them. I must find a way to bring them out of the musty shadows.
–Fran Henry, July 2013
The previous post, Richard Hershberger’s article on the 1863 “New Marlboro Match Baseball Co.”, elicited this comment from reader Jim Roebuck: “One thing I’ve been trying to figure out – and I’ve read a fair amount about it, but I’m still confused – is the difference between town ball and the Massachusetts Game. Topic for another essay?” To this I replied, “The two are substantially different, but modern-day scribes have been calling all bat & ball games other than the New York Game “town ball” for a long time. This has bred confusion indeed, and prompted Richard Hershberger to tackle the subject in the journal Base Ball in the Fall 2007 number. I’ll run his full article, ‘A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball,’ in this space soon.”
Here ya go.
A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball
Modern baseball is descended from the game played in New York City at the middle of the 19th century. This version, however, was not the only one played in North America. The baseball family extended throughout English-speaking North America, in various versions and under different names, both as children’s games and in formal competitive communities of clubs of adults.
The best documented of these other forms is the game played in New England. There arose in the late 1850s extended communities of clubs in both New England and New York, holding conventions and publishing formal rules.
Smaller communities are known to have existed in various cities including Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Chicago, but none of these published its rules. There is a long tradition of assuming that the game played in these areas was substantially identical to the New England form, but there is little evidence to support this theory. The more conservative belief is that the rules are unrecoverable. A close examination of the evidence reveals, however, that the rules of the game as played in Philadelphia can be reconstructed.
A Brief History of Town Ball in Philadelphia
The American Sunday School Magazine reported in early 1830 that the previous summer a group of 18 adult rope makers met for a game of ball one Sunday afternoon near a Philadelphia orphanage. The matron of the institution remonstrated with them for breaking the Sabbath and invited them into the orphanage to see how the Sabbath was kept there. They heard the orphans sing a hymn, “This day belongs to God alone, He chooses Sunday for his own….” The ballplayers were moved to tears, and sat in perfect silence while hymns were sung, answers from the catechism recited, and verses of scripture repeated. The next Sunday every one of the 18 returned, decently dressed, and witnessed the exercise again. Many returned yet again for a third visit, moved to repent their former ways as Sabbath-breakers. Regardless of the veracity of this tale, it makes clear that the author considered the idea of adults playing ball plausible enough to include it without further explanation. Organized club play appears soon thereafter.
In 1831 a group of men in their mid-20s made the ferry ride across the Delaware River to Camden, New Jersey, to play town ball on Saturday afternoons. At the same time a club under the name “Olympic” convened to play town ball on the Fourth of July, and occasionally on other days as well. Following the example of the Saturday group, they began practicing on the same ground on Wednesdays. This led to a match game—among the earliest known, but with the results unrecorded. Following this the two groups merged, practicing two days a week as the Olympic Ball Club. They absorbed two other groups of town ball players over the years, probably in the late 1840s and early 1850s, the latter said to be graduates of Philadelphia’s Central High School. They played in Camden into the late 1850s, when they moved across the river to Pennsylvania.
This summary of what is known of town ball play prior to 1857 comes from two documents: the Olympic Ball Club constitutions of 1838 and 1866, the latter including a brief history of the club. It is obvious that town ball play was not confined to the Olympics, but the evidence has not come down to us. A hint of its existence is given by the Honey Run Club of Germantown.
Germantown had been an independent borough in Philadelphia County, about six miles from the City of Philadelphia and most famous as the site of a Revolutionary War battle. The Act of Consolidation of 1854 unified the City and County of Philadelphia, reducing Germantown’s status to a mere neighborhood. It was still separated from the urban center by farmland and retained its distinct character for many years.
The earliest evidence for town ball play in Germantown is a record of a game played in September 1857. Twenty grown men who had been schoolmates gathered and divided into teams. The event had a nostalgic air to it: The lot “presented somewhat the appearance of other days” and “the old ‘schoolmates’ seemed to enjoy each other’s company as ‘in days of yore.’” Clearly town ball was no longer a novelty at that point. It is less clear, however, if adults playing the game was. The only clear peculiarity was that the game was reported in the press, via a letter by the pseudonymous “Sport.”
The next record of the game’s appearance in Germantown dates to November 1859. The Honey Run Town Ball Club, “consisting of twenty practised members,” challenged the other clubs in town for a match on Thanksgiving Day. The Balsch and the Charter Oak clubs declined. The Honey Run met to prepare for an intraclub game, when two delegates from the Marion Club appeared to accept the challenge—to play for a supper. Both clubs set to practicing at every opportunity, and music was engaged for the day of the match, again reported by “Sport.” The game came off splendidly, the Honey Run winning by two runs in an exciting finish that prompted “Sport” to provide what is by far the most complete extant account of a town ball game (see sidebar). The Honey Run later presented their ball giver, the hero of the game’s climax, with a gold ring at a festive dinner.The Honey Run make one more appearance the following spring, on Easter Monday, playing an intraclub match, this time reported by “Saint,” and some members turned up in the Army of the Potomac playing town ball in 1863. There are no further mentions of the Balsch, Charter Oak, or Marion clubs.
There were, then, at least four organized clubs in Germantown, apparently playing mostly intraclub games and going virtually unnoticed by the press. The reports of the Honey Run’s exploits result from the combination of an enthusiastic correspondent and the rise of a New York sporting press willing to publish such reports. Both games of the Honey Run took place on holidays; one of the groups founding the Olympic club had existed specifically to play on the Fourth of July. The evidence suggests, then, that there was a tradition of holiday play in the Philadelphia area that evolved—perhaps due to rising urbanization—into clubs formed to organize this recreational activity. A modern equivalent is the Philadelphia mummer clubs, which put on an annual New Year’s parade. Their activities entailed preparing for, participating in, and recuperating from this one day.
A different tradition also developed in the late 1850s: competitive club play. This new brand of ball club closely resembled the New York clubs. By 1859 there were at least four such clubs, some fielding first and second teams. The Excelsior club was active at least by 1859, while the Camden club organized in 1857; the Athletic club organized May 31, 1859. They, along with the Olympics, were playing match games at least by 1858, with the Olympics and the Camdens playing three that year. Gone was the old habit of absorbing and internalizing competition. In its place evolved a competitive ballplaying community much like that in New York, but about five years behind New York in its development.
This new brand of Philadelphia town ball was not to last long. On Thanksgiving Day of 1858 the newly formed “Penn Tigers Social Base Ball and Quoit Club” played Pennsylvania’s first New York baseball game. Late in the following season they were joined by the Pennsylvanias, the Nonpareils, and the Continentals. The spring of 1860 saw the fad for the New York game take off. By May there were not fewer than 10 clubs, with more added as the season progressed. The first interclub match game was played June 11 by the Equity and the Winona (formerly the Penn Tigers), the Winonas winning 39–11. In September the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn visited Philadelphia, defeating a picked nine 15–4, bringing Philadelphia into the expanding baseball fraternity.
The competitive town ball clubs joined in the transition to the New York game. The Athletics voted in early 1860 to switch, and they never looked back. There is no record of their ever playing town ball again, and they nearly forgot they had ever done so. Within a year, 1860 was being published as their foundation date. The Excelsiors held out, playing only town ball the season of 1860; but by 1861 they too had adopted the New York game. The Camdens are a cipher; there is no sign of them after 1860. A Camden club appeared several years later playing the New York game, but there is no obvious connection between it and the town ball club.
The Olympics in May 1860 also voted to make the switch. They didn’t abandon town ball entirely and immediately, playing a match game with the Excelsiors and scheduling an intrasquad game as late as 1862. In 1864, New York journalist Henry Chadwick claimed that the Olympics “favor [town ball] almost entirely; and but for a few members would not play Base Ball at all.” Chadwick certainly vastly overstated the case. He had recently been accosted by a member of the club and threatened with violence over his reporting, and his assessment of the Olympics was not dispassionate. Nonetheless, for the assertion to be plausible to its readers would require that the Olympics were, at least to some extent, still playing town ball. Unlike the Athletics, they embraced their early history and the prestige of seniority. (The Philadelphia press was always ready to point out that the Olympics were older than the Knickerbockers.) The Olympics lasted nearly another quarter century, but with no reports of them, or anyone else, playing organized town ball.
“Town Ball” and “Base Ball”
It is necessary to undertake a linguistic digression in order to define what is and is not accomplished by describing Philadelphia town ball. The baseball family of games was, in the mid–19th century, widely played in both North America and in Britain. Not yet standardized, there were innumerable local variants. The games also went by various names but, unlike the variant rules, the number of names was small.
In Britain the oldest name was “base ball,” while the game was known as “feeder” in the London region. Both names died out, with “base ball” being included in a list of archaic words. Their place was taken by “rounders.” In New England the term “round ball” was used in early days, but largely disappeared over the first half of the 19th century. Two names prevailed in North America: The old term “base ball” dominated in New England, New York, and the Great Lakes region, while “town ball” prevailed in Pennsylvania and the Ohio River and upper Mississippi valleys.
With more local variant forms than there were names, it is obvious that name and game did not always represent clear 1:1 relationships. Into the 1860s this was considered unremarkable, and the press published remarks such as “Base Ball at Ingersoll…The game played in Canada differs somewhat from the New York game…” and “Town Ball at Evansville, Ind….the rules and regulations for playing the game of town ball vary a great deal.” The two forms that were standardized in the 1850s were both called “base ball,” so they were distinguished as the “New York game” and the “Massachusetts game.” This was unnecessary with regard to regions using “town ball,” with the New York press using the unmodified “base ball” to refer to the New York game.
The New York game came to dominate all others over the 1860s, so local variants in the old “base ball” regions came to be described as “old fashioned base ball.” In later years, people became uncomfortable applying “base ball” to anything other than the New York game. The name “town ball” was adopted retroactively in regions that had never used the term, including renaming the Massachusetts game. Just as it was assumed that “base ball” could mean only one variant, so it was assumed that “town ball” must also apply to just one form. Even as astute an observer as Robert W. Henderson, the first serious student of the early game, wrote in 1947, “A town ball team was fully organized in Philadelphia in 1833 and it continued to be played in New England until 1860, where it was known as ‘The Massachusetts Game.’ ” A purported description of town ball followed this quotation, but it actually described the Massachusetts game. Fallacy is layered atop fallacy.
So the reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball presented here is no more than that—a reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball. It should not be taken as a reconstruction of any other regional form, including any other variant also called “town ball.” There is no evidence to suggest that “town ball” forms were any more or less similar to one another than they were to variants of “base ball” or “rounders.” This reconstruction applies merely to the Philadelphia region, and the Philadelphia region stands out only in that its town ball is unusually well documented and thus particularly well suited for such a project.
Finally, the terms used in this article are the “baseball family” to refer collectively to the related forms of the game, whether locally called “base ball,” “town ball,” or “rounders”; the “New York game” and the “Massachusetts game” are so called, to avoid ambiguity. The game in and around Philadelphia is called “Philadelphia town ball” or, for brevity and when the context is clear, simply “town ball.”
The sources used to reconstruct the rules of Philadelphia town ball fall into three categories, in order of decreasing reliability:
Box scores, in particular of three match games: one between the first teams of the Olympic and Excelsior clubs played July 12, 1860, and two between the second teams of the Excelsior and Camden clubs, played July 9 and July 23, 1860. These are elaborate records, including the fielding records and how the players were put out—information not found in modern baseball box scores. They bespeak sophisticated scorekeeping, and are the most objective source of information we have. Box scores of the New York game had not yet been standardized, and ranged from rudimentary records resembling modern box scores, to extended records with fielding and “how put out” records, much like contemporary cricket boxes and comparable to these three town ball boxes. The more elaborate forms were used for important games, implying that the three town ball games were considered significant at the time.
Contemporary game accounts: The account of the Honey Run Club’s game of Thanksgiving Day 1859 is by far the most complete account extant. There are, however, various shorter, fragmentary descriptions that shed light on certain aspects of the game. Narrative accounts are more subjective than box scores, and require more interpretation, but as contemporary texts written by reporters familiar with the game, they are likely to be accurate.
Retrospective descriptions: The most important of these is the historical sketch included with the 1866 constitution of the Olympic club, which shares some text with a sketch of the club published in 1861. Reminiscences are inherently suspect, but in 1866 town ball was still a recent memory, with the club retaining members from its town ball days, while in 1861 a description was only barely retrospective. Also notable is a sketch of the Olympic club published in 1884. The Olympics were still a going concern, and the article includes a hint of reference to club records since lost. It is unique for pieces of such a late date in that it does not rely on the 1866 sketch, yet is still consistent with the known facts.
The previous section emphasized the diversity of the baseball family. Nevertheless, we can still assume a degree of unity amongst the various games.
It is assumed that the competitive Philadelphia town ball clubs played under similar sets of rules. There is no direct evidence for this, but there are no reports of negotiating rules as was sometimes found in other areas. There were conventions among both New York and New England clubs in the 1850s to standardize their rules. There is no hint of a similar convention of Philadelphia clubs in the town ball era. A likelier guess is that the rules of the Olympic Club, as the senior, prestige club, were adopted by the other clubs (in much the same way that the laws of cricket were the club rules of the Marylebone Club in England), or at least that the other clubs adopted field rules with only minor variations. These rules are what this article attempts to reconstruct.
It is also assumed that the noncompetitive clubs such as the Honey Run were playing essentially the same game as the Olympics, although likely in a less formal manner. This is the opposite assumption from that commonly made of the New York game. Modern writers generally acknowledge that some version of the baseball family was long played in New York, but assume that the game the Knickerbockers played as of 1845 was in its essence different from that of earlier generations. The rules of the Knickerbockers have more than their share of peculiarities compared with other members of the baseball family, but there is little direct evidence of the rules under which young New Yorkers were playing in the 1830s. It is not actually known whether the peculiarities of the New York game originated with the Knickerbockers or were inherited by them. That the game of the Olympics was the same as that of the Honey Runs is not provable. Indeed, some of the vocabulary applied to the non-competitive club games is not found in the competitive matches. But unlike pre-Knickerbocker New York baseball, we can compare accounts of competitive and non-competitive Philadelphia town ball and observe that they seem to be similar, and guess from this that the account of the Honey Run’s match can illuminate the Olympic game.
Finally, it is assumed that Philadelphia town ball was a member of the broad baseball family, sharing characteristics of the family. For example, nothing in the accounts of Philadelphia town ball explains what an “inning” is; but since the word is used the same way throughout the baseball family, there is no need to believe that an “inning” in Philadelphia town ball presents any mystery.
The Rules of the Game
The Players: A team consisted of 11 players, unless the clubs agreed to some lower number. A match in 1858 between the Olympics and the Camdens was played with nine on a side. The Germantown games were more variable, as would be expected of the less formal context, with typically 10 or 11 on a side. That 11 was normative, at least among the competitive clubs, is shown by the routine use of “first eleven” and “second eleven” to designate the clubs’ first and second teams. New York clubs used the analogous “first nine” and “second nine,” but the likely source for Philadelphia’s rule was the identical usage—well established by the late 1850s—of first and second elevens of cricket clubs. In November 1859 the Pennsylvania Base Ball Club formed to play the New York game. In their first intraclub game they played 11 on a side, apparently not having carefully studied the New York rules. They realized their mistake, or it was pointed out to them, and by the end of the month they were playing nine on a side.
The only players with assigned positions were the ball giver and the behind, corresponding to the modern pitcher and catcher. It was typical of the baseball family that the other defensive players had no fixed assignments. The New York game abolished the general practice of throwing the ball at the runner and replaced it with tagging the base or runner. This led to the assigning of players to man each base. In other forms there was no need for this, and the players could position themselves as strategy or whim dictated. (A vestige of this can be seen in the modern game, comparing the position of the first basemen with a runner on base versus without.)
The Field: The bases were five stakes arranged in a circle of approximately thirty feet in diameter. The small size of the playing field is perhaps the most surprising aspect of Philadelphia town ball. The sources on this subject are consistent and clear. The 1861 article on the Olympics noted that some older members retired when the New York game was adopted, since “three hundred and sixty feet, compared with the old town ball circle of eighty feet, was enlarging the sphere of action with a vengeance.” The 1884 account described the circles as “about thirty feet.” A circle 30 feet in diameter has a circumference of about 94 feet. It is likely that the distances were not intended to be precise and, as will be seen, the batter probably did not run the entire circumference anyway.
This is the smallest documented size of any field of the baseball family, with about 19 feet between bases. The Massachusetts game had basepaths of 40–60 feet. In 1828 The Boy’s Own Book by William Clarke described the four-base diamond formation with the bases “placed from twelve to twenty yards asunder.” This is usually interpreted as the length of the basepaths, though the Knickerbocker rules of 1845 defined the size of the diamond as the distance between home and second, and first and third. If the 1828 distance is measured similarly this still results in basepaths more than 25 feet in length. The earliest known rules for baseball, published by Johann Chistoph Friedrich Gutsmuths in 1796, placed the bases 10–15 paces apart, making it the variant closest to Philadelphia town ball.
David Block notes a trend within the baseball family of the field gradually expanding. The Philadelphia town ball field seems to have been a uniquely antique feature retained from the ancestral game.
The use of stakes was one standard option in the baseball family, used in the Massachusetts game and surviving in modern rounders in Britain. The relevant sources agree that stakes were used in Philadelphia. These include the 1884 account, which called them “sticks,” and an 1862 account of the history of the Athletics, which poetically described their switch from town ball to baseball as the adoption of “the bases instead of the stakes.” The account of the Honey Run match mentions flags being placed at the corners. “Corner” is a synonym for base found in some later accounts of early baseball. In 1867 the “Home Run Polka” was published by a Philadelphia publisher, dedicated to the National Base Ball Club of Washington. The Nationals had from their inception played the New York game, but the front page bore a strange illustration of a baseball game—apparently drawn by an artist who had never actually seen the New York game played, and conflating elements of the New York game with older forms. It features stakes misplaced halfway down the basepaths, with small rectangular flags. It is possible the artist recalled these from town ball games. There is no evidence of whether or not they were used by the competitive clubs.
The arrangement in a circle is unusual but not without precedent. Early forms of baseball had been flexible about the number of bases. Most later forms standardized this at four bases. The Massachusetts game is conventionally characterized as having five bases, but it actually had four stakes and a designated location for the batter. Placing the batter in the familiar location at home base presents obvious practical problems if home base is a stake. So the batter was moved to the first-base side in those forms of baseball using stakes. The 1884 account of Philadelphia town ball states explicitly that there were five stakes. The only other example of five bases so arranged was described in 1855 in the Manual of British Rural Sports. [Editor's note: Richard wrote this article three years before the unearthing of the New Marlboro rules and diagram, with their five bases. See: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/05/21/new-marlboro/]
This circular arrangement raises the question of where the batter was placed. Following the pattern of other forms with stakes, he likely was about midway between fifth (or home) and first base. This hypothetical reconstruction also shortens the circumference of the path to run to about 85 feet—close to the 1861 stated distance of 80 feet.
Pitching: There is no direct evidence of where the ball giver stood, but every known form of baseball places him somewhere within the area delineated by the bases. This was so strongly assumed that the Knickerbocker rules of 1845 didn’t bother to mention it. There is no direct evidence concerning whether the ball giver delivered the ball overhand, as in the Massachusetts game, or underhand, as in the New York game, but it was almost certainly underhand.
The Massachusetts game featured a swift delivery, attempting to overpower the batter, while the early New York game featured a soft toss intended merely to put the ball in play. The tiny distance between the ball giver and the batter in Philadelphia town ball seems ill suited for a swift delivery. For the games with full box scores it is readily apparent who the behind was, and on one occasion the behind was singled out for praise for his good fielding. But the identity of the ball giver is usually (and conspicuously) omitted in these accounts. Wyn Stokes, the Honey Run’s ball giver, was the hero of their game against the Marions, but for making the game-ending defensive play, not for his pitching.
Finally, there is once again the negative evidence of silence regarding a possible change in pitching style when the New York game was adopted. This difference was a topic of comment in comparisons between the New York and Massachusetts games, so one would expect the subject to have arisen had there in fact been substantial changes.
This all suggests that the delivery was a slow, underhanded form similar to that of modern slow-pitch softball.
The ball and bat: The 1884 article states that the ball was “much lighter and softer than the ball of the present time.” It also states that the players had to make their own balls and bats, and there indeed is no evidence for commercial manufacture of town ball implements. Under the circumstances, it is likely that the balls varied widely, and were probably quite dead.
Various forms of bat were found in the baseball family. Two-handed round bats were used in both the New York and Massachusetts games, but other forms included one-handed bats (used in modern rounders) and flat bats (like those used in cricket) of various sizes, often described as “paddles.” Once again there is an absence of discussion on the subject, suggesting that the town ball bats were two-handed round bats like those used in the New York and Massachusetts games.
Ending the inning: The inning was ended when every player on the side had been put out. This is one of two common versions in the baseball family, the other being the inning ending when one player was put out. The New York game’s feature of ending the inning after three outs was unique.
Getting out: The three 1860 box scores feature “How Put Out” headings for each out, divided into five categories: Fly, Bound, Behind, No Balls, and Stakes. There also is a section recording each player’s fielding record, listing Fly, Bound, and Behind. Modern baseball scoring rules require that every out be credited to a fielder, but Philadelphia town ball felt no such obligation, suggesting that No Balls and Stakes were not considered fielding accomplishments. Table I below lists the percentage of outs made in each category, while Tables 2 and 3 split these: the July ¡2 game between the first elevens of the Olympics and Excelsiors in Table 2, and the July 9 and July 23 games between the second elevens of the Excelsiors and the Camdens in Table 3, with the differences attributable to the varying skill levels of the first and second elevens.
“Fly” outs are exactly as they are in modern baseball. The fly out is a universal feature of the baseball family, and even extends beyond it to cricket.
“Bound” outs are balls caught on the first bounce. Philadelphia town ball shared this feature with the contemporary New York game.
“Behind” outs are more mysterious. The breakdowns of outs by fielder lead to the unsurprising conclusion that these outs are credited to the behind (i.e. the catcher). In the July 12 game, all but two of the 70 behind outs are credited to the two players identified in the account as the behinds (the other two presumably made during a defensive switch), and the two behinds each made over twice as many outs a the next-most productive fielder. But what, exactly, was a “behind”? The answer may lie in the apparent fact that the behinds are never credited with other sorts of outs (except when the box score indicates a defensive switch). One would expect the behind to be in a position to catch pop flies and, on the bound, balls tipped backwards into the ground. Both of these were common ways for New York–game catchers to make outs. So the “behind” category may have been created for statistical purposes, distinct from fly and bound outs because the behind had so many more opportunities. A reverse analogy of sorts might be found in the way modern baseball scoring has the distinct categories of passed balls and wild pitches, rather than including them simply as errors.
Fly, bound, and behind outs account for more than 90 percent of the recorded outs. The remaining categories played relatively minor roles.
“No Ball” is a somewhat confusing term. It is not found elsewhere in the baseball family, but it occurs in cricket. A cricket “no ball” is a ball bowled beyond the reach of the batsman, and the fielding team is penalized. The Philadelphia town ball “no ball” is detrimental to the batting team, so it clearly is not the cricket “no ball.” More likely, these outs correspond to the modern strikeout. This was an old feature of the baseball family, going back to the 18th century. If the batter swung at and missed three pitches, he was ruled out if the third pitch was caught, but the ball was considered to be in play if the behind failed to catch it. This is the origin of the modern dropped–third strike rule, and the Massachusetts game had a similar rule. With soft deliveries, “no balls” were not a major feature, accounting for about 8 percent of all outs, and only 5 percent in the first elevens’ games.
“Stakes” are probably, if only through the process of elimination, fielded balls thrown at the runner, striking him between bases. This was a widespread feature of the baseball family, often called “soaking” or “plugging” the runner. Abolishing the practice was one of the major innovations of the New York game. Stakes were quite rare in Philadelphia town ball for reasons that will be discussed below, accounting for less than 2 percent of all outs. But as the account of the climax of the Honey Run–Marion match shows, they could be dramatic.
Running the bases: Running the bases on balls in play is a universal feature of the baseball family. Philadelphia town ball has the variant that the batter lacked the option of stopping at a base—every at bat resulted in a home run or an out. The 1884 account is explicit about this: “The striker was compelled to make a complete circuit upon each hit in order to score.” Every other known member of the baseball family allows station-to-station advancement through the bases. This and the small field size are the two striking peculiarities of Philadelphia town ball, and clearly are connected with one another. The entire circuit was shorter than the modern distance from home to first base, and advancing station to station would be a trivial achievement.
Several accounts of Germantown games mention “grannies.” One of them reveals that this is a score, distinguishing between “regular circuits” and “grannies,” with over 10 times as many regular circuits as grannies. The captain of the Honey Run club in their match against the Marions was described as a “granny runner.” A possibility is that grannies were scores which required the runner to dodge an attempted stake, while regular circuits were made on unfielded balls. No account of the competitive club matches mentions grannies or makes any distinction between different types of runs.
The requirement to make a complete circuit on each hit raises the related question of whether the bases served the role of safe havens. This is a general feature—so much so that it sometimes is considered a defining characteristic of the baseball/cricket family. But if the runner must continue running, the safe-haven status seems moot. The Honey Run–Marion account suggests that the bases did retain this function, if only vestigially. In the climactic play of the game, Righter of the Marions hit the ball and before he had reached the third corner (i.e. halfway around the bases), Wyn Stokes of the Honey Runs had the ball in his hands. “This was a critical time…every player was nervous with excitement. The marksman stood still; Righter afraid to move. Wyn’s arm drew back, and with terrific force, catching ‘Marion’ (just making a fine dodge) about three inches above the ancle [sic] bone.” Was the immobility of Righter and Stokes a tactical decision? Should we chalk it up to nerves? Or was it mere dramatic license by the chronicler? Taking it at face value, one possible interpretation is that Stokes didn’t throw immediately because Righter was touching a base, then Righter made a break for the next base, unsuccessfully attempting to dodge the throw. On the other hand, the scene is very cinematic, and possibly fictional. It seems somewhat likelier that the bases were vestigially safe havens, but by then the runner could not linger and allow the fielder with the ball to approach him.
The complete-circuit requirement removes one of the difficulties inherent in all-out innings: what to do when the batter is stranded on a base. In cricket there must always be two men on offense, so while there are 11 men on a side the inning is over after 10 outs. Many versions of the baseball family have special rules for the last man, typically allowing a home run to cancel the previous outs, restarting his side’s inning. Philadelphia town ball had no need for any such rule, there being no mechanism for stranding a runner.
This also raises a question about the batting order. Box scores clearly show a set batting order, but there is no indication whether a successful batter returns immediately to bat, as in cricket, or if the next man in the lineup takes his place, as in the New York game, cycling through the shrinking roster of batters not yet put out. The latter is more consistent with other members of the baseball family, but the former seems a better fit to this version. That said, there is no direct evidence, since no account combines a batting order with the name of the final batter.
A final possible nicety is that the runner was not required to touch the bases as he went by. In 1862 a reporter from the New York Clipper, probably Henry Chadwick, accompanied a group of Brooklyn players to Philadelphia. His report included advice on fine points such as the need to put down chalk lines to delineate the foul lines, and that the Philadelphia players needed to learn to touch the bases. One reason for this requirement is to prevent the runner from cutting corners; but the town ball stakes would clearly define the circle outside of which the player must run. The Clipper’s advice may indicate a vestige of town ball play.
The Umpire: The office of umpire was much less important than in the New York game. The 1838 Olympic constitution assigned this duty to the scorekeeper, who was a club officer, but this obviously would have been inadequate for matches between clubs. The Honey Run–Marion match had two umpires and a referee. Early New York matches followed the same pattern, with an umpire from each club and a neutral third party should the umpires be unable to reach agreement. It soon became apparent that the club appointees were superfluous and a single neutral umpire became standard. Competitive Philadelphia town ball clubs apparently followed the same progression, as the one mention of the office, in one of the Excelsior–Camden matches, named a single man in the role.
There are no descriptions of complaints about the umpire, nor any of the admonishments against this behavior so common in the New York game. The Philadelphia players were not more virtuous: Such descriptions and admonishments appear soon after the New York game was established there. The New York–game umpire was (and is) called upon to make many close judgments, even before the advent of called balls and strikes: Did the ball land foul or fair? Did the ball arrive at the bag first, or the runner? The Philadelphia town ball umpire’s task was less challenging, with the occasional decision on whether a ball was cleanly caught or the rare staking of a runner. This lesser responsibility brought with it fewer complaints.
Ending the game: How to know when the game is over is normally a straightforward question, but there is no obvious answer in this case. There are two common solutions: playing to a fixed score or playing a fixed number of innings. Both are found in the baseball family. The early New York games played in Massachusetts played to a fixed score: 100 and 21 runs, respectively. The New York game switched to the modern nine innings in 1857. Town ball in Cincinnati was played to four innings. Cricket was played by innings: one or two, depending on what the clubs arranged. So either scheme was freely available for Philadelphia town ball, but neither seems to have been applied. Competitive matches came in variously at 11, 12, and 19 innings. The Honey Run–Marion match lasted a mere two innings. The line scores, where available, make clear that extra innings to break a tie were not at issue. Had games been played to a fixed score, however, one would expect it to have been a round number—but this is clearly not the case. Recorded scores include 119–81, 85–75, 80–42, 87–71, and 71–66.
The remaining possibility is that they played for a predetermined period of time. Several accounts of both competitive match games and of Germantown games mention the time of play, consistently running about four hours. The Olympic–Excelsior match of July 12, 1860, ended at 6:30. This is too early to be forced by darkness (even before the advent of daylight savings time), but it is a splendid time to stop for supper. Playing to a fixed ending time is uncharacteristic of the baseball family, but it was the de facto rule even in modern baseball before the advent of lights, and it was not uncommon for teams to agree on an ending time in the days when teams had trains to catch. It is likely that this was the de jure method of ending Philadelphia town ball games.
The Course of Play
The fundamental skills of Philadelphia town ball were identical to those of the early New York game: throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball. When the newly formed Mercantile Club lost to the Athletic Club, the Mercantiles ascribed their loss to the Athletics’ experience playing town ball. Based on the evidence at hand, the players’ argument seems entirely plausible. The Olympics were clearly the champion town ball club of Philadelphia, and—following their adoption of the New York game—their title of champion was acknowledged to carry over to the new game. Their play bore this out, and they successfully defended their title for several years.
In strategy, Philadelphia town ball falls short of its relatives. Indeed, it is difficult to see where there is any strategy at all, if we take “strategy” to mean adjusting one’s style of play according to the game situation. In Philadelphia town ball, a “plate appearance” can produce only two possible results: a score (and the right to a subsequent attempt) or an out. There is no possible benefit to be accrued by sacrificing an out, and no partial benefits of getting on base or additional benefits of driving in multiple runs. So there is no reason to bat differently in different strategic situations, and while the fielding team might make adjustments for stronger or weaker batters, this should technically be considered “tactics” rather than “strategy.”
The vast majority of outs were made on fly balls, either caught on the fly or the bound. Unfortunately, there is no record of how most of the runs were made: on uncaught fly balls or on ground balls. The first run of the Honey Run–Marion match was made on a ground ball, but we don’t know if that was common or rare. Given how rare stakes were, it seems that hitting ground balls would be the surest approach. Or perhaps stakes were rare because the fielders played close in, making ground balls dangerous, and batters preferred to hit fly balls. It is a good bet that the ball was dead by modern standards; but one of the vast uncertainties is how dead it was, and, by extension, how far the fielders had to spread out.
The How Put Out box reveals the difference in skill level between the first and the second elevens. The first elevens were twice as likely to catch a ball on the fly, while the second favored catching it on the bound. Journalists discussed the relative merits of the two in the New York game. Much of this discussion was ideological, with fly catches judged more manly, but part of it was pragmatic: On uneven ground the fielder could not count on a true bounce, so a fly catch was, when possible, the more reliable play. Whether for practical or ideological reasons, more skillful players preferred to catch balls on the fly.
Similarly, the second teams had more trouble putting the bat on the ball, being twice as likely to be put out on a “no ball.” But even with the second elevens these represented only 10 percent of all outs. This is low by modern standards, but comparable to strikeouts in contemporary New York games, as can be seen in the extended box score for a New York game between the Olympic and Hamilton clubs, with the clubs combining for five strikeouts.
The Honey Run–Marion match took approximately the same time as the competitive matches, and the final score was similar; yet it lasted only two innings, compared with the 11 or so innings of the competitive matches. There are two aspects that require explanation: why the scoring per inning was so much higher in the Honey Run–Marion match, and why the innings took so much longer to complete.
The likely explanation for the high scoring per inning is that the fundamental skill of batting (in a slow-pitch era) was easier than the fundamental skill of fielding (in an era long before fielder’s gloves). Henry Chadwick long held, in the New York game, that a low score—indicative of skillful fielding—was the true measure of a well played game. This is often regarded today as quaint ideology, and Chadwick undoubtedly held on to the idea long past the time when the game was more about pitching and hitting than fielding. But in the earlier era, the capability of amateur players reliably to catch a ball could not be assumed.
As to the length of an inning, the competitive matches maintained a furious rate of activity. The Olympic–Excelsior game had 240 outs in 11 innings (two short of the expected 242 because the Olympics played the first inning shorthanded) and 158 runs, for a total of 398 game events (defining a “game event” as either a run or an out) in the recorded four and a quarter hours, or a game event approximately every 38 seconds. This is not counting unhit balls and not taking into account the time taken to exchange places between half innings. The Honey Runs and the Marions, being more social than competitive, may simply have played the game at a leisurely pace.
The sum of the evidence strongly suggests that the competitive matches were played more skillfully and more aggressively and, simply put, more happened.
The Massachusetts game is frequently taken as being representative of the baseball family as a whole, which is assumed to be largely uniform. The New York game in turn is assumed to be an outgrowth of this, with certain innovations.
The one idea to take away from this reconstruction of Philadelphia town ball, apart from any interest the rules themselves might hold, is that the baseball family was more variable than is typically imagined. The basic framework was of a bat-and-ball game with bases arranged in a polygon. Within this framework there were various options (e.g. bound outs) and room for unique features (e.g. the absence of station-to-station running in Philadelphia town ball, or three-out innings in the New York game).
With the Massachusetts and New York games and Philadelphia town ball differing so much from one another, it is reasonable to assume that the myriad lesser-known forms were similarly varied. Before the New York game came to displace the other variants, the game was anything but homogeneous. It was a motley, with the New York game being only one form among many.
1. Compare this with the later practice of New York clubs playing in Hoboken. The reasons were the same: Urban development overran convenient playing grounds in the cities but mass transit systems had not yet arisen; it was easier to take the ferry to less-developed New Jersey than to make a road trip.
2. The 1838 constitution is [was] available at http://world.std.com/~pgw/19c/. The only known extant copy of the 1866 pamphlet is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.
3. New York Clipper: Sept. 19, 1857.
4. New York Clipper: Nov. 12, 1859; Dec. 3, 1859; Dec. 17, 1859.
5. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Apr. 28, 1860; New York Clipper: Nov. 14, 1863; Nov. 28, 1863.
6. Fitzgerald’s City Item (Philadelphia), October 22, 1859, included them in a list of local “ball clubs.”
7. New York Clipper: Aug. 21, 1858: a letter from the secretary states the club had been organized “about a year.”
8. New York Clipper: May 10, 1862. The traditional date for the founding of the Athletics is April 7, 1860. This in fact is the date when the club voted to adopt the New York game. Their origin as a town ball club is discussed in the Clipper article. They are also included in the list in Fitzgerald’s City Item, Oct. 22, 1859.
9. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858; June 19, 1858; July 3, 1858.
10. New York Clipper: Nov. 27, 1858.
11. New York Clipper: Nov. 26, 1859; Dec. 24, 1859.
12. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): May 28, 1860; New York Clipper: May 19, 1860.
13. New York Clipper: June 30, 1860. The first match game in Philadelphia is often incorrectly identified as that of June 26 between the Equity and the Pennsylvania clubs.
14. New York Clipper: Oct. 6, 1860.
15. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Feb. 9, 1861.
16. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): May 28, 1860; New York Clipper: Oct. 19, 1861.
17. Philadelphia Inquirer: May 21, 1862.
18. Brooklyn Eagle: Aug. 6, 1864; Aug. 3, 1864.
19. The oldest known attested use of “base-ball” is from 1744; see: Block, D. 2005. Baseball Before We Knew It. Lincoln, Neb. (p. 178). For “feeder,” see ibid., p. 138.
20. Halliwell, J. 1847. Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs. London (p. 146).
21. New York Clipper: Aug. 11, 1860; June 9, 1860.
22. The New York game is conventionally said to originate with the Knickerbocker Club rules of 1845, but it was the meeting of the Knickerbockers and three other clubs in 1854 that produced a standard set of rules for interclub match play.
23. Astifan, P., and L. McCray, “‘Old Fashioned Base Ball’ in Western New York, 1825–1860” (forthcoming).
24. Henderson, R. 2001. Ball, Bat and Bishop. Chicago/Urbana (p. 151).
25. New York Clipper: Aug. 4, 1860; Aug. 11, 1860.
26. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Mar. 2, 1861.
27. The Sporting Life: Dec. 31, 1884.
28. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858.
29. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): Nov. 11, 1859; Nov. 28, 1859.
30. Block 2005, 279–280.
31. Ibid., 81–82.
32. New York Clipper: May 10, 1862.
33. Block 2005, 276.
34. New York Clipper: Sept. 19, 1857.
35. New York Clipper: July 12, 1862.
36. Sunday Dispatch (Philadelphia): Nov. 20, 1859.
37. The Press (Philadelphia): July 12, 1860.
38. This is consistent with contemporary accounts, such as that from the New York Clipper, August 21, 1858, reporting a game by the Excelsior Club of Cincinnati of four innings.
39. New York Clipper: May 29, 1858; June 19, 1858; Aug. 4, 1860; Aug. 11, 1860.
40. The Morning Pennsylvanian (Philadelphia): Aug. 2, 1860.
41. Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times: Mar. 2, 1861.
42. The Press (Philadelphia): Nov. 8, 1860.
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.
Not two hours ago, reader Brian Dawe posted this interesting comment about Adam Ford and the game he recalled playing in Beachville, Ontario on June 4, 1838. The article he references may be viewed at: http://goo.gl/CRkhI. Be sure to read other reader comments, including one by my esteemed colleague David Block. I introduced the Beachville article thus, and repeat it here to supply a bit of context to Ford’s report, which may be read verbatim. “In a letter to Sporting Life, published May 5, 1886, Dr. Adam Enoch Ford recalled a ball game he had witnessed nearly fifty years earlier on June 4, 1838, in Beechville, Ontario, Canada, ‘which closely resembled our present national game.’ Recalling events that may or may not have transpired when the author was seven years old, Ford’s letter is eerily reminiscent of Abner Graves’ missive to the Mills Commission in 1905, in which he recalled witnessing Abner Doubleday inventing the game of baseball when the inventor was twenty and he was five. In a further coincidence, both Ford and Graves resided in Denver at the time they wrote their letters. Both endured disgrace in their lifetimes: Graves murdered his second wife and ended his days in an asylum; Ford was driven from Ontario by a murder inquest, a relationship with a woman who was not his wife, and a dependence on alcohol and drugs which, in 1906, brought him to his end.”
I will add that I played a role in rediscovering the 1791 Pittsfield Prohibition. At one time I believed that baseball may have arisen in North America from a “Housatonic Valley Triangle” whose points were Pittsfield, Cooperstown, and New York City. I now believe that baseball was played in North America as early as the 1730s, in south central Massachusetts.
And now from Brian Dawe:
The Burdick family referred to in Dr. Ford’s story came to the Beachville area in Canada in the late 1790s – James and Phoebe and their eight children, ranging in age from 10 years to 30 years. They were originally from Lanesborough, Massachusetts, which is the town next to Pittsfield in Berkshire County that is famous for the 1791 bylaw forbidding baseball games near the town meeting house, for fear its windows might be broken by flying balls. Amongst other things, James Burdick was a Baptist preacher and spoke out in favour of the British cause, which got him into trouble with the local Committee of Safety during the Revolution, and he was fined, disarmed and confined to his farm. By the time he brought his wife and family (four sons, four daughters) to Canada, the oldest children were married with families of their own, so there was quite a Lanesborough influx to the Beachville area in that period. The extended Burdick family included the Williams and Dolson families named in Dr. Ford’s story.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that there is such an early record of a baseball game in Beachville, because around the same time, these and a number of other Berkshire families had come to the same neighbourhood in Ontario, ninety miles west of Niagara, to what was then known as the Township of Oxford-on-the-Thames, a wilderness tract of 64,000 acres. Points of origin for the others included the towns of Great Barrington, New Marlborough and Mount Washington, also all in Berkshire County. They and the Burdick clan all had come under the leadership of Major Thomas Ingersoll of Great Barrington, who was authorized by the government of the province to assign lands in the township to those he considered suitable to form the new settlement. The Town of Ingersoll, Ontario is named after him. It is three miles down the Thames River from Beachville.
All the communities in that part of Ontario have always been very keen about baseball, and there’s no question it is a cradle for the growth of the game in Canada. The first Canadian Base Ball Championship was organized there in the 1860s, with teams competing to take possession of a Silver Ball trophy that was created by fans of the game in Woodstock, the county town five miles up the Thames River from Beachville. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame is located a bit to the north of Beachville, in a town founded by two of Thomas Ingersoll’s sons, known as St. Marys, Ontario, on another branch of the Thames River.
A festival to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the game described by Dr. Ford is taking place over the next two weekends (May 24-25, and June 1-2) in a meadow that forms part of the grounds of the Beachville Museum. Details can be found on its website at http://www.beachvilledistrictmuseum.ca/. There will be vintage base ball matches for all ages in the course of the festival. Everyone welcome! Still a few game slots available if anyone wants to help form up additional teams. The Beachville Cornstalks have been organized to defend home turf, and already have matches on the program with the London Tecumsehs and the Woodstock Actives, two well-known vintage clubs that have been playing matches in vintage tournaments for decades.
It is a stimulating proposition that baseball may have reached Beachville via Lanesborough/Pittsfield. I invite interested readers to weigh in via the comment feature below. A story about baseball in New Marlborough, MA, mentioned above, may also be relevant reading. I will post that tomorrow.
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.
[FROM:] Abner Graves, Mining Engineer, 32 Bank Block, P.O. Box 672, Denver,Colo.
April 3rd, 1905
[TO:] Editor Beacon Journal, Akron, Ohio
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.
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.
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.
32 Bank Block, Denver, Colorado.
[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
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.
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.
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.
Abner Graves, E.M.
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: