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:
Initially published in NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, Number 8, 2000, this article–here published in the third of three parts–helped lay the foundation for the golden age of early baseball research that was to follow. Tom Altherr is a history professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver; among his courses is one on baseball history that he has taught since 1991. He has continued to make valuable contributions all along the way. “Basepaths and Baselines” won the McFarland-SABR Research Award for 2012. The present article won that same award in 2001. The second part was published yesterday at: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/01/29/a-place-leavel-enough-to-play-ball-part-2/
“A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball”: Baseball and Baseball-type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic (continued)
Thomas L. Altherr
At the turn of the century, baseball-type games continued to provoke clashes in cities, towns, and villages. Some of their governments responded with prohibitions on such games, much as did the province of New Hampshire for Christmas Day in 1771. At its town meeting in March, 1795, Portsmouth, New Hampshire attempted to abolish cricket and any games played with a ball. The ordinance read as follows:
VOTED III, That if any person or persons shall after the thirty-first day of May next, within the compact part of the town of Portsmouth, . . . play at cricket or any game wherein a ball is used, . . . he, she, or they, so offending, on conviction thereof shall forfeit and pay to the overseers of the porr of said town for the time being, for each and every offence, a sum not exceeding three dollars and thirty cents, nor less than fifty cents, and costs of prosecution,….
By the 1830s, however, players consumed egg-nog “between intervals of base-ball playing” on nearby Shapleigh’s Island and taunted the temperance forces. Down the coast, Newburyport, Massachusetts passed a similar restriction in 1797, adding soccer to its list of offending games: “12th. Voted and ordered, that if any person shall play at foot-ball, cricket or any other play or game with a ball or balls in any of the streets, lanes, or, alleys of this town, such person shall forfeit and pay a sum not exceeding one dollar nor less than twenty-five cents.” In 1805 the town of Portland, Maine promulgated a more detailed prohibition entitled “A By Law to check the practice of playing at Bat and Ball in the Streets”: “. . . [N]o person shall play at the game of bat and ball, or shall strike any ball with a bat or other machine in the streets, lanes, or squares of the town, on penalty of Fifty Cents for each offense.” By 1828, however, a Portland newspaper referred to boys playing at “bat-and-ball.” Twelve years earlier and fifty miles inland, Worcester, Massachusetts considered outlawing playing ball because of numerous complaints.
At a legal meeting May 6, 1816:
To see if the said Inhabitants will adopt any mode, or make such regulations as will in future prevent the playing Ball and Hoops in the public Streets in said Town, a practice so frequent and dangerous, that has occasioned many great and repeated complaints.
Note that the town council characterized ball playing as frequent. Troy, New York restricted baseball-type games in 1816: “[N]o person or persons shall play ball, beat, knock or drive any ball or hoop, in, through or along any street or alley in the first, second, third or fourth wards of said city; and every person who shall violate either of the prohibitions . . . shall, for each and every such offence, forfeit and pay the penalty of ten dollars.” Down the Hudson, New York City outlawed ball play in the Park, Battery, and Bowling-Green in 1817. The crowning irony to all of this came a month later in, of all places, Cooperstown, when that village promulgated an ordinance forbidding the playing of ball in the center of town fully twenty-three years before Abner Doubleday supposedly drew up his diamond and rules! The June, 1816 ordinance read as follows: “Be it ordained, That no person shall play at Ball in Second or West street, in this village, under a penalty of one dollar, for each and every offence.” Tom Heitz has suggested that the one dollar fine was equivalent to the cost of replacing a window in those days, so perhaps the law was setting up an insurance program of sorts to cover breakage and had little hope of completely discouraging players from playing.
Still boys and men continued to play ball. Keene, New Hampshire farmer Abner Sanger noted in his journal entry for April 27, 1782: “Caleb Washburn, young Benjamin Hall, Tom Wells, the younger and El play ball before my barn.” Ball games were familiar enough in northern New England that Vermonter Levi Allen could write to his brother Ira from Quebec on July 7, 1787: “Three times is Out at wicket, next year if Something is not done I will retire to the Green Mountains . . . “ The games went on at the private academies. At the turn of the century ball-playing at Exeter Academy was commonplace, according to a historian of that school: “The only games seem to have been old-fashioned ‘bat and ball,’ which, in the spring, was played on the grounds around the Academy building, and football. The former differed widely from the modern game of base ball, which was introduced later. The old game had fewer rules, and was played with a soft leather ball.” Note, however, the author’s characterization of the game as old-fashioned, implying a longevity of familiarity. In 1836 Albert Ware Paine recalled playing in Bangor, Maine in the 1810s and 1820s: “But a day seems to have elapsed since meeting with our neighboring boys, we took delight in flying our kite and prancing our horses on the green or engaged ourselves in the more active sports of ‘playing ball’ or ‘goal.’” New York City octogenarian Charles Haswell reminisced that if “a base-ball was required, the boy of 1816 founded it with a bit of cork, or, if he were singularly fortunate, with some shreds of india-rubber; then it was wound with yarn from a ravelled stocking, and some feminine member of his family covered it with patches from a soiled glove.” By the late 1830s, Buffalo, New York boys were even using fish noses for the ball cores, according to Samuel L. Welch: ” . .. the fish I bought as a small boy at that time, at one cent per pound, mainly to gets its noses for cores for our balls, to make them bound, to play the present National Game,” he wrote in 1891.
Sometimes memoirists mentioned baseball only to say that they avoided the game or regretted what they considered a waste of time and industry. Thus Wilmington, Delaware ship captain John Hamilton wrote about his boyhood in the 1790s that reading about foreign countries “took precedence [over] Kites, Marbles, Balls, Shinny Sticks, and all other Boyish Sports.” Similarly, Cannon’s Ferry, Delaware doctor William Morgan remarked about his adolescence in the 1790s, “My sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth yeares were spent in youthfull folley. Fidling, frolicking, ball playing and hunting as far as I could be spared by my father from his employ. These are called inocent amusements and ware not caried very far by me.” Sometimes, however, ball games led to further adventures. Jonathan Mason, Jr, a Boston merchant, remembered a special game of ball on the Boston Commons in the 1790s or early 1800s:
Another early remembrance of the common besets me. one morning, the day after what was called the Negro election, Benj Green, Martin Brimmer, George E Head, Franklin Dexter and myself were playing ball on the common before breakfast: and the ball fell into a hole where one of the booth’s stakes had been driven the day before, which was filled up with paper, rubbage etc. putting the hand down something jingled and we found several dollars in silver which had probably been put there for safety and the owner becoming intoxicated late in the day had gone off and forgotten them. I can’t recollect that we advertised them. We were small boys then all of us, and I was the youngest.
And even though he claimed he had never heard the word “baseball” in the 1820s, Middletown, Connecticut resident John Howard Redfield remembered that baseball-type games were pervasive:
The remainder of Election week was given more or less to relaxation and amusement. This period usually coincided with the vacation, or gap between the winter and summer terms of school. Ball was the chief amusement, and if weather permitted (and my impression is that it generally did permit) the open green about the meeting-house and the school-house was constantly occupied by the players, little boys, big boys, and even men (for such we considered the biggest boys who condescended to join the game), . . . These grown-up players usually devoted themselves to a game called “wicket,” in which the ball was impelled along the ground by a wide, peculiarly-shaped bat, over, under, or through a wicket, made by a slender stick resting on two supports. I never heard of baseball in those days.
Clearly, as these prohibitions, depictions in children’s books, and remembrances indicate, baseball and its predecessors were entrenched in the young republic’s athletic repertoire by 1820.
Other evidence hints that the games had spread to the South and to Canada. John Drayton, a South Carolina politician and historian, referred to ball playing in his state about 1802: “[A]musements are few; consisting of dancing, horse racing, ball playing, and rifle shooting.” Another South Carolinian, Charles Fraser, recalled, in 1854, how vibrant were the sports of his childhood in Charleston in the early art of the century: “The manly sports of ball, shinee, jumping, running, wrestling, and swimming, are now laid aside as unworthy of modern refinement. But they were as common among the elder boys of my time, as marbles, tops and kites were among the little ones.” Ely Playter, a York, Ontario tavernkeeper, may have meant baseball or a baseball-type game when he wrote in his diary for April 13, 1803: “I went to Town . . . walk’d out and joined a number of men jumping & playing Ball, perceived a Mr. Joseph Randall to be the most active . . . “ Incipient commercialism may also have been invading the games. The New York Evening Post for September 20, 1811 contained an advertisement for “Trap Ball, Quoits, Cricket, &c.” at Dyde’s Military Ground.
The most bizarre bit of evidence of baseball’s spread may have occurred in conjunction with a tragic incident just after the close of the War of 1812. The British were still housing numerous American prisoners at Dartmoor Prison in England, awaiting repatriation arrangements. Needless to say, tempers ran high, and the British officers occasionally tormented the Americans. As had other prisoners-of-war before them, some of the Americans whiled away their incarceration by playing baseball. For example, American prisoners-of-war back in North America at Cornwall, Ontario mixed ball with their boxing. Wrote one prisoner, “The men remained in the gaol yard and fought several times and in fact played [ball –the editor mistakenly translated the word as “hell”] all day.” Similarly one prisoner, Benjamin Waterhouse, recalled the Americans at Dartmoor were in “high spirits and good humour” about going home and reflected it in their play: “I distinctly remember that the prisoners appeared to enjoy their amusements, such as playing ball and the like, beyond what I had before observed.” The previous June, the British commander had opened the yards on the south side of the enclosure, which, according to prisoner Charles Andrews, “would admit of many amusements which that of No. 4 would not, such as playing ball, &c.”
On April 6, 1815, some of the prisoners were at such play. As inmate Nathaniel Pierce recalled, ” . . . first part of this day the Prisoners divirting themselves Gambling playing Ball &c.” During the afternoon, however, things went awry. A batter hit the ball over one of the interior walls and the British sentries would not allow the players to retrieve it. As prisoner Andrews later wrote, ” . . . some boys who were playing ball in No. 7 yard, knocked their ball over into the barrack-yard, and on the sentry in that yard refusing to throw it back to them, they picked a hole in the wall to get in after it.” Another inmate, Joseph Valpey, Jr., described the scenario in more detail:
On the 6th day of April 1815 as a small party of prisoners were amusing themselves at a game at ball, some of the number striking it with too much violence it went over the wall fronting the prison the Centinals on the opposite side of the same were requested to heave the ball back, but refused, on which the party threataned to brake through and regain the ball and immediately put their threats in execution, a hole was made in the wall sufficently large enough for a man to pass through….
The “Judicial Report of the Massacre at Dartmoor Prison” concluded indeed that ball playing figured in the incident: “It unfortunately happened, that in the afternoon of the 6th of April, some boys who were playing ball in No. 7 yard, knocked their ball over into the barrack yard: on the sentry in that yard refusing to throw it back to them, they picked a hole in the wall to get in after it.”97 The British officers misconstrued this breach of the interior wall as some sort of riot and ordered troops to fire at the ball players. By the end of the melee there were seven dead and thirty-one wounded prisoners. A poem by John Hunter Waddell, which ran in New York and Boston newspapers in June, 1815, referred to the ball playing as commonplace and summed up the tragedy:
Forsooth, there was great fear to dread, he [the British captain]’d search’d and found in wall
A hole was made for boy to creep, and get again a ball,
Which oft was thrown by boys at play, their usual daily sport,
In pastime who at prison wall, did ev’ry day resort;
And frequent would their balls bounce o’er out of the prison yard,
To get again their balls for sport, their pastime and their play,
And so their joy, was oft times spoilt, and ended for the day.
The boys thus baulk’d, and being griev’d to lose their balls and play,
Contriv’d to make a hole to gain, and get their balls again.
By the 1820s, the games were taking on the more organized form of clubs. In his autobiography, New York politician Thurlow Weed claimed to have been a member of a town ball club in Rochester in 1825:
Though an industrious and busy place, its citizens found leisure for rational and healthy recreation. A base-ball club, numbering nearly fifty members, met every afternoon during the ball-playing season. Though the members of the club embraced persons between eighteen and forty, it attracted the young and the old. The ball-ground, containing some eight or ten acres, known as Mumford’s meadow, by the side of the river above the falls, is now a compact part of the city.
Weed went on to list ten of the better players on that club and point out that a couple of them rose to prominence as lawyers in New York City. Although some historians think that the mounting popularity of baseball in the intervening decades may have colored Weed’s memoir, Samuel Hopkins Adams, in the story, “Baseball in Mumford’s Pasture Lot,” in his book, Grandfather Stories, corroborated Weed with a scene in which Grandpa Adams informed his grandson and friends that he had played baseball back in Rochester in 1827. “When I first came here, the Rochester Baseball Club met four afternoons a week. We had fifty members. That was in 1827,” the old man recounted. The club played in “Mumford’s pasture lot, off Lake Avenue.” Furthermore, he told them, “The cream of Rochester’s Third Ward ruffleshirts participated in the pastime,” which was clearly baseball, not town ball, as the old man described the positioning of the fielders and mentioned that it took three outs to retire the batting side.
Yet it would be a mistake to see baseball and baseball-type games as very modern by the 1820s, at least not in the sense that sport historians such as Allen Guttmann have stipulated. Presumably there was an equity in the rules, that each player played under the same conditions, but there may have been exceptions to that. There was certainly no bureaucratization overseeing baseball-type games. There may or may not have been specialization; players most likely played nonspecific positions on the playing field and probably the pitcher, or “feeder,” was not a very important position yet. How much players were experimenting to perfect the rules or methods of playing the game is also unclear. Quantification, at least in the form of statistics that carried over time, was nonexistent, and if there were any “records,” they didn’t make it into any “recordbook.” Local players may have kept up an oral memory of great players and great plays, but it is just as likely that the emphasis was on play, spontaneity, and communal recreation. Baseball and similar games were still folk games, with all their rubbery aspects and irregular patterns. That does not mean, however, that they were any less important to the populace than are modern sports today. Baseball and baseball-type games existed with some degree of frequency, because they filled a cultural hunger for physical play and communal recreation, a yearning of time immemorial. The above sources, and probably others still undiscovered in the record, attest to the American phase of this long process. Henry Dearborn and his fellow soldiers deserve thanks not only for helping to convince the British to lose the war, but for marching four miles that day in April, 1779 “to find a place leavel enough to play ball,” and all the ball-playing students merit our remembrances as well.
Finally though, the origins of the game may have to remain shrouded in mystery. Perhaps, as Harold Seymour wrote, “To ascertain who invented baseball would be equivalent to trying to locate the discoverer of fire.” Perhaps it was an entirely “natural” occurrence. As James D’Wolf Lovett stated, “It seems to be the natural instinct of a boy as soon as he finds the use of his arms, to want to ‘bat’ something.” Possibly the instinct is quite deep-seated and the Freudians and other psychoanalysts can weigh in with theories such as Adrian Stokes’ provocative interpretation that cricket developed as a form of sexual sublimation. Or maybe Kenneth Patchen’s explanation in his poem, “The Origin of Baseball,” comes as close as any:
Someone had been walking in and out
Of the world without coming
To much decision about anything.
The sun seemed too hot most of the time.
There weren’t enough birds around
And the hills had a silly look
When he got on top of one.
The girls in heaven, however, thought
Nothing of asking to see his watch
Like you would want someone to tell
A joke –’Time,’ they’d say, ‘what’s
That mean –time?’, laughing with the edges
Of their white mouths, like a flutter of paper
In a madhouse. And he’d stumble over
General Sherman or Elizabeth B.
Browning, muttering, “Can’t you keep
Your big wings out of the aisle?” But down
Again, there’d be millions of people without
Enough to eat and men with guns just
Standing there shooting each other.
So he wanted to throw something
And he picked up a baseball.
67. By-Laws of the Town of Portsmouth, Passed at their Annual Meeting Held March 25, 1795 (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: John Melcher, 1795), 5-6.
68. Charles W. Brewster, Rambles About Portsmouth, Second Series (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Lewis W. Brewster, 1869), 269.
69. Bye-Laws of Newburyport; Passed by the Town at Regular Meetings, and Approved by the Court of General Justice of the Peace for the County of Essex, Agreeably to a Law of this
Commonwealth (Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1797), 1.
70. The By Laws of the Town of Portland, in the County of Cumberland, Second Ed. (Portland, Maine: John McKown, 1805), 15. Italics in the original source. The 1817 town by-laws still contained this prohibition. “By Law to check the practice of playing at Bat and Ball in the Streets, &c.,” in The By-Laws of the Town of Portland, in the County of Cumberland (Portland, Maine: A. and J. Shirley, 1817), 12.
71. Will Anderson, Was Baseball Really Invented In Maine? (Portland, Maine: pvt. ptg., 1992), .
72. Worcester, Massachusetts Town Records, 6 May 1816, reprinted in Franklin P. Rice, ed., Worcester Town Records, 1801-1816, Vol. X (Worcester, Massachusetts: The Worcester Society of Antiquity, 1891), 337.
73. Laws and Ordinances of the Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonalty, of the City of Troy. Passed the Ninth Day of December, 1816 (Troy, New York: Parker and Bliss, 1816), 42.
74. “A Law relative to the Park, Battery, and Bowling-Green,” in Laws and Ordinances Ordained and Established by the Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonalty of the City of New York (New York: T. and J. Swords, 1817), 118.
75. Cooperstown, New York village ordinance, 13 June 1816, reprinted in the Cooperstown, New York Otsego Herald, n. 1107, 13 June 1816, 3.
76. Tom Heitz, conversations with the author, June and August, 1996.
77. Lois K. Stabler, ed., Very Poor and of a Lo Make: the Journal of Abner Sanger (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Peter E. Randall, 1986), 416.
78. Levi Allen to Ira Allen, July 7, 1787, in John J. Duffy, ed., Ethan Allen and His Kin, Correspondence, 1772-1819, 2 vols. (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1998), v. 1, 244.
79. Frank H. Cunningham, Familiar Sketches of the Phillips Exeter Academy and Surroundings (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1883), 281.
80. Albert Ware Paine, “Auto-Biography,” reprinted in Lydia Augusta Paine Carter, The Discovery of a Grandmother (Newtonville, Massachusetts: Henry H. Carter, 1920), 240.
81. Charles Haswell, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian 1816 to 1860 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1896), 77.
82. Samuel. L. Welch, Home History. Recollections of Buffalo during the Decade from 1830 to 1840, or Fifty Years Since (Buffalo, New York: Peter Paul and Brother, 1891), 353.
83. John Hamilton, “Some Reminiscences of Wilm’t’n and My Youthful Days –&c., &c.” Delaware History, v. 1, n. 2 (July 1946), 91.
84. Harold B. Hancock, ed., “William Morgan’s Autobiography and Diary [:] Life in Sussex County, 1780-1857,” Delaware History, v. 19, n. 1 (Spring-Summer 1980), 43-44.
85. Jonathan Mason, Jr., “Recollections of a Septuagenarian,” 3 vols., Downs Special Collections, Winterthur Library, Document 30, v. 1, 20-21.
86. Edmund Delaney, ed., Life in the Connecticut River Valley 1800-1840 from the Recollections of John Howard Redfield (Essex, Connecticut: Connecticut River Museum, 1988), 35. Italics in the original source.
87. John Drayton, A View of South-Carolina, As Respects Her Natural and Civil Concerns (Charleston, South Carolina: W. P. Young, 1802), 225.
88. Charles Fraser, Reminiscences of Charleston, Lately Published in the Charleston Courier, and Now Revised and Enlarged by the Author (Charleston, South Carolina: John Russell, 1854), 88.
89. [Ely Playter], “Extracts from Ely Playter’s Diary,” April 13, 1803, reprinted in Edith G. Firth, ed., The Town of York 1793-1815: A Collection of Documents of Early Toronto (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1962), 248.
90. New York Evening Post, n. 2867, September 20, 1811, 2.
91. G.M. Fairchild, Jr., ed., Journal of an American Prisoner at Fort Malden and Quebec in the War of 1812 (Quebec: pvt. ptg., 1090), no pagination.
92. [Benjamin Waterhouse], A Journal of a Young Man of Massachusetts, Late a Surgeon on Board an American Privateer, Who Was Captured at Sea by the British, in May, Eighteen Hundred and Thirteen, and Was Confined First, at Melville Island, Halifax, then at Chatham, in England, and Last, at Dartmoor Prison (Boston: Rowe and Hooper, 1816), 186.
93. [Charles Andrews], The Prisoners’ Memoirs, or Dartmoor Prison (New York: pvt. ptg. 1815), 92.
94. “Journal of Nathaniel Pierce of Newburyport, Kept at Dartmoor Prison, 1814-1815,” Historical Collections of Essex Institute, v. 73, n. 1 (January 1937), 40.
95. [Andrews], The Prisoners’ Memoirs, or Dartmoor Prison, 110. In another memoir, prisoner Josiah Cobb referred to the ball being thrown over the wall by accident, something that happened somewhat frequently. [Cobb], A Green Hand’s First Cruise, Roughed Out from the Log-Book of Memory, of Twenty-Five Years Standing: Together with a Residence of Five Months in Dartmoor, 2 vols. (Boston: Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1841, v. 2, 213-214. For the testimony of other prisoners, see John Hunter Waddell, Dartmoor Massacre (Pittsfield, Massachusetts: Phinehas Allen, 1815), 6-21.
96. [Joseph Valpey, Jr.], Journal of Joseph Valpey, Jr. of Salem, November, 1813-April, 1815 (Detroit: Michigan Society of Colonial Wars, 1922), 60.
97. “The Judicial Report of the Massacre at Dartmoor Prison,” reprinted in John Melish, Description of Dartmoor Prison, with an Account of the Massacre of the Prisoners (Philadelphia: J. Bioren, 1816), 7.
98. [John Hunter Waddell], The Dartmoor Massacre (Boston?: pvt. ptg., 1815?), 5.
99. Harriet A. Weed, ed., Life of Thurlow Weed, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1883), v. 1, 203. That same year, residents of Hamden, New York placed a challenge in the Delhi, New York Gazette of July 12th to any men of Delaware County to form a team and play a baseball match See Sullivan, comp. and ed., Early Innings, 1-2.
100. Samuel Hopkins Adams, Grandfather Stories (New York: Random House, 1955 ), 146-149.
101. Allen Guttmann, From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), chapter 2, and Guttmann, A Whole New Ball Game: An Interpretation of American Sports (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 6.
102. Seymour, “How Baseball Began,” 376.
103. Lovett, Old Boston Boys, 125.
104. Adrian Stokes, “Psycho-analytic Reflections on the Development of Ball Games, Particularly Cricket,” The International Journal of Psycho-analysis, v. 37 (1956), 185-192.
105. Kenneth Patchen, “The Origin of Baseball,” in Patchen, Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1957), 15-16.
Initially published in NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, Number 8, 2000, this article–here published in the second of three parts–helped lay the foundation for the golden age of early baseball research that was to follow. Tom Altherr is a history professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver; among his courses is one on baseball history that he has taught since 1991. He has continued to make valuable contributions all along the way. “Basepaths and Baselines” won the McFarland-SABR Research Award for 2012. The present article won that same award in 2001. The first part was published yesterday at: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/01/28/a-place-leavel-enough-to-play-ball/.
“A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball”: Baseball and Baseball-type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic (continued)
Thomas L. Altherr
It is unclear whether or not the Revolutionary War accelerated the familiarity of baseball in North America, as the Civil War clearly did eighty some years later. It would be useful to ascertain if prisoners-of-war taught their captors how to play the games and learned from each other during those incarcerations. Similarly, did officers play the games more often than enlisted men, or vice versa? Were the officers’ games more formalized than those of the troops? The sources indicate that both sets of soldiers played, but don’t make any detailed distinctions. What is discernible is that during the war, baseball-type games provided needed recreation for troops within a matrix of other sports. As Montague, Massachusetts farmer Joel Shepard recalled baseball at a bivouac near Albany, New York, late in the war, about 1782: “We passed muster and layed in Albany about six weeks and we fared tolerable well, and not much to doo, but each class had his amusement. The officers would bee a playing at Ball on the comon, their would be an other class piching quaits, an other set a wrestling, . . . “
Like the soldiers, students at the academies and colleges took a shine to the ball games. Students probably played the games, taking advantages of study breaks and lapses in college discipline to pour out onto the common for a match or two. The practice apparently could get quite rowdy. Some colleges attempted to ban the ball games because of potential property damage to windows and buildings. As early as 1764, Yale College tried to restrict hand and foot ball games. The statute, in Latin at first, and in later laws in English, read: “9. If any Scholar fhall play at Hand-Ball, or Foot-Ball, or Bowls in the College-Yard, or throw any Thing against [the] Colege by which the Glass may be endangerd, . . . he shall be punished six Pence, and make good the Damages.” Later renditions changed the monetary amount to eight cents and this restriction carried into the next century with little change. Dartmouth College followed suit with its own ordinance in 1780: “If any student shall play at ball or use any other diversion the College or Hall windows within 6 rods of either he shall be fined two shilling for the first offence 4 for the 2d and so no [on] at the discretion of the President or Tutors–“. In 1784, the University of Pennsylvania acknowledged that the yard was “intended for the exercise and recreation of the youth,” but forbid them to “play ball against any of the walls of the University, whilst the windows are open.” Williams College followed suit in 1805: ” . . . the students in the College and scholars in the Grammar School, shall not be permitted to play at ball, or use any other sport or diversion, in or near the College Edifice, by which the same may be exposed to injury.” Violations would result in fines and possibly dismissal. Bowdoin College added its own prohibition in 1817: “No Student shall, in or near any College building, play at ball, or use any sport or diversion, by which such building may be exposed to injury, on penalty of being fined not exceeding twenty cents, or of being suspended, if the offence be often repeated.”
Students continued to play, however, as Sidney Willard, son of Harvard president Joseph Willard, and himself later a Harvard professor, remembered in two passages in his 1855 memoirs. Referring to the campus Buttery of the 1760s, Willard wrote, “Besides eatables, everything necessary for a student was there sold, and articles used in the play-grounds, as bats, balls, &c.” Then recalling the campus play fields of the last decade of the century, he noted, “Here it was that we wrestled and ran, played at quoits, at cricket, and various games of bat and ball, whose names perhaps are obsolete, and leaped and jumped in rivalry.” Diarist John Rhea Smith recorded at least one baseball game at Princeton College in March, 1786: “A fine day, play baste ball in the campus but am beaten for I miss both catching and striking the ball.” Daniel Webster referred to “playing at ball” during his Dartmouth College years at the turn of the century. Baltimore poet Garrett Barry placed ball play in verse lament about college days, “On Leaving College”:
I’ll fondly trace, with fancy’s aid,
The spot where all our sports were made,
When in our gay…..our infant years,
While strangers yet to pain and tears,
When toil had “lent its turn to play,”
The little train forever gay,
With joy obey’d the pleasing call,
And nimbly urged the flying ball.
On April 11, 1824, Bowdoin College student and future poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote to his father, who was in Washington, about a surge in ball playing on the campus:
This has been a very sickly term in college. However, within the last week, the government, seeing that something must be done to induce the students to exercise, recommended a game of ball every now and then; which communicated such an impulse to our limbs and joints, that there is nothing now heard of, in our leisure hours, but ball, ball, ball. I cannot prophesy with any degree of accuracy concerning the continuance of this rage for play, but the effect is good, since there has been a thorough-going reformation from inactivity and torpitude.
Williams Latham played at Brown in the mid-1820s. On March 22, 1827, he declared, “We had a great play at ball to day noon.” But a couple of weeks later, on April 9, he was complaining about the quality of the play and pitching: “We this morning . . . have been playing ball, But I never have received so much pleasure from it as I have in Bridgewater They do not have more than 6 or 7 on a side, so that a great deal of time is spent runing after the ball, Neither do they throw so fair ball, They are affraid the fellow in the middle will hit it with his bat-stick.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. played at Harvard in 1829. Yale was not to be outdone, as a March, 1837 letter from student Josiah Dwight Whitney, later an eminent geologist in the American West, showed: “It is about the time now for playing ball, and the whole green is covered with students engaged in that fine game: for my part, I could never make a ball player. I can’t see where the ball is coming soon enough to put the ball-club in its way.” Anson Phelps Stokes, who also reprinted the letter in a book on Yale students, dismissed the game as “merely ‘one-old-cat’ or ‘two-old-cat’,” because he believed in the Doubleday origins story. But the game in which Whitney had such trouble placing the bat on the ball, a problem recognizable to us moderns, could have as easily been baseball. Older scholars may have had some interest in the game as well. Connecticut lexicographer and writer Noah Webster may have been referring to a baseball-type game when wrote his journal entry for March 24-25, 1788: “Take a long walk. Play at Nines at Mr Brandons. Very much indisposed.”
Indeed, the sabbath restrictions against ball playing were breaking down. In 1836, a Georgetown University student wrote to a friend, ” . . . the Catholics think it no harm to play Ball, Draughts or play the Fiddle and dance of a Sunday, . . . “ Such was the case apparently even in Rhode Island, according to James B. Angell: “[Sunday] was the day for visiting relatives and friends and largely for fishing and hunting and ball-playing. At least one minister played the game. In his diary, Rev. Thomas Robbins detailed his ball play and that of local boys, while a divinity student at Williams College and during his teaching days. “I exercise considerable, playing ball,” he wrote on April 22, 1796. In February and March, 1797, he noted that the Sheffield, Connecticut boys were playing ball, apparently “smartly” on one occasion. The April 24 entry recorded: “Play ball some. The spring as yet rather backward.” Three years later, at Danbury, Connecticut, on an unseasonably warm January day, Robbins remarked, “My boys play ball freely.” And right around Christmas that same year, in another warm spell, the boys were at it again. For December 27, Robbins wrote: “Boys play at ball till night without the least inconvenience.”
There was some dissent about the moral uses of the game. On August 19, 1785, Thomas Jefferson urged his nephew Peter Carr to avoid ball games and take up hunting as recreation. “Games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind,” the future president counseled. Despite Jefferson’s opinion, however, children’s books continued to recommend or at least document baseball-type games for youths. Edgar and Jane, the protagonists of a British children’s book, published in Baltimore in 1806, The Children in the Wood, wandered into a British town where some children “were playing at trap and ball.” In an 1806 book of poems for children, Ann Gilbert described some sort of ball play as common on the village commons:
The Village Green
Then ascends the worsted ball;
High it rises in the air;
Or against the cottage wall,
Up and down it bounces there.
In a sequel volume published the next year, Gilbert included one warning boys about breaking windows during ball play:
MY good little fellow, don’t throw your ball there,
You’ll break neighbour’s windows I know;
On the end of the house there is room and to spare;
Go round, you can have a delightful game there,
Without fearing for where you may throw.
Harry thought he might safely continue his play,
With a little more care than before;
So, forgetful of all that his father could say,
As soon as he saw he was out of the way,
He resolved to have fifty throws more.
Already as far as to forty he rose,
And no mischief happen’d at all;
One more, and one more, he successfully throws,
But when, as he thought, just arriv’d at the close,
In popp’d his unfortunate ball.
Poor Harry stood frighten’d, and turning about,
Was gazing at what he had done;
As the ball had popp’d in, so neighbour popp’d out,
And with a good horsewhip he beat him about,
Till Harry repented his fun.
When little folks think they know better than great,
And what is forbidden them do;
We must always expect to see, sooner or late,
That such wise little fools have a similar fate,
And that one of the fifty goes through.
In an 1807 edition of The Prize for Youthful Obedience, a hermit who had been watching some children playing ball games approved of their play and promised “to provide bats, balls, &c.” at his next visit.” An 1802 volume, Youthful Sports, actually touted cricket as a sport superior to what it called “bat and ball”:
THIS play requires more strength than some boys possess, to manage the ball in a proper manner; it must therefore be left to the more robust lads, who are fitter for such athletic exercises. It must be allowed to be good diversion, and is of such note, that even men very frequently divert themselves with it. Bat and ball is an inferior kind of cricket, and more suitable for little children, who may safely play at it, if they will be careful not to break windows.
Two succeeding children’s recreation manuals in 1810 painted a rosier picture of trap ball. Youthful Amusements recommended it highly:
Without any exception, this is one of the most pleasing sports that youth can exercise themselves in. It strengthens the arms, exercises the legs, and adds pleasure to the mind. If every time the ball be bowled to the trap, the striker be permitted to guess the number of bat’s lengths from the trap, it greatly contributes to teach lads the rule of addition. And should he be so covetous as to overguess the distance, he will, as he deserves to do, forfeit his right to the bat, and give it to another playmate.
Youthful Recreations went even further, offering that it should be the right of every child to have an hour of recreation each day with sports, among bat and ball-type games: “To play with battledore and shuttlecock or with a trap and ball, is good exercise; and if we had it in our power to grant, not only to the children of the affluent, but even such of the poor as are impelled by necessity to pick cotton, card wool, to sit and spin or reel all day, should have at least one hour, morning and evening, for some youthful recreation; and if they could obtain neither battledore nor shuttlecock, trap, bat, nor ball, they should at least play at Hop-Scotch.” The next year, The Book of Games, a look at sports at a British academy, gave a ringing endorsement to trap ball and supplied the most detailed description of it in the period. Remarks on Children’s Play, in 1819, repeated the same comments of the 1810 Youthful Amusements book. By the time The Boy’s Own Book and Robin Carver’s The Book of Sports appeared in 1829 and 1834 respectively, with their descriptions of baseball, the game was probably quite familiar to the youth of the Early Republic.
Part Three, tomorrow.
38. John A. Spear, ed., “Joel Shepard Goes to the War,” New England Quarterly, v. 1, n. 3 (July 1928), 344.
39. Collegii Yalensis, Quod est Novo-Portus Connecticutensium, Statuta, a Præside et Sociis Sancita (New Haven, Connecticut: Benjamin Mecom, 1764), 9; and The Laws of Yale-College, in New-Haven, in Connecticut, Enacted by the President and Fellows (New Haven, Connecticut: Thomas and Samuel Green, 1774), 11.
40. Dartmouth College Laws and Regulations, 1780, Dartmouth College Library, Special Collections MS 782415.
41. RULES for the Good Government and Discipline of the SCHOOL in the UNIVERSITY of PENNSYLVANIA (Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1784).
42. The Laws of Williams College (Stockbridge, Massachusetts: H. Willard, 1805), 40.
43. “Of Misdemeanors and Criminal Offences,” in Laws of Bowdoin College (Hallowell, Maine: E. Goodale, 1817), 12.
44. Sidney Willard, Memories of Youth and Manhood, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: John Bartlett, 1855), v. 1, 31 and 316.
45. John Rhea Smith, 22 March 1786, in “Journal at Nassau Hall,” Princeton Library MSS, AM 12800. Smith’s use of “baste” instead of “base” is quite intriguing, suggesting a linguistic connection to striking the ball rather running to a base. Smith was quite literate and an excellent speller. An examination of the rest of his diary reveals no misspelled words. For more on Smith, see Ruth L. Woodward, “Diary at Nassau Hall: The Diary of John Rhea Smith, 1786,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, v. 46 , n. 3 (1985), 269-291 and v. 47, n. 1 (1985), 48-70.
46. Daniel Webster, Private Correspondence, Fletcher Webster, ed., 2 vols. (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1857), v. 1, 66. See also Vernon Bartlett, The Past of Pastimes (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 45.
47. Garrett Barry, “On Leaving College,” in Barry, Poems, On Several Occasions (Baltimore: Cole and I. Bonsal and John Vance and Company, 1807)
48. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Stephen Longfellow, April 11, 1824, in Samuel Longfellow, ed., Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with Extracts from His Journals and Correspondence, 2 vols. (Boston: Ticknor and Company, 1886), v. 1, 51.
49. Williams Latham, “The Diary of Williams Latham, 1823-1827″ (unpublished), quoted in Walter C. Bronson, The History of Brown University, 1764-1914 (Providence: Brown University, 1914), 245. James D’Wolf Lovett remembered that Boston boys in that era didn’t find the shortage of players so problematic. If his crowd couldn’t summon up enough players for town ball or baseball, the boys reverted to playing the simpler games of one old cat, two old cat, three old cat, or whatever configuration fit. Lovett, Old Boston Boys (Boston: Riverside Press, 1906), 127-128.
50. John A. Krout, Annals of American Sport (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1929), 115.
51. Josiah Dwight Whitney to his sister, Elizabeth Whitney, March, 1837, reprinted in Edwin Tenney Brewster, Life and Letters of Josiah Dwight Whitney (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909), 20; and Anson Phelps Stokes, Memorials of Eminent Yale Men, 2 vols. (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1914), v. 2, 38.
52. [Noah Webster], “Diary,” reprinted in Emily Ellsworth Fowler Ford, ed., Notes on the Life of Noah Webster, 2 vols. (New York: pvt. ptg., 1912), v. 1, 227.
53. Georgetown student letter, August 27, 1836, Georgetown University Library, quoted in Betty Spears and Richard Swanson, History of Sport and Physical Activity in the United States,
Second Ed. (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown Company, 1983), 85.
54. James B. Angell, The Reminiscences of James Burrill Angell (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1912), 14.
55. Increase N. Tarbox, ed., Diary of Thomas Robbins, D.D. 1796-1854, 2 vols. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1886, v. 1, 8, 29, 32, 106, and 128.
56. Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 19, 1785, in Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 23 vols. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1953-), v.8, 407.
57. Clara English, The Children in the Wood, An Instructive Tale (Baltimore: Warner and Hanna, 1806), 29.
58. [Ann Gilbert], Original Poems, for Infant Minds, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Kimber, Conrad, and Company, 1806), v. 2, 120. Gilbert’s verse reappeared in several later editions and other children’s books, and in an 1840 pamphlet, The Village Green, or Sports of Youth (New Haven, Connecticut: S. Babcock), 5, with the word “worsted” changed to “favorite” and with an accompanying woodcut showing four boys playing baseball.
59. [Gilbert], Original Poems, for Infant Minds, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Kimber, Conrad, and Company, 1807), vol, 1, 88-89.
60. The Prize for Youthful Obedience (Philadelphia: Jacob Johnson, 1807), Part II, .
61. Youthful Sports, (Philadelphia: Jacob Johnson, 1802), 47-48.
62. Youthful Amusements (Philadelphia: Johnson and Warner, 1810), 37 and 40.
63. Youthful Recreations (Philadelphia: Jacob Johnson, 1810), no pagination.
64. The Book of Games; or, a History of the Juvenile Sports Practised at Kingston Academy (Philadelphia: Johnson and Warner, 1811), 15-20. The full text reads as follows:
WELL, young men, said the doctor, addressing himself to his two youngest sons, what think you of a game at trap-ball before you go to bed? there is plenty of time, and it is a fine evening for the purpose. Will you not, my dear Thomas, said he, turning to his new guest, accompany them; a little play will do you good after your long ride.
Thomas readily consented, and accompanied the boys into an field, adjoining the house.
“This is our play-place in fine weather,” said George Benson, “and a nice one it is. Well what is the game to-night? Trap-ball I believe my father proposed. Do you play at trap-ball, White?” “No,” replied White, “I know but little about it.”
George Benson. I suppose you know the rules of the game, however, and can join in our party. Who has got the trap?
James Benson. Here it is; but I think I had rather have a game at fives. If you and Price will play at trap-ball, and give White a lesson, Jackson and Seymore, and I, will go the high wall, and have a good game at fives.
George Benson. Very well. Away with you then, and I will hold you both, Price and White. Who has a half-penny, to toss up for the first innings? O, here is one; heads or tails? Tails did you say? Well then I have it, for it is heads. Now, are you ready?
Thomas White. What are we to do? I have forgot what little I have heard of the game; I never played at it but once.
George. Well then I will tell you; you know, of course, that when I hit the trigger, the ball flies up, and that I must then give it a good stroke with the bat. If I strike at the ball and miss my aim, or if, when I have struck it, either you or Price catch it before it has touched the ground, or if I hit the trigger more than twice, without striking the ball, I am out, and one of you take the bat, and come in, as it is called.
White. And we are to try to hit the trap, with the ball, are we not? and you will be out, as soon as we have done so? And do not you reckon one, every time we bowl without being able to hit the trap?
George. Yes, that is the way, we usually play: but I believe sometimes the person who is in, guesses how many bats length off the ball was stopped, and reckons as many as he guesses, if that is less than the real number; but if he guesses more than there really are, he is cast.
White. I do not clearly understand you.
George. Perhaps I do not clearly explain myself. Indeed I have never played the game in that manner: but Seymore says that they always did at the school he used to go to. Suppose now that I am in, and you bowl, and the ball stops there, just where I point, I guess that it is five times the length of the bat from the trap; if you think there are not so many, and order me to measure, should there be only four times, I am out; but if there should happen to be six or eight times, I may reckon them all though I had only guessed five. Now do you understand what I mean; though, it does not signify, as we play the other way?
White. I believe I do. What have you stuck those two sticks in the ground for?
George. To mark the bounds. You know the batsman is out if he does not strike the ball between them, or if it stops short of them; and he reckons one every time the other party miss the trap in throwing the ball. We have three innings a-piece, and he wins who gets most. But as you do not know so much of the game, and as Price is such a little fellow, I will play against you both. Now for it then; but I must take my coat off, for it is so hot. Now I am ready. There catch the ball, boys. Ay, you have missed it.
Price. I thought White would have caught it. Now I will bowl. Oh, it has not hit the trap.
White. Let me bowl this time. There you are out, I think, master George.
George. Upon my word, you bowl well. I am only one. It is your turn to go in now.
White took the bat, but as he was unused to the management of one, he held it very awkwardly, and struck repeatedly at the ball without being able to hit it. George, very good humouredly, shewed him the best method of holding the bat, and let him practise striking the ball several times before they continued their game. When they again began to play, White gave a noble stroke, and sent the ball to such a distance, that George could not, with all his strength, bowl it quite home; and Tom, with great pleasure, counted one.
But the next time he hit it so feebly, that George had no difficulty in bowling him out. It was then Price’s turn to come in, he also counted only one; for the next time, he drove it outside the boundary sticks.
“Ah, I shall beat you both, I dare say,” cried George, good humouredly taking the trap. “There, I think you will not bowl me out this time, White. You have indeed,” continued he, as he threw down the bat. “Why, how wonderfully you do bowl. You must have been used to that, I am sure.”
White. Yes, my father is fond of playing at bowls. We have got a bowling green, and I have often practised.
The peculiar skill which White possessed in bowling, made him a tolerable match for George Benson, and Tom felt no small degree of pleasure, when victory declared in favour of the two novices.
“You have won, I declare,” cried George, as he was bowled out by Thomas, after he had been twice in. “I did not expect to be beat by you, as you said you knew nothing of the game. Shall we go now and see what the fives players are about?”
65. Remarks on Children’s Play (New York: Samuel Wood and Sons, 1819), 32.
66. The Boy’s Own Book (Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1829), 18-19, and Robin Carver, The Book of Sports (Boston: Lily, Wait, Colman, and Holden). For a convenient reprinting of Carver’s section on “Base, or Goal Ball,” see Sullivan, comp. and ed., Early Innings, 3.
“A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball”: Baseball and Baseball-type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic
Initially published in NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, Number 8, 2000, this article–here published in three parts–helped lay the foundation for the golden age of early baseball research that was to follow. Tom Altherr is a history professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver; among his courses is one on baseball history that he has taught since 1991. He has continued to make valuable contributions all along the way. “Basepaths and Baselines” won the McFarland-SABR Research Award for 2012. The present article won that same award in 2001.
In his second footnote below, Tom offers: “For a fuller sampling of documentary evidence, see Thomas L. Altherr, ed., Sports in North America: A Documentary History, Volume I, Parts I and II, Early American Sports to 1820 (Gulf Breeze, Florida: Academic International Press, 1997). The research for that encyclopedia provided the impetus for this article, with the sincere hopes that other baseball historians and scholars will locate additional pre-1839 evidence of baseball and baseball-type games.” Tom has not only applauded the efforts of others, but has continued to blaze his own bright path. His other articles reprinted at Our Game are linked below.
“A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball”: Baseball and Baseball-type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic
Thomas L. Altherr
In the spring of 1779, Henry Dearborn, a New Hampshire officer, was a member of the American expedition in north centralPennsylvania, heading northwards to attack the Iroquois tribal peoples. In his journal for April 3rd,Dearborn jotted down something quite different than the typical notations of military activities: “all the Officers of the Brigade turn’d out & Play’d a game at ball the first we have had this yeare.–” Two weeks later he entered something equally eye-catching. On April 17th, he wrote: “we are oblige’d to walk 4 miles to day to find a place leavel enough to play ball.” On the face of it, the two journal entries might not seem all that startling, but to baseball historians they should be sort of front-page news. For Henry Dearborn was one of several, if not more, soldiers who played baseball, or an early variant of it, during the Revolutionary War, a good sixty years before another military man, one Abner Doubleday allegedly invented the game in the sleepy east central New York village of Cooperstown.
Dearborn’s two notations, meager as they were, suggest that the game of ball they played was more than whimsical recreation. Tom Heitz, the longtime historian and librarian at the National Baseball Library at the Hall of Fame, has speculated that baseball-type games at this stage were like pulling a hacky-sack out of a backpack and kicking it around or playing frisbee on the college quad. But what if the game was more serious, more important than that? Indeed Dearborn’s writings warrant a second look. First, the earlier one reveals that the men were familiar with the game, having played it before, at least during some previous year. Moreover the remark hints that they were eager to play again, that the weather or other circumstances had delayed their “opening day,” if you will. The second entry also reflects on the place of the game in their lives. Any historian of the Revolution knows that average soldiers, and even some of the officers, despite their well-known heroism, grumbled about carrying out daily duties. In this case, however, the prospect of playing ball was so important that they hoofed it four miles, during a time when a good day’s march might have been fifteen miles, to locate a spot flat enough to get in the game. Clearly this game meant something more to Henry Dearborn and his assemblage.
Although most current Americans probably still believe in the “immaculate conception” theory of baseball’s origins, that one June day in 1839 in Elihu Phinney’s farm field in Cooperstown, Abner Doubleday drew up the rules, laid out the diamond, and taught the villagers his new game, Americans had been playing baseball and its variants long before then. In fact, bat and ball games are actually quite ancient and in spite of Albert Spalding’s fervid wishes, not even particularly American. In his 1947 book, Ball, Bat, and Bishop, Robert Henderson demolished the Cooperstown origins story by pointing to numerous examples of bat and ball-type games in medieval Europe and Great Britain before and during colonization of the Americas. Soon Denver historian Phil Goodstein will place another nail in the coffin with more evidence about the unreliability of the Mills Commission’s “star witness,” Abner Graves, whose unsavory connections in the West were many. Folklorist Erwin Mehl pushed the antiquity of baseball back even further than Henderson would. In a 1948 article, “Baseball in the Stone Age,” Mehl located evidence of ancient bat and ball games not only in western Europe, but also in North Africa, Asia Minor, India, Afghanistan, and northern Scandinavia. “The spectators at an American baseball game, cheering a Ty Cobb or a Babe Ruth, may have had counterparts in the Stone Age,” he surmised. The terminology for baseball may also be quite more ancient than expected. English vicar Robert Crowley, in his 1550s poem “The Scholar’s Lesson,” may have referred to baseball in his advice to pupils on the advantages of healthful recreation:
To shote, to bowle, or caste the barre,
To play tenise, or tosse the ball,
Or to rene base, like men of war,
Shal hurt thy study nought at al.
English professor Robert Moynihan has suggested other examples of the antic linguistic derivations of baseball terms dating to ancient, medieval, and Shakespearean times. Along with other fragmentary evidence such as a hieroglyphic scene of a bat and ball game in ancient Egypt, a 1344 French illustration of nuns and monks lined up for a ball game, a 1400s Flemish painting showing women playing a bat and ball game, eighteenth-century English diary writers’ references to the game, and mention of “baseball” in Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey, Henderson and Mehl’s writings make it clear that baseball existed long before and outside an American context. So, then, why not the probability of the existence of the game and its variants within the American context?
Problems of definition arise. As O. Paul Mockton pointed out in Pastimes in Time Past, “The very fact that so many early pastimes were all played with balls, causes great confusion, in attempting to investigate the history of these old games. Old historians were very loose in their descriptions of the way the different games were played in mediæval times.” Some of the “ball games” may have been actually soccer or a combination of foot-and-hand ball sports, but in the absence of firm proof, it is just as reasonable to assume that “ball play” among Euroamericans involved a stick and a ball. Indeed, in my research for an encyclopedia of pre-1820 North American primary source sports documents, I found that the sources made distinct references to football, cricket, bandy (a type of field hockey), and fives (a forerunner of modern handball) when they meant those sports. In a couple of instances they referred to “base,” “baste ball,” or “baseball,” leaving the possibility that the term “ball” or “to play ball” referred fairly regularly to baseball-type games.
Certainly Europeans, perhaps mostly the children, but probably even adult men and women, took a swing at a variety of pre-baseball folk games: stool ball, trap ball, catapult ball, which became one o’cat (and two o’cat, three o’cat, etc.), kit-cat, munchets, tip cat, round ball, sting ball, soak ball, burn ball, barn ball, rounders, town ball, and base, or baste, ball, and possibly others called whirl and chermany. Balls were easy to make out of rags and leather and wood and feathers, and bats were paddles or tree branches. Farm fields or the cozier confines of streets and alleys sufficed for the playing field. Bases were trees, chairs (hence “stool ball”), stones, and stakes. Rules were immensely flexible. For example, sources described trap ball as a “simple batting game,” in which a batter hit a ball resting on a stake, much like in modern T-ball, and fielders attempted to catch the ball in order to come to bat themselves, much as in the modern game of work-up. Yet other sources, namely children’s books in the 1810s, depicted trap ball as a much more elaborate game in which batters tried to outhit their opponents over a series of consecutive hits, guess the lengths of their opponent’s hits, or hit or pitch the ball into a special trap. The games then were mostly spontaneous. There were no long, grueling playing seasons nor extended tournaments. But the quality of spontaneity and irregularity did not signify whimsicality. The games held importance for the players and the community. These folk games fit into the interstices of work patterns, ceremonial days, and longer leisure stretches.
The first recorded instance of a baseball-type game in Anglo-America took place in 1621, in, of all places, Plymouth, Massachusetts, on, of all days, Christmas Day. Plymouth may have a spurious claim to being the starting place of “American” history, but it may have a solid claim on the start of baseball in the English colonies. The Separatists, as with many other English Reformation dissenters, did not celebrate Christmas, but rather saw it as just another day. Thus the governor, William Bradford, took a work crew out that morning. The non-Separatist English in the group begged off and Bradford relented, only to find them hard at play, playing stool ball among other sports. Bradford scolded them and recalled the episode in his journal:
One the day called Chrismasday, the Governor caled them out to worke, (as was used,) but the most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor tould them that if they made it a mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in the streete at play, openly; some pitching the barr, & some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and tould them that if they made the keeping a mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in the streets. Since which time nothing has been atempted that way, at least openly.
Bradford and his successors may have had some success in curtailing ball games, but probably never totally suppressed them. The Dutch also played, according to Esther Singleton, in her book, Dutch New York, “all varieties of ball games” in New Netherlands. After the turn of the century, Boston magistrate Samuel Sewall reported games of “wicket” and made one tantalizing reference to trap ball in 1713: “The Rain-water grievously runs into my son Joseph’s Chamber from the N. Window above. As went out to the Barber’s I observ’d the water to run trickling down a great pace from the Coving. I went on the Roof, and found the Spout next Salter’s stop’d, but could not free it with my Stick. Boston went up, and found his pole too big, which I warn’d him of before; came down a Spit, and clear’d the Leaden-throat, by thrusting out a Trap-Ball that stuck there.” Caesar Rodeney, an East Dover, Delaware resident, mentioned playing trap ball, indeed quite well, twice in his journal for August, 1728. On August 24, he scribbled, “Hart and I & James Gordon went to a Trabbal [trap ball} Match In John Willsons old feild I out Plaid them all” and, a week later, he noted, “To Tim Harons: Where James Gordon & I Plaid at Trabbal against John Horon and Th Horon for an anker of Syder We woun We drunk our Syder.” Clearly the British were familiar with these games, as evidenced in Irish doctor John Brickell’s comment about a bat and ball game that indigenous people in North Carolina were playing about 1737: “They [indigenous peoples] have another Game which is managed with a Battoon, and very much resembles our Trap-Ball; . . . “ It is tempting to wonder if this was a pre-contact game or the tribal people adapted it from early European Carolinians. Farther north, in Scarborough, Maine, and in later decades, indigenous people played against Euroamericans, according to town historian William Southgate: “The game of ‘base’ was a peculiar favorite with our young townsmen, and the friendly Indians, and the hard beach of ‘Garrison Cove’ afforded a fine ground for it.”
About midcentury, however, the frequency of references to baseball and baseball-type games increased. Three groups in particular, children’s book writers, soldiers, and students, seem to have made the most major contributions to spreading the game. In his study of sport in colonial and Revolutionary era New England, Bruce Daniels contended that ball sports gained less acceptance than other sports such as horseracing, but that due to “soldiers in the militia, mischievous adolescents, and the students at Harvard and Yale,” the games “were on the verge of legitimacy.” Daniels did not refer specifically to baseball and its variants, but mentioned wicket, bowling, shinny, fives, and football. Baseball-type games were definitely in the mix. Future Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush played so much that it caused him to lament all the time spent: “I have been ashemed likewise, in recollecting how much time I wasted when a boy in playing cat and fives….”
Indeed it was a children’s book that gave Americans their first American visual expression of the games of stool ball, baseball, and trap ball. A 1767 revised edition of a 1744 book, A Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly, featured engravings of scenes of boys playing each of the three games and appended the following moral verses below them:
THE Ball once struck with Art and Care,
And drove impetuous through the Air,
Swift round his Course the Gamester flies,
Or his Stool’s taken by Surprise.
RULE of LIFE
Bestow your Alms whene’er you see
An Object in Necessity.
THE Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin’d Post,
And then Home with Joy.
Thus Britons for Lucre
Fly over the Main;
But, with Pleasure transported,
Return back again.
TOUCH lightly the Trap,
And strike low the Ball;
Let none catch you out,
And you’ll beat them all.
Learn hence, my dear Boy,
To avoid ev’ry Snare,
Contriv’d to involve you
In Sorrow and Care.
It is impossible to gauge just what effect a children’s book had on the growth of baseball-type games, but by 1771 the province of New Hampshire felt compelled to prohibit boys and adolescents playing ball in the streets on Christmas Day for fear of damage to windows. The law, as opposed to William Bradford’s 1621 remonstrances in Plymouth, did not outlaw the game, but rather asked the players to remove to a safer location. Ball playing had apparently become an accepted Christmastide recreation. The New Hampshire law read as follows:
An Act to prevent and punish Disorders usually committed on the twenty-fifth Day of December, commonly called Christmas- Day, the Evening preceding and following said Day, and to prevent other Irregularities committed at other Times. WHEREAS as it often happens that many disorders are occasioned within the town of Portsmouth, . . . by boys and fellows playing with balls in the public streets: . . . And any boys playing with balls in any streets, whereby there is danger of breaking the windows of any building, public or private, may be ordered to remove to any place where there shall be no such danger.
Yet it would be inaccurate to assume that only children, lazy adults, and indigenous people played baseball-type games. Revolutionary War troops were apparently enthusiasts for ball, even walking for miles to find a place level enough to play, as did Henry Dearborn and his compatriots. The Revolutionary War contained, as do most, long stretches of boredom and busywork, camp duty and drill for the troops. They sought out recreation to alleviate this tedium. As long as a game did not involve gambling, which George Washington prohibited and prosecuted, or trample on public safety, soldiers could resort to such exercises. Presumably, as their diaries and memoirs show, baseball was in that category. The level of formality to the games was probably low.
Certainly there were no organized teams nor leagues, but the embryonic pattern for such may have lain behind what soldiers saw played and played themselves at Valley Forge, in the Wyoming valley of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.
The notations were often simple, as in the case of Sharon, Connecticut soldier Simeon Lyman, who recorded his ball playing in New London on September 6, 1775 quite tersely: “Wednesday the 6. We played ball all day.” Even a quick entry, however, is revealing in its information that they played all day. Similarly, Joseph Joslin, Jr., a South Killingly, Connecticut teamster, observed ball playing, on April 21, 1778, while carrying out his duties for the army: “I took care of my oxen & then I went to Capt grinnels after oats and for a load of goods and then S W Some cloudy and I See them play ball . . . “ In like manner, Samuel Shute, a New Jersey lieutenant, jotted down his reference to playing ball in central Pennsylvania sometime between July 9 and 22, 1779: ” . . ., until the 22nd, the time was spent in playing Shinny and Ball.” Incidentally Shute distinguished among various sports, referring elsewhere in his journal to “Bandy Wicket.” He did not confuse baseball with types of field hockey and cricket that the soldiers also played.
Other soldiers made several references to playing. For example, Lieutenant Ebenezer Elmer, a New Jersey officer, chronicled ball playing in New York state, in September, 1776 and in New Jersey, in May, 1777. On September 18, 1776, he wrote: ” . . . The Regiment exercised ‘fore and afternoon, and in the afternoon the Colonel, Parsons, and a number of us played whirl . . . ” Two days later the troops played again and Elmer suffered a jaw injury: “At 9 o’clock, A. M., the Regiment was paraded, and grounded their arms to clear the parade; after which we had a game or two more at whirl; at which Dr. Dunham gave me a severe blow on my mouth which cut my lip, and came near to dislocating my under jaw. . . . ” “In the afternoon again had exercise, . . . Played ball again.” A week later Elmer returned to the theme in his September 28 entry: “We had after exercise a considerable ball play–Colonel, Parsons and all. Parade again at 2 o’clock, but soon dismissed.” Two days later, the ball play resulted in a rhubarb: “The day was so bad and so much labor going on, that we had no exercise, but some ball play–at which some dispute arose among the officers, but was quelled without rising high.” The next spring, Elmer was playing ball again. His diary citation for May 14, 1777 noted: “Played ball, &c., till some time in the afternoon, when I walked up to Mr. DeCamp’s, where I tarried all night.”
Benjamin Gilbert played ball with about the same frequency. Gilbert, a Brookfield, Massachusetts sergeant who ironically settled later near Cooperstown, recounted ball playing in the lower Hudson River valley in the Aprils of 1778 and 1779. On April 28, 1778, he entered in his journal: “In the fore noon the Serjt went Down the hill and plaid Ball.” Two days later, duty hindered his desire to play: “In the Morning I went Down the Hill to play Ball and was Called up immediately to Gather watch coats.” The next April, however, found him hard at play. On April 5, 1779, he wrote: “Our Regt Mustered at 3 oClock after noon. After Muster went to the store and plaid Ball with serjt. Wheeler.” And the next day: “In the after noon the serjt. of our Regt. Went to the Comsy. store to play Ball.” A week later, on the 14th, Gilbert wrote about ball again: “Fair and Clear. In the afternoon we went to the Comissary Store and Plaid Ball.” Three years later, on April 7, 1782, Gilbert noted once again: plaid at Ball severely.” Whatever “severely” meant is anyone’s guess; it may have been a misspelling for “severally.”
Indeed baseball is associated with the heights of patriotism in the war. In 1778, at Valley Forge, after that terrible winter of deprivation, George Ewing, a New Jersey ensign, recorded that the troops played baseball. In what might have been the first written use of the term “base” in North America, Ewing wrote that April: “Attested to my Muster Rolls and delivered them to the Muster Master excersisd in the afternoon in the intervals playd at base . . . “ Even the commander of the whole Continental Army apparently had a penchant for throwing the old horsehide around. Commenting on George Washington’s character while observing him at camp at Fishkill in September, 1779, the newly-arrived secretary to the French legation, François, Comte de Barbé-Marbois, wrote, “To-day he sometimes throws and catches a ball for whole hours with his aides-de-camp.”
The patriots, however, did not have a monopoly on baseball; even loyalists played. Enos Stevens, a Charlestown, New Hampshire loyalist lieutenant serving near New Utrecht on Long Island, mentioned baseball several times in his journal. On May 2, 1778 he penned: “at hom all day play ball sum.” On May 31: “Lords dy. I omit puting down every dy when their is nothing meteriel happens good weather for ball Play.” Apparently Stevens saw ball play, even when the Sabbath prevented it, as more important than “nothing meteriel.” On June 2: “fine plesent weather play ball.” On June 5th: “play ball” And on June 8: “play ball in afternoon.” The next May 3, he recorded “in the after noon [illegible words] play ball.” And in 1781, he returned to the game. On March 22, the entry read: “in the after noon played Wickett.” And a week later, Stevens wrote “playd ball.”
Some of the soldiers and officers observed ball playing while they were prisoners-of-war. Lieutenant Jabez Fitch, a Connecticut officer, witnessed ball playing during his imprisonment in the New York city area in March and April, 1777. On March 14, he wrote: “In the Morning Lt: Blackleach made us a short Visit; this forenoon I went with Capt: Bissell down to Capt: Wells’s Quarters where I procured some paper &c; on our way we lit of a number of our Offrs: who were Zealously Engaged at playing Ball, with whom we staid some time; We came home to our Quarters at about one.” The next day the scene was much the same: “This Forenoon Col. Hart & Majr: Wells came to our Quarters, & we went with them down Street as far as Johanes Lotts, where there was a large number of our Offrs: collected, & spent some Time at playing Ball.” About a month later, on April 12th, Fitch again saw the officers at play: “Toward Night I took a walk with Lt: Brewster down as far as Capt: Johnsons Quarters, where there was a number of our Offrs: Assembled for playing Ball; I came home a little after Sunset.” Some Americans watched or played the game while imprisoned in England. Charles Herbert, a Newburyport, Massachusetts sailor, thus referred to ball playing as a prisoner-of-war in Plymouth, England on April 2, 1777: “Warm, and something pleasant, and the yard begins to be dry again, so that we can return to our former sports; these are ball and quoits, which exercise we make use of to circulate our blood and keep us from things that are worse.” Jonathan Haskins, a Connecticut surgeon who was also in an English prison, witnessed one of the odder occurrences of a baseball-type game. On May 23, 1778, a game of ball took an odd and potentially deadly twist. Haskins wrote in his journal for that day: “23rd. This forenoon as some of the prisoners was playing ball, it by chance happened to lodge in the eave spout. One climbed up to take the ball out, and a sentry without the wall seeing him, fired at him, but did no harm.” Note that it was the prisoners, that is, the Americans who were playing the ball game, not their colonial overlords.
Perhaps the most intriguing evidence about soldiers playing during the Revolution came from the memoirs of Samuel Dewees, a Pennsylvania captain, who in 1781 and 1782 was a teenager guarding the British prisoners-of-war at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Dewees recalled that the Convention Army officers had a passion for ball playing:
These officers were full of cash, and frolicked and gamed much. One amusement in which they indulged much, was playing at ball. A Ball-Alley was fitted up at the Court-House, where some of them were to be seen at almost all hours of the day. When I could beg or buy a couple of old stockings, or two or three old stocking-feet, I would set to work and make a ball. After winding the yarn into a ball, I went to a skin-dressers and got a piece of white leather, with which I covered it. When finished, I carried it to the British officers, who would ‘jump at it’ at a quarter of a dollar. Whilst they remained at Lancaster, I made many balls in this way, and sold them to the British officers, and always received a quarter a-piece.
Dewees’s passage is remarkable for a number of reasons. It suggested that ball playing was quite common and an activity that players could invest with a passionate intensity. Second, skill in making balls was also apparently commonplace, as a fifteen-year-old boy easily knew how to fashion them. And it is astonishing to find out that players were playing with white leather balls as early as 1781 or 1782! Dewees also recorded a brouhaha among the officers during a ball game: “Whilst the game of ball was coming off one day at the Court House, an American officer and a British officer, who were among the spectators, became embroiled in a dispute.”
Part Two, tomorrow.
1. Lloyd A. Brown and Howard H. Peckham, eds., Revolutionary War Journals of Henry Dearborn 1775-1783, (Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1969 ), 149-150.
2. Baseball historians have generally neglected or glossed over the pre-1845 period of baseball history, giving great emphasis to the developments of the New York Knickerbockers. Dean A. Sullivan, in Early Innings, did provide a few examples of pre-1845 baseball activities, but even that barely suggests the older lineage and frequency of baseball and baseball-type games. See Sullivan, comp. and ed., Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995). For a fuller sampling of documentary evidence, see Thomas L. Altherr, ed., Sports in North America: A Documentary History, Volume I, Parts I and II, Early American Sports to 1820 (Gulf Breeze, Florida: Academic International Press, 1997). The research for that encyclopedia provided the impetus for this article, with the sincere hopes that other baseball historians and scholars will locate additional pre-1839 evidence of baseball and baseball-type games.
3. Tom Heitz, conversations with the author, June and August, 1996.
4. Robert W. Henderson, Ball, Bat, and Bishop (New York: Rockport Press, 1947).
5. Goodstein, a Denver historian who is not particularly a baseball scholar, has uncovered evidence of Graves’ involvement in financial misdealings and shooting a spouse, as well as committals for mental illness, in years prior to his testimony for the Mills Commission. The Mills Commission also ignored testimony that baseball existed before 1839, especially a letter from a man who had played the game in Portsmouth, New Hampshire as a school child in 1830. See also “Origins of Baseball” in Jonathan Fraser Light, ed., The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 1997), 530; Harold Seymour, “How Baseball Began,” New York Historical Society Quarterly, v. 40, n. 1 (October 1956), 369-385; and Uriel Simri’s little-known dissertation, “The Religious and Magical Function of Ball Games in Various Cultures,” West Virginia University, 1966.
6. Erwin Mehl, “Baseball in the Stone Age,” Western Folklore, v. 7, n. 2 (April 1948), 145-161 (quotation is from page 161), and Mehl, “Notes on ‘Baseball in the Stone Age’,” Western Folklore, v. 8, n. 2 (April 1949), 152-156.
7. Robert Crowley, “The Scholars Lesson,” in J. M. Cowper, ed., The Select Works of Robert Crowley (London: N. Trubner and Company, 1872), 73.
8. Robert Moynihan, “Shakespeare at Bat, Euclid on the Field,” in Alvin L. Hall, ed., Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and the American Culture (1989) (Westport, Connecticut: Meckler Publishing Company, 1991), 319-323.
9. See Mark Alvarez, The Old Ball Game (Alexandria, Virginia: Redefiniton, 1992), 10-12. See also “Origins of Baseball,” in Light, ed., The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, 528-531.
10. O. Paul Monckton, Pastimes in Times Past (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1913), 52.
11. Altherr, ed., Sports in North America.
12. Ron MCulloch, How Baseball Began (Los Angeles: Warwick Publishing Company, 1995), 4 and 6; and Per Maigaard, “Battingball Games,” Genus, v. 5, n 1-2 (December 1941), 67. An 1866 book on outdoor games also refers to a game called “ball-stock,” which is German in origin and resembles town ball. There is no way of ascertaining, however, from the book, if the game existed before 1839. The Play Ground; or, Out-Door Games for Boys (New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, Publishers, 1866), 112-113.
13. McCulloch, How Baseball Began, 3. Ann McGovern, in a book targeted for adolescents, If You Lived in Colonial Times (New York: Scholastic Incorporated, 1992 ), stated on page 52, without documentation, “Most of all, boys liked to play ball. They played with a leather ball filled with feathers.”
14. Mehl, “Baseball in the Stone Age,” 147.
15. For an excellent discussion of the place and role of folk games and sports in pre-colonial and colonial English culture, see Nancy Struna, People of Prowess: Sport, Leisure, and Labor in Early Anglo-America (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1996), passim, but especially chapter 1.
16. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Harvey Wish, ed. (New York: Capricorn Books, 1962), 82-83.
17. Esther Singleton, Dutch New York (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1909), 290.
18. M. Halsey Thomas, ed., The Diary of Samuel Sewall 1674-1729, Volume II: 1709-1729 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), 718.
19. Harold B. Hancock, ed., “‘Fare Weather and Good Helth’: The Journal of Caesar Rodeney, 1727-1729,” Delaware History, v. 10. n. 1 (April 1962), 64.
20. John Brickell, The Natural History of North-Carolina (Dublin: James Carson, 1737), 336.
21. William S. Southgate, “The History of Scarborough, from 1633 to 1783,” Collections of the Maine Historical Society, v. 3 (Portland, Maine: Maine Historical Society, 1853), 148-149.
22. Bruce C. Daniels, Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 174.
23. Benjamin Rush to Benjamin Rush Floyd, April 21, 1812, in Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., “Further Letters of Benjamin Rush,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, v. 78, n. 1 (January 1954), 43.
24. A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly (London: J. Newbery, 1767), 88, 90, and 91.
25. “An Act to prevent and punish Disorders usually committed on the twenty-fifth Day of December,….,” 23 December 1771, New Hampshire (Colony) Temporary Laws, 1773 (Portsmouth, New Hampshire, [1773-1774]), 53.
26. [Simeon Lyman], “Journal of Simeon Lyman of Sharon Aug. 10 to Dec. 28, 1775,” in “Orderly Book and Journals Kept by Connecticut Men While Taking Part in the American Revolution 1775-1778,” Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, v. 7 (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1899), 117.
27. [Joseph Joslin, Jr.], “Journal of Joseph Joslin Jr. of South Killingly A Teamster in the Continental Service March 1777–August 1778,” in “Orderly Book and Journals Kept by Connecticut Men While Taking part in the American Revolution 1775-1778,” Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, v. 7 (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1899), 353-354.
28. [Samuel Shute], “Journal of Lt. Samuel Shute,” in Frederick Cook, ed., Journals of the Military Expedition of Major General John Sullivan against the Six Nations of Indians in 1779 (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, reprint of 1885 ed.), 268.
29. [Ebenezer Elmer], “Journal of Lieutenant Ebenezer Elmer, of the Third Regiment of New Jersey Troops in the Continental Service,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, v. 1, n. 1 (1848), 26, 27, 30, and 31, and v. 3, n. 2 (1848), 98.
30. Rebecca D. Symmes, ed., A Citizen-Soldier in the American Revolution: The Diary of Benjamin Gilbert in Massachusetts and New York, (Cooperstown, New York: New York State Historical Association, 1980), 30 and 49; and “Benjamin Gilbert Diaries 1782-1786,” G372, New York State Historical Association Library, Cooperstown, New York.
31. [George Ewing], The Military Journal of George Ewing (1754-1824) a Soldier of Valley Forge (Yonkers, New York: Thomas Ewing, 1928), 35.
32. Eugene Parker Chase, ed., Our Revolutionary Forefathers: The Letters of François, Marquis de Barbé-Marbois during His Residence in the United States as Secretary of the French Legation 1779-1785 (New York: Duffield and Company, 1929), 114.
33. Charles Knowlton Bolton, ed., “A Fragment of the Diary of Lieutenant Enos Stevens, Tory, 1777-1778,” New England Quarterly, v. 11, n. 2 (June 1938), 384-385, but the original, more accurate journal, from which the above notations come, is at the Vermont Historical Society, Montpelier, Vermont.
34. William H. W. Sabine, ed., The New-York Diary of Lieutenant Jabez Fitch of the 17th (Connecticut) Regiment from August 22, 1776 to December 15,1777 (New York: pvt. ptg., 1954), 126, 127, and 162.
35. [Charles Herbert], A Relic of the Revolution, Containing a Full and Particular Account of the Sufferings and Privations of All the American Prisoners Captured on the High Seas, and Carried into Plymouth, England, During the Revolution of 1776 (Boston: Charles H. Peirce, 1847), 109.
36. Marion S. Coan, ed., “A Revolutionary Prison Diary[:] The Journal of Dr. Jonathan Haskins,” New England Quarterly, v. 17, n. 2 (June 1944), 308.
37. John Smith Hanna, ed., A History of the Life and Services of Captain Samuel Dewees, A Native of Pennsylvania, and Soldier of the Revolutionary and Last Wars, (Baltimore: Robert Neilson, 1844), 265 and 266.
As promised in my previous post, “Did African American Slaves Play Baseball?” (http://goo.gl/W8lFq), I learned a lot about the long-gone holiday of Pinkster (mourned by oldtimers of the 1840s), and particularly ball play at this time among the slave population, North and South. Caveat lector: if you care only for history as it relates to baseball, you might be well advised to proceed no further.
Robert Henderson opened his classic Ball, Bat and Bishop with these words: “It is the purpose of this book to show that all modern games played with bat and ball descend from one common source: an ancient fertility rite observed by Priest–Kings in the Egypt of the Pyramids.” Moving forward some three millennia, he added:
The testimony of Beleth and Durandus, both eminently qualified witnesses, clearly indicates that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the ball had found a place for itself in the Easter celebrations of the Church.” In fact, Beleth and Durandus had both opposed the practice, seeing it as the intrusion of pagan rites into church rites. “There are some Churches in which it is customary for the Bishops and Archbishops to play in the monasteries with those under them, even to stoop to the game of ball” [Beleth, 1165]. “In certain places in our country, prelates play games with their own clerics on Easter in the cloisters, or in the Episcopal Palaces, even so far as to descend to the game of ball” [Durandus, 1286].
What does this have to with bat and ball and the fertility rites of spring, you ask? Not to put too fine a point on it, but the bat and ball are symbolic male and female forms. Like the dance (ballet) and the ballad, the game of ball (all derived from ballare, the Greek for ball), was regarded as sublimated sex. The Oxford English Dictionary records usages of the word “game” to mean amorous sport or lechery as early as 1230; to illustrate a perhaps more familiar instance, Shakespeare wrote, in Troilus and Cressida in 1606, “Set them downe For sluttish spoyles of opportunitie; and daughters of the game.” In recent memory, a television advertiser touted its hair coloring product as a way for graying men to “get back in the game.” Early prohibitions, especially against games involving bats or balls, tended to the extreme: in England ca. 1635, Richard Allen’s preaching at Ditcheat convinced a parishioner that “a maypole was an idol, and setting up of him [!] was idolatrie” and that ‘it was a greater sin for a man to play at Bowles on the Sabboath daie, then [sic] to lie with another mans wiffe on a weeke daie.” In this context, I invite you to think of ball play–even baseball–at Pinkster as a longing for freedom.
The Pentecostal Dutch holiday of Pinkster (Pinksterfeest or Pinxter, a sort of azalea flower) was celebrated on the day after Whitsunday (seven weeks after Easter, and thus the gateway to summer). In New York City Pinkster Monday was celebrated in City Hall Park and at Chatham Square, but in Albany it was a week-long Saturnalian revel for slaves of the prominent old Dutch households. In 1800 Gorham A. Worth wrote: “Albany was indeed Dutch, in all its moods and tenses; thoroughly and inveterately Dutch. The buildings were Dutch – Dutch in style, in position, attitude and aspect. The people were Dutch, the horses were Dutch, and even the dogs were Dutch.” This, from “A Glimpse of an Old Dutch Town,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 62, 1881:
New-Year’s Day was devoted to the universal interchange of visits. Every door was thrown wide open, and a warm welcome extended to friend and stranger. It was a breach of etiquette to omit any acquaintance in these annual calls, when old friendships were renewed, and family differences amicably settled. And here came the famous New-Year cake. The Paas eggs were the feature of Easter. The Pinkster festivities commenced on the Monday after Whitsunday, and now began the fun for the negroes, for Pinkster was the carnival of the African race. The venerable “King of the Blacks” was “Charley of Pinkster Hill,” so called because he was the principal actor in the festivities. [Pinkster Hill was another name for Albany’s Capitol Hill.] Charles originally came from Africa, having in his infancy been brought from Angolo, in the Guinea Gulf; and when but a boy he became the purchased slave of one of the most ancient and respectable merchant princes of the olden time, Volckert P. Douw, of Wolvenhoeck. Charles’s costume as king was that of a British brigadier—ample broadcloth scarlet coat, with wide flaps, almost reaching to his heels, and gayly ornamented everywhere with broad tracings of bright gold-lace. His small-clothes were of yellow buckskin, fresh and new, with stockings blue, and burnished silver buckles to his well-blacked shoe. And when we add the three-cornered cocked hat, trimmed also with gold-lace, and which so gracefully sat upon his noble globular pate, we complete this rude sketch of the Pinkster king.
Both he and his followers were covered with Pinkster blummies—the wild azalea, or swamp-apple. The procession started from “young massa’s house” (82 State Street; where now stands the large seedstore of Knickerbocker and Price), and went up State Street to Bleecker Hill, on the crown of which was the Bleecker Burying-ground. In front of the king always marched Dick Simpson and Pete Halenbeck, the latter the Beau Brummel of his time. The last parade was in 1822. The king died two years later. During Pinkster–day the negroes made merry with games and feasting, all paying homage to the king, who was held in awe and reverence as an African prince. In the evening there was a grand dance, led by Charles and some sable beauty, to the music of Pete Halenbeck’s fiddle.
On the day following Pinkster (Pentecost or Whitmanday) the Negroes of Albany held revels on Pinkster Hill, the approximate site of the present State Capitol. Gradually the celebration extended far into the week until in April of 1811, the Common Council of Albany passed rules aimed at “boisterous rioting and drunkenness”—rules which were the knell of the Pinkster holidays with their African folk dances and beating on the Guinea Drum, as it was called in the Albany Centinel of June 17, 1803:
a log of about four feet in length, and twelve or fourteen feet in diameter, burnt out at one end … and covered with a sheep skin. On this one thumps with his fists a kind of barbarous ill composed, or uncomposed, air, which is accompanied with a harsh sort of grunting , a bawling and mumbling, which on any other occasion than Pinkster, would disgrace a savage.
While clucking about the savagery of the slave celebrations to come, the writer attests to a poignant truth. “This reminds the citizens,” the Centinel continued, “of the approaching anniversary, wakes into anxious expectation juvenile curiosity, and kindles the latent spark of love for his native country and native dance, in the bosom of the African. In the mean time, preparations are going forward on the [Pinkster] hill, which the ensuing week is to become the theatre of action.”
Also from 1803, an Albany pamphlet offered an ode “Most Respectfully Dedicated To CAROLUS AFRICANUS, REX: Thus Rendered in English: KING CHARLES, Capital-General and Commander in Chief of the
A Pinkster Song
When leave the fig tree putteth out,
When calves and lambs for mothers cry,
When toads begin to hop about,
We know of truth that summer’s nigh.
So after Pos [Pas, or Easter] when hens do cluck,
When gawky goblins peep and feed,
And boys get fewer eggs to suck,
We know that Pinkster comes indeed. […]
Rise then, each son of Pinkster, rise,
Snatch fleeting pleasure as it flies.
See Nature spreads her carpet gay,
For you to dance your care away.
“Care! what have we with care to do?
“Masters! Care was made for you.
“Behold rich free-men-see dull care
“Oft make their bodies lean and spare. […]
Ill-omen’d stars! malignant shone,
When Demons dragg’d thee from thy throne!
Afric with all her gold was poor,
When thou vast wafted from her shore.
Ah! when will Heaven, in justice drest,
Avenge the wrongs of the opprest!
Or will Heaven’s Lord in vengeance swear,
Tyrants shall never enter there!
But-hush-now Charles the King harangues,
A hundred fiddles cease their twangs.
“Harken, ye sons of Ham, to me;
“This day our Bosses make us free;
“Now all the common on the hill,
“Is ours, to do what e’er we will.
“And let us by our conduct show,
“We thank them as we ought to do.
“While Demo hot and fiery Fed,
“Boast who for freedom most have bled;
“Let us, each woman, man and boy,
“Strive, who call freedom most enjoy;
“While on hot politics they sup,
“And mostly drink a bitter cup;
“Let us with grateful hearts agree
“Not to abuse our liberty.
“Tho’ lordlings proud may domineer,
“And at our humble revelsjeer,
“Tho’ torn from friends beyond the waves,
“Tho’ fate has doom’d us to be slaves,
“Yet on this day, let’s taste and see
“How sweet a thing is Liberty,
“What tho’ for freedom we may sigh
“Many long years until we die,
“Yet nobly let us still endure
“The ills and wrongs we cannot cure.
“Tho’ hard and humble be our lot,
“The rich man’s spleen we envy not.
“While we have health, whence pleasure springs,
“And peace to purchase fiddle-strings,
“Let’s with united voice agree
“To hail this happy jubilee.
“Behold for as green lawns are spread
“O’er graves of British heroes dead.
“Behold for us the vernal field,
“A thousand blooming pleasures yield.
“Zephyrs which play on bosoms fair,
“Will wonton on our woolly hair;
“While every bird on every tree,
“Proclaims our happy jubilee:
“Let us be jovial be as they,
“All on this holy holiday.”
Thus spake King Charles, when all the crowd,
Roused full strong, long and loud,
And thank’d kind Heaven on bended knee,
For this, their short-lived liberty. […]
As we near the date of issuance of Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee report, capping nearly two years of digging and gathering, we have, it appears, come a bit closer to answering the question posed in the title of this post. Master sleuths of early ball play have provided us with references to ball play by African Americans in bondage, but without clear evidence as to whether baseball was one of the games they played. Randall Brown and Dale Somers offered instances of antebellum baseball play by freedmen; Tom Altherr uncovered early citations for slave ball play. But only recently has a report emerged, at last, of slaves playing baseball—and it was not in the South, but in New York State in about 1820.
First, some background. In the most recent issue of the journal Base Ball, Bruce Allardice published a fine article on the prevalence of baseball in the South prior to the Civil War, supplying a nice corrective to the hoary myth that Northern soldiers introduced their Confederate counterparts to the game. As to African Americans in the South, Allardice offered:
According to Dale Somers [in The Rise of Sports in New Orleans, 1850–1900, citing the New Orleans Picayune of Dec. 21, 1869], black employees of the elite Pickwick and Boston Clubs of New Orleans formed baseball teams in the late 1860s, and took as team names the names of the social clubs they worked for. The Pickwick played the (white) Lone Star club in late 1869, perhaps the first interracial game in Southern baseball history. These and other teams played regularly throughout the 1870s and 1880s, often against white teams. Blacks in Atlanta had already formed a club in 1867. A newspaper reported that the “negroes of Atlanta” had formed a club “dressed in red pants and sky-blue jackets.” In Houston, Texas, in 1868 a “colored” team, the oddly named Six Shooter Jims, challenged other “colored” teams in Texas to match games.
Thanks largely to Tom Altherr, the Early Baseball Milestones section of MLB’s Memory Lab site (http://mlb.mlb.com/memorylab/chronology/index.jsp?sub_section=africanamericans) contains citations of African American ballplay as early as 1773: “We present as a growing Evil, the frequent assembling of Negroes in the Town [Beaufort, SC] on Sundays, and playing games of Trap-ball and Fives, which is not taken proper notice of by Magistrates, Constables, and other Parish Officers.” Tom Gilbert and Altherr noted that in the North-Carolina Minerva of March 11, 1797, a punishment of 15 lashes was specified for “negroes, that shall make a noise or assemble in a riotous manner in any of the streets [of Fayetteville] on the Sabbath day; or that may be seen playing ball on that day.”
In the 1850s schoolteacher Emily Burke observed, in Pleasure and Pain: Reminiscences of Georgia in the 1840s:
The slaves had finished the tasks that had been assigned to them in the morning and were now enjoying holiday recreations. Some were trundling the hoop, some were playing ball, some were dancing at the sound of the fiddle . . . In this manner the Sabbath is usually spent on a Southern plantation.
We have this, from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (Boston, 1845):
My term of actual service to Mr. Edward Covey ended on Christmas Day, 1833. The days between Christmas and New Year’s Day are allowed as holidays, and accordingly we were not required to perform any labor more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters, and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased. Those of us who had families at a distance were generally allowed to spend the whole six days in their society. This time, however, was spent in various ways. The sober, staid, thinking, and industrious of our number would employ themselves in making corn brooms, mats, horse collars, and baskets; and another class of us would spend the time in hunting opossums, hares, and coons. But by far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as ball playing, wrestling, running foot races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whiskey: and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to the feelings of our masters. A slave who would work during the holidays was considered by our masters as scarcely deserving them. It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk at Christmas.
Randall Brown, in Blood and Base Ball (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/11/29/blood-and-base-ball-part-2/), provided proof of freedmen in Brooklyn forming baseball clubs as early as 1858, with the pioneer “Unknown Base Ball Club” contesting with the Henson Club of Jamaica in the following year.
Despite these wonderful finds, however, we still had nothing connecting slaves with a game that they—or we, as students of the early game—could term baseball. By this we mean, simply, a game of bat and ball played with bases that must be traversed in the round to score a run. The existence of foul territory, the number of outs to the inning, the number of men to the side—these are all niceties of the evolving game but they do not define it. Baseball was played at Princeton College in 1786, at Pittsfield, MA in 1791, in New York City in 1823, in Philadelphia in 1831—no matter that the playing rules associated with each of these dates are largely unknown and are certain to have differed.
Last year Randall Brown shared with me a fantastic bit of news that I might have been expected to have found first, inasmuch as the source was the Daily Freeman, an extant paper of Kingston, NY, my residence until just two years ago. Not only did the Freeman, in its issue of August 19, 1881, reference early African American baseball (New York was, in 1827, one of the last of the Northern states to abolish slavery), but at a site just a stone’s throw from my offices. The headline read:
A Colored Resident. Henry Rosecranse Columbus, Jr. Some Incidents in the Life of an Old Resident of Kingston. Born a Slave, He Lives to Become Wealthy and an Example to His Race.
This fellow was born in 1804, according to the Freeman; or 1801, according to the Federal Census. While I will offer up, in my next post, a bit more about African Americans’ ball play and their largely vanished Spring holiday of Pinkster (the Monday after Whitsunday), here is the startling interview:
Few men perhaps in their station of life have been more widely known in this county than Henry Rosecranse Columbus Jr., the colored barber of John street. Mr. Rosecranse was born a slave in the year 1804, in the Kingston Hotel building on Crown street, then known as the “Coffee House,” the proprietor of which was Levi Johnston, and he has proved himself during his life to be one of the best examples to the colored men who have lived during the present century, and he has a record for honesty and uprightness in dealing that few men can boast of. He has shown that a man even of a humble station of life can win his way by steady application to his trade and attending to his own business, and become the owner of lands and money in “goodly quantity.”
His barber shop on John street is little changed from what it was nearly half a century ago, and the furniture and pictures smack of times long gone by. Ancient portraits of battles of the Mexican war and the revolution hang upon the wall; quaint pictures of New York city are seen, and General Scott stands with soldierly bearing by the side of his horse in a big frame, while John Morrissey hangs over the doorway as he appeared when he was a young man and fought with Sullivan. An engraving of Samsonville as it appeared when owned by General Samson in his prosperous days, with High Point in close proximity, can also be seen. In one part of the room is an old advertisement of charges, made undoubtedly when the shop was in its palmy days.
Mr. Rosecranse only keeps his shop open nowadays in order to have something to occupy his time so he will not get rusty. A few old customers still visit him and talk over old days, while he is taking off an itching beard or trimming down a shaggy coat of hair, but there are men in prosperous condition living in other counties, and some in the far West, who, whenever they visit the city always call on Mr. Rosecranse to shake hands with him and bring again to recollection circumstances that transpired forty or fifty years ago, and find out how this man or that woman is, whether dead or living, and in what circumstances they might have been, for Mr. Rosecranse carries a sort of statistical record in his head of half the families of the county, and in genealogy, he is considered equal to the big family Bible.
Mr. Rosecranse’s father was Thomas Rosecranse, and he was named after him, while the “Columbus” was added as a sort of affix to denote that he was once a servant of the Tappen family, one of whom bore that name. The mother of Mr. Rosecranse was a slave of the mother of Peter Masten, and was afterwards bought by George Tappen. She lived for years with one of the most aristocratic families in Kingston, and in her day waited upon many great men, among them being “Matty” Van Buren, as he was familiarly called, who often came here visiting.
When a boy Mr. Rosecranse worked for Levi Johnson, who then kept the hotel on Crown street, and went with him to New York city when he moved there. Returning in a couple of years, he worked for Jonathan Ostrander, father of James E. Ostrander, who lived in the old stone house on Green street, now known as the Industrial Home.
Soon after this Mr. Rosecranse started to learn his trade of barbering with Thomas Harley, a colored man, a famous barber in his day, father of Hanson G. Harley, who now runs the barber shop on Fair street. Thomas Harley at that time had a shop in the hotel known as the Folter place, afterward called the Ulster County House, and which stood on the site of the present Argus building. In two years he had learned the trade sufficiently to accept a position as barber and waiter with Pardee, then proprietor of the present Kingston Hotel on Crown street.
Reporter—“When did you take your position at Pardee’s?
Mr. Rosecranse—“Well, it was at the time of the big snow storm, you remember that, don’t you?” The reporter said, “O, no, I guess not; I have no recollection of that time.” Mr. Rosecranse continued, saying, “It was over forty years ago. It was a big snow storm, the biggest we ever had. The streets were blocked with snow so the men had to be called out to break the way, and I remember helping shovel the snow away from the house of the lady who afterwards married William H. Romeyn, Esq.
Mr. Rosecranse inquired of the reporter if he remembered the accident that happened while firing cannon on the death of Governor Clinton [in 1812].
Reporter—“Yes, I have heard of it, but give us the circumstances.”
“There was several of them firing the cannon; one held his finger over the vent, and while Henry Ray was ramming in the charge and Gilbert Dillon and Jesse Hamilton were near to him, the man who held the vent must have taken his finger off, for it went off, and it blew Ray all to pieces, so we had to look around and pick his bones up. Gilbert Dillon was lamed for life, and Jesse Hamilton was cut across the face and carries the scar to this day.” The accident occurred on Wall street opposite the Young property.
Mr. Rosecranse evidently believes in the good times of a half a century ago. He said, “We used to have a great deal better time than that you do now. We didn’t have a big city with lamps and curb stones and paved walks, and had to go round through the mud, but we had more holidays. There was the Pinkster holiday, the Great Holiday for the colored men. They used to meet at Black Horse Tavern (the building still stands on the lower end of Wall street) and shoot for turkeys. Then the colored men raced horses on Peter Sharpe’s lane. They used to come a great many of them with horses of their bosses, and run them. (This lane was where Albany avenue now runs, and the race ground was from Kiefer’s to the lane that runs in to the house of William M. Hayes). The bosses used to come and bet on the horses, and they had a great deal of fun. After the races they used to play ball for egg nog.”
Reporter—“Was it base ball as now played?”
Mr. Rosecranse—“Something like it, only the ball wasn’t near so hard, and we used to have much more fun playing.” He further said a great game of those days was wicket.
He remembered general training days, and was full of anecdotes of the officers and others who were prominent on such occasions. He said they used to train sometimes in one place and sometimes another, and the different regiments wore different uniforms, each having its own particular colored uniform.
Mr. Rosecranse during his life has worked steadily at his trade, and has amassed quite a fortune, owning a number of buildings on John street, besides other evidences of wealth. He is hale and hearty, carrying his three score and seventeen years so lightly that another twenty years seemingly would hardly make him appear older than other men at sixty.
Here is something of a cheat sheet to learning about baseball’s beginnings. The linked selections below are those of Larry McCray, a member of Major League Baseball’s Origins Committee and the founder of the invaluable Protoball project. Larry was also the editor of the special origins number of the journal Base Ball, source of most of the articles linked below.