The article below, by Patricia Millen, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Ms. Millen is the author of From Pastime to Passion: Baseball and the Civil War (Heritage Books, 2001), the first book on baseball in the war camps. She has written dozens of articles on U.S. history, and is the Executive Director of the Roebling Museum in central New Jersey. Her article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1863.11, reflects that it is the eleventh entry for the year 1863. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
Item 1863.11, On the Battlefront, the New York Game Takes Hold, 1861–1865
[In April 1863] the Third Corps and Sixth Corps baseball teams met near White Oak Church, Virginia, to play for the championship of the Army of the Potomac.
The soldiers who marched off to fight the American Civil War did so knowing how to play base-running ball games. Whether from a northern city or a southern country plantation, the farmers, merchants, doctors, clerks, sons and grandfathers who enlisted in Union and Confederatearmies grew up with a sporting heritage. The rules of the ball games they played varied slightly by region, but by the 1840s—nearly twenty years before the Civil War began in 1861—they had taken shapes that a 21st century observer wouldrecognize. The game was not dramatically advanced by Northern soldiers moving south during the War, or by the rare exchanges between Union and Confederate soldiers. Instead, baseball during wartime provided respite, amusement and a taste of home to bored, scared, weary soldiers and POWs on both sides of the conflict. The war helped solidify the New York rules as the favorite form of baseball—a progression that began before the first shot of the war was ever fired. Two years after Fort Sumter, it appears, Union soldiers had even formed all-star teams for two of their Corps, and had crowned a championship nine for their entire Army.
We know of the baseball games played by Civil War soldiers from contemporary newspaper accounts, regimental histories, and from diaries and letters written by the soldiers themselves.Few accounts record the game as anything new—rather, most are presented as commonplace. Accounts salvaged are often similar in nature, reflecting the game as a favorite pastime during the War, but altogether ordinary. As E. F. Palmer of the Second Brigade from Montpelier, Vermont noted in his history of the regiment in 1864:
Since the ground has become dry, many are the amusements. After drilling is over, towards evening, the wide level space in front of the camp is crowded with soldiers. Many are playing ball. The most expert choose up, and one is to keep tally; now they strip off coats and sweating and eager as to the result, push on the lively game.
Three hundred eighty-four major battles and campaigns took place during the American Civil War. We can follow the reports of ball games by soldiers in the regions of the country surrounding these principle operations. The majority of all known baseball games took place in the Confederate stronghold of Virginia—where a full third of all key military operations of the war took place. New York and Massachusetts regiments played the most baseball. Although New Jersey regiments represented a much smaller fighting force, the activity of baseball among the Jersey boys was brisk. Reports of ball play by Pennsylvania soldiers tallied fourth behind New Jersey in recorded accounts.
Extant reports of ball play by Confederates are few in comparison to the writings of the victorious north (references to Confederate ball playing account for only 10 percent of recorded play); but they do exist to tell part of the story of Civil War baseball. Virginia and Florida regiments reported the most ball play, although no southern regiment represented a clear majority in the compilation of histories of Confederate baseball. A typical account is that of William Harding, a corporal in theConfederate Army who wrote in 1863, when he was stationed in Georgia, that he “had a fine game of Town ball which gave me good exercise.” Also behind Confederate lines, James Hall of the 24th Alabama observed his men playing baseball “just like school boys” while waiting for General Sherman to advance his army.
For the most part, baseball and town ball were enthusiastically played between men from the same regiments, from the same part of the country and by commonly accepted rules. Baseball games were said to be “all the rage” and camps were “alive” with ball play during the War. George Rolfe from the 134th New York recollected that while in Chattanooga he played men from the Massachusetts 33rd. Accounts show New York, Pennsylvania and other northern regiments played consistently each evening on their drill fields.
The majority of all ball play took place in winter quarters when spring weather approached and soldiers, restless and bored, took to outdoor sport. Ball games were played with regularity while soldiers were sojourned in camp, and in times of rest between battles and marches. The citizen turned solider did not realize that, during his great adventure away from home, a principal enemy would be boredom. A soldier might spend several months at a time without ever firing a gun! A New Jersey soldier recorded in his diary in 1863, “The boredom became unbearable as the winter wore on. Mud everywhere, limiting outside activities . . . during the long days the men played chess, checkers, cards, and, when weather permitted, baseball and other athletic pursuits.”
From November until spring, the grand armies sat idle waiting for passable roads and foraged food. Athletic games of all kinds—quoits, football, foot races—lifted spirits. The importance of sport and physical exercise to the morale of the men was emphasized by the US Sanitary Commission, physicians, and the press. As Julian Chisolm, a Confederate doctor published in 1864, “gymnastic exercise should be encouraged as conductive to health, strength, agility and address.” The “manly game of ball” was recommended as an important addition to a soldier’s physical fitness regime.
Two variations of base ball were played during the War—town ball, and its cousin the Massachusetts game, and the New York game of baseball. Ora Harvey from the 46th Massachusetts wrote in a letter home in 1863: “We play ball pitch quoits the rest of the time. We play the New York ‘Gam’ [sic] most of the time. ‘Mass’ game some . . . .”
Most often, however, the type of ball game was not specified in the writings left behind by northern or southern soldiers. In a recent compilation of more than150 historical accounts of ball play during the four-year war, the game called “base ball” was cited about 70 percent of the time in those records where the type of ball play could be determined. In the majority of accounts, the game played by Northern soldiers was by the New York or Massachusetts rules. It is not surprising that the New York game appears to have been the most commonly played, because of the sheer number of soldiers from New York. When President Abraham Lincoln called for enlistments in 1861, the largest army of Union men—409 regiments—eventually answered the call to serve from the Empire State.
For their part, soldiers were not overly concerned with the rules of play and only a few occurrences call the rules of baseball into question during the war. One Union soldier remarked in his diary that he and the boys in his company from the 26th Pennsylvania regiment did learn to play baseball in a “new way” but that he had already forgotten the different rules. A sergeant from the 62nd New York regiment wrote to the sporting paper The New York Clipper on May 30, 1863, to clarify the rules as he knew them:
That in making a home run in a game of baseball the runner is allowed to run 2′ either side of the bases without touching them. I claim that he is obligated to touch each base as he passes it . . . to play now in N.Y. is to touch the bases in all cases; so that the matter is settled, and the rules can now be interpreted correctly.
A handful of accounts show baseball was played in Yankee and Confederate prison camps during the Civil War. Imprisoned on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, Ohio, Confederate Lt. William Peel, a farmer, of the 11th Mississippi gave accounts of a head injury suffered by a fellow prisoner while a “party was engaged in a game of baseball” in the prison yard. He wrote of challenges between ball clubs in the prison that lasted for several weeks.
The condition in many of the army prisons, especially for those soldiers held by the Confederate army, was not conducive to outside amusements. By mid-war, the Confederate government had little means to supply food, clothing or shelter to its own army, let alone its prisoners of war.
The most extensive accounts of prison ball play during the war come from Salisbury prison in North Carolina. An old cotton factory was transformed into a Confederate prison camp in 1861 and for a while, prisoners had free rein of the 16-acre yard and ball games were played almost daily. They were recorded in the diaries of several prisoners and in the writings of a Confederate chaplain who resided in Salisbury. “Took a little walk in the evening and watched some officers play ball,” wrote 23-year-old Union doctor Charles Grey, who was captured and sent to the prison in 1862. Referring to some recently transferred prisoners from New Orleans and Alabama, a Rhode Island soldier wrote in 1863, “And to-day the great game of baseball came off between the Orleanists and the Tuscaloosans with apparently as much enjoyment to the Rebs as the Yanks. . . .”
The pleasant memories of games at Salisbury, before conditions at the prison became as notoriously grim as Andersonville, were depicted in a color lithograph publishedin 1863by Sarony, Major and Knapp. The print shows a lively ball game in the park-like setting of the prison grounds at Salisbury, drawn by former prisoner Otto Boetticher, Captain, Company G of the 68th New York. Otto Boetticher was a commercial artist living in New York before the War and spent one summer in Salisbury before being exchanged in September of 1862.
Baseball games were played by northern and southern soldiers when time and energy permitted in hundreds of places during the American Civil War. Baseball gave soldiers a much needed respite from the realities of the War. The majority of ball play took place in winter quarters as spring weather advanced and the New York game proved to be the favorite version of the game played during the war. It continued to progress as America’s favorite pastime as the country began to heal after four long years of hostilities.
1. History. The First National Bank of Scranton, PA (Scranton, 1906), p. 37. This company history describes how the bank’s 1906 president, James A. Linen, had pitched for the winning side in the championship game.
2. Madden, D. 2000. Beyond the Battlefield (p. 99).
3. Ballplaying in Civil War Camps, database: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CW.htm
5. Millen, P. 2001. From Pastime to Passion, Baseball and the Civil War (p. 19).
6. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 20).
7. Rolfe, G. 1864. Diary.
8. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 24).
9. Chisolm, J. A Manual of Military Surgery, for Use of Surgeons in the Confederate Army (pp. 56–57).
10. Protoball Chronology: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (p. 25).
11. Ballplaying in Civil War Camps, database: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CWtrends.htm
12. Crockett, D. 1962. “Sports and Recreational Practices of Union and Confederate Soldiers,” Research Quarterly 32.3, p. 342.
13. New York Clipper: May 30, 1863.
14. “The Games Endures: A Civil War Diary” Humanities 15.4 (1994), p. 18.
15. Sumner, J. 1989. “Baseball at Salisbury Prison Camp,” Baseball History, p. 20.
17. An Album of Civil War Battle Art, 1988, p. 97.
The article below, by Bob Tholkes, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Bob has written articles for SABR publications, writes a lively monthly newsletter covering new research developments for SABR’s Committee on the Origins of Base Ball, and operates a vintage baseball club in Minnesota.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1860.6, reflects that it is the sixth entry for the year 1860. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
Item 1860.6, The Sunday Mercury Summarizes the 1860 Season
The year 1860 has witnessed a wonderful progress in the popularity of out-door sports in general, and especially of the game of base ball.
At the end of each calendar year before the Civil War, the weekly New York Sunday Mercury, self-described official baseball organ for New York State, published its annual summary of the season. Its editor, William Pierce Cauldwell, was, along with William Bray of the Clipper, mentioned by Henry Chadwick as one of the two journalists covering baseball at the time Chadwick took up the game. It was Cauldwell who suggested that Chadwick be allowed to attend meetings of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) rules committee in 1857. As a member of the group that founded the Union BBC of Morrisania (now part of the Bronx) in 1855, Cauldwell is credited with helping to bring the new game to the area. He continued through the 1860s as a club officer and delegate to the annual conventions of the NABBP. In 1859, 1860, 1861, and 1862 he was a member of the NABBP Standing Committee on Rules and Regulations. The paper’s claim to overarching “biblical” status is evidenced by the reader correspondence that it published regularly. Reports and game accounts were received from as far away as San Francisco, and from remote baseball outposts like Milwaukee, St. Louis, Louisville, and New Orleans. Reader questions about rules and customs, both on and off the field, came from across New York State and northern New Jersey, as well as from Boston, Toronto, and far-off St. Louis.
The Sunday Mercury’s 1860 season summary for the first time did not provide an all-inclusive list of matches played; the list, as Cauldwell proudly noted, had become too long.
Without further ado, Mr. Cauldwell:
The year 1860 has witnessed a wonderful progress in the popularity of out-door sports in general, and especially of the game of base ball. Our columns record the organization of upwards of two hundred new base ball clubs during the year, and also the scores of nearly six hundred matches that were played. The base ball season was characterized by many very pleasing and noticeable features. It was opened on the 17th of May, with a very interesting and well-contested match between the Excelsior and Charter Oak Clubs, of South Brooklyn—in which the latter was victorious by a score of 12 to 11 runs—and was kept up with great vigor until the 29th day of November. We had intended to give a summary of all the matches played during the season ; but our columns will not permit. We have, therefore, selected only the matches of the senior clubs belonging to the National Association, overlooking, from necessity, the hundreds of matches played by junior organizations—some of which, by the way, were quite as interesting as many of those of the senior clubs…
Among the most interesting features of the last season, were the excursions of the Excelsior Club (of South Brooklyn) to Albany, Troy, and Buffalo, and to Philadelphia and Baltimore. . . . Every match played by the Excelsiors on their tours was crowned with great success; and out of all the matches played by that club during the season, two only went against them: the first with the Charter Oak, and the return match with the Atlantic Club.
The Atlantic Club also maintained its prestige of success during the past year. Twice only was it beaten: once by the Excelsior, and once by the Eckford Club. The contests between the Atlantic and Excelsior clubs, as well as that between the Atlantic and Eckford Clubs, were the most interesting matches of the season.
It will be seen that quite a number of tie games were played—the Gotham Club figuring in three or four matches of this kind.
The closest game of the season was that between the Excelsior Club (of south Brooklyn) and the Union (of Morrisania), played on the 7th of September, at Morrisania. The score of the nine innings played was: 7 runs for the Excelsior, and 4 for the Union. It was a beautifully played game.
The first game of base ball ever played in California came off on the 22d of February, 1860, at which early period in the year base ball was also being played in New Orleans almost daily.
At the annual meeting of the National Association, held on the 14th of last March, sixteen new clubs were admitted as members, and eighteen others were admitted at the meeting held on the 12th of December—making in all eighty-eight senior clubs now represented in the National Association of Base Ball Players. As each of these clubs now average from thirty-five to forty members, the total number of ball-players so represented in the Association, may be safely estimated at three thousand. In addition to this large number, there are probably as many as one hundred senior clubs in this city and vicinity, and in the cities throughout the State, which have not yet joined the Association, and which have, perhaps, a membership of not less than three thousand. And if we add to these the not less than two hundred junior clubs of New York, Brooklyn, and vicinity—comprising at least two thousand members—it will be a safe calculation to say, that the game of base ball during the season of 1860 afforded amusement and invigorating exercise to at least TEN THOUSAND ACTIVE MEMBERS of base-ball clubs.
We anticipate a still further increase next year. The passion for healthy out-door exercise is rapidly spreading throughout the country; and in its season there is no game so simple, and yet so interesting and attractive, as that of our National Game of Base Ball.
Perhaps due to reasons of space, Cauldwell under-represents the extent to which the game expanded geographically in 1860, only mentioning the Excelsiors’ tours to western New York State, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and noting that the game was played in California and New Orleans. The game had spread by the end of the 1860 season to nearly all parts of the United States, and to parts of Canada; the Mercury itself printed reports of the formation of clubs and game accounts from Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Louisville.
Reading the Sunday Mercury’s season summary offers a taste of baseball guides to come, which would similarly fail to dwell on the game’s issues. As an unashamed apologist for the game, Cauldwell did not mention two disturbing trends which advanced in 1860. The Excelsior Club of South Brooklyn, usually considered the champion team of 1860, was considerably propelled in that direction by two new club members, Jim Creighton and George Flanly, transfers from the Star Club, also of Brooklyn. Both were widely rumored to have received certain tangible inducements to transfer, so that they are now considered two of the first, if not the very first, professionals.
The Excelsiors’ championship was not considered clear-cut because their tie-breaking match with the defending champion Atlantic Club, also of Brooklyn, was abandoned by the Excelsiors in the sixth inning, in protest of extensive misbehavior toward both the Excelsiors and the umpire by Atlantic partisans among the spectators. The Excelsiors never played the Atlantics again. Spectator misbehavior, usually blamed on drunks, street urchins and, especially, gamblers, was such a constant problem that Sunday Mercury summaries in 1860 of important games frequently included a comment on the effectiveness of crowd-control measures, a responsibility of the host club.
The 1860 summary is in one sense special: the modern reader knows, while Cauldwell could not, that what lay in store for the coming season of 1861, for which he expressed such high hopes, was not another year of spectacular growth, but diminution in the shadows of Civil War.
1. New York Sunday Mercury: Dec. 30, 1860, p. 6.
2. Thorn, J. “Jim Creighton,” SABR, The Baseball Biography Project, bioproj.sabr.org/bioproj.cfm?a=v&v=l&bid=770&pid=16900
3. New York Sunday Mercury: Aug. 26, 1860, p. 5.
The article below, by William Ryczek, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Bill wrote Baseball’s First Inning: A History of the National Pastime through the Civil War (McFarland, 2009) which is an outstanding study of the evolution of American ballplaying. The book is part of a trilogy, alongside When Johnny Came Sliding Home and Blackguards and Red Stockings, covering baseball up to the early professional era.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1854.9, reflects that it is the ninth entry for the year 1854. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
Item 1854.9, William Van Cott Writes a Letter to the Sporting Press: December 1854
[T]he game has been thoroughly systematized, and . . . the players have attained a high degree of skill in the game.
In mid-December 1854, members of the Knickerbocker, Gotham, and Eagle Clubs held a dinner at Fijux’s, a restaurant located at 11 Barclay Street in New York. Fijux’s was a favored gathering place for the baseball fraternity, and the Knickerbockers often held meetings there. About forty-five men attended the affair and enjoyed a pleasant evening of food, drink, and conversation. Shortly afterward, William H. Van Cott of the Eagles wrote a letter to the sporting press reporting on the gathering and the state of the game of baseball in New York. Van Cott stated that each club had about thirty members, and informed the public that a number of interesting games among the clubs had taken place the preceding summer and fall. The publication of the letter in the New York Times is, to my knowledge, the first mention of baseball in the venerable journal. Interestingly, the Times’ first report on the sport was triggered by a social event rather than an actual game, indicative of the importance of the social aspect of the new sport. During the early years of club play, postgame speeches, singing, and the dispatch of a tasty “collation” were as important as the game itself.
In hindsight, we see baseball of the mid-1850s as a game in its infancy; yet Van Cott referred to the “old fashioned” version in contrast to the contemporary state of affairs and a game that had been “thoroughly systematized,” stating that players had “attained a high degree of skill in the game.” The nine-inning game, called balls and strikes, and the fly game lay in the future, but in the eyes of the correspondent, baseball of 1854 was at a highly evolved state, light years removed from old cat, rounders, and other early bat-and-ball games.
While baseball had certainly not achieved the level of perfection claimed by Van Cott, the game was clearly at a transition point. In the 1840s, the Knickerbockers had gathered together for informal recreation, not competition. By 1854, with the formation of two more clubs, it was perhaps inevitable that the three organizations would play the game together and equally inevitable that some form of competition would emerge. While Van Cott cited the increasing popularity of the sport, the level of interclub activity was very modest that year, as only five games had been played among the three clubs. The Eagles did not play their first outside game until November 10, and the main purpose of each organization was still to gather regularly for exercise. An interclub game remained a rare event.
The matches were clearly more convivial than competitive—contests described by Van Cott as “friendly but spirited trials of skill.” Yet, the clubs had taken the first baby step toward the competitive game that would eventually be played by the Atlantics, Mutuals, and Eckfords, and then by professional nines fighting for championships in a manner decidedly less friendly and more spirited.
Why did Van Cott write the letter? Possibly it was to recruit more members for the three clubs, though that was unlikely, since membership was rather exclusive and decidedly homogeneous. There were Van Cotts, Winterbottoms, Adamses, and Wadsworths, but there were no Kowlaskis, Ramirezes, or Mazzottas, even though European immigrants comprised a growing segment of New York’s population. Was he trying to encourage the formation of additional clubs, or was he attempting to generate publicity for the existing clubs and players? The Knickerbockers, baseball’s pioneer club, had made virtually no attempt to expand the game they had formalized.
With little effort having been made to attract attention to what club members considered mere recreation, press coverage of the new sport had been minimal. During the 1854 season, the New York Clipper published only a few brief reports and box scores, while in November the Clipper printed an article on “canine sports” that took up more column space than all the baseball reports combined. Cricket received far more attention than baseball in editor Frank Queen’s publication, as well as in the rival Spirit of the Times.
The impetus for Van Cott’s letter was a social event, but the subject matter of his communication was the growing popularity of baseball and the relatively novel development of clubs competing against each other. Cricket clubs played each other and kept score. Horses raced against each other, and dogs ripped each other to shreds, and in each case there was a winner and a loser. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was competitive. For several years, the Knickerbockers engaged in exercise, and while they divided into teams and meticulously kept score, there were no consequences to the outcome. With the formation of the Washington Club, which later morphed into the Gothams, there was opportunity for limited competition, and by 1854 the Knicks had played nine times against the Washington/Gotham club. Now, with the Eagles as a third team, there could be more games, more competition, and more public notice.
Just a few years after the publication of Van Cott’s letter, the game of baseball had grown to an extent the author was unlikely to have imagined. Press coverage expanded dramatically and by the end of the decade covered several columns each week in the Clipper and Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times. Less than a month before the dinner at Fijux’s a number of young men had formed the Jolly Young Bachelors’ Base Ball Club, soon to be known as the Excelsior. The following summer the Atlantics, long held to be the first of the rougher-hewn baseball organizations, took the field for the first time. Within a relatively brief interval the game had changed from one of recreation and exercise to one of friendly competition. It then evolved into one of spirited and sometimes unsportsmanlike rivalry. By 1860, brawls had supplanted dinners as postgame activity.
Those were my initial thoughts on the significance of Van Cott’s letter. As I reread the text, looking for hidden meaning and possible foreshadowing of the future growth of the game, a thought hit me with the force of a rising Jim Creighton fastball to the temple. Was I over-analyzing what might be a very simple, straightforward communication? As students of the origins of baseball, are we trying too hard to find meaningful qualities and intent in casual recreational activities? I am reasonably certain William Van Cott had no idea that, more than 150 years after he penned his letter to the sporting press, it would be the subject of an article in a baseball research journal—or even that there would be such a thing as a baseball research journal. Likewise, members of the Gotham, Eagle, and Knickerbocker clubs played their games without any inkling that we would be examining them in minute detail looking for trends, social implications, and transcendental evolutionary moments.
I once asked an acquaintance with a master’s degree in history why he hadn’t pursued a doctorate. He said he had abandoned academia when the curriculum evolved from the study of history to the analysis of historians and their theories. Baseball historians face an ongoing challenge to maintain focus on the field rather than on our own intellectual abstractions. Our knowledge of the eventual result tempts us to find significance and causation in what may have been merely accident or coincidence. Ex post facto interpretation of events is a risky proposition, and the difficulty of analyzing motive a century and a half after the fact is formidable. Was a change in the configuration of the field an attempt to balance offense and defense or an accommodation to a physical obstacle? Was an alteration in the composition of a club a move toward social leveling or the result of relocation, a personal quarrel, or something equally mundane and insignificant?
The study of early baseball is a fascinating pursuit, in part because of the tantalizing gaps in the tale. The growth of the sport and its assumption of the title of America’s national game were products of the confluence of a myriad of events, both those directly related to the game and societal and historical trends that were merely incidental. It was neither preordained nor inevitable in December 1854 and, had Van Cott penned a similar note about three chess clubs, it would have been relegated to the dustbin of history. But Van Cott wrote of baseball, not chess, and the subsequent explosive growth in the game’s popularity renders his letter an interesting reference to a milepost marking a key turn in the road of baseball’s evolution.
1. Spirit of the Times: Dec. 23, 1854.
First, some background on Mr. Cummings’ perfidious pitch. Historians dispute whether this 120-pound “pony pitcher” deserves more credit as pioneer or publicist, but he is certainly a historical figure to reckon with. And he does have that plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame testifying to his innovation. Others may have established competing claims of authorship, more or less convincing Some went on to pitch in the professional leagues, such as Fred Goldsmith, Phonnie Martin, Bobby Mathews, and Tommy Bond, while collegiate twirlers Ham Avery (Yale) and Joseph Mann (Princeton) had their supporters too. But Candy Cummings’ claim still seems the best, and he rode it—and wrote it, as you’ll see below—into immortality.
Cummings had to deliver his curve underhand, according to the rules of the day, with one foot just inside the front line of a “pitcher’s box,” and the other inside the rear line. The ball had to be released below the waist, and the distance then mandated was only 45 feet. So Cummings could not throw a modern curve—one that breaks downward as well as laterally—and he admittedly had to add a then illegal twist to the wrist, imperceptible to the lone umpire.
A few years before his death in 1924 at age 75, Cummings was asked how he would pitch to the new sensation, Babe Ruth. The first pitch, he said, would be a raise curve close to his hands, followed by a high out curve that that would start close to the plate. Next, a ball that would start two feet off the plate but curve over the plate to the knees.
“I would change the program each time he faced me,” Cummings said. “I’d change the speed of each ball. A free swinger like Ruth goes after a ball that looks good, but you won’t fool him often on the same ball. I’d start the ball the same way every time, but make it go another way.”
Here is William Arthur “Candy” Cummings’ reminiscence from Baseball Magazine in August 1908. The magazine’s editor, Jacob C. Morse, prefaced Cummings’ remarks thus: “To William Arthur Cummings of Athol, Mass., belongs the honor of having discovered—or invented—how to curve a ball. What thirty-eight years ago was considered a work of magic, is now a common practice. The curved ball has completely revolutionized baseball methods. This is the first authentic article ever published on the subject.”
How I Pitched the First Curve
I have often been asked how l first got I the idea of making a ball curve. I will now explain. It is such a simple matter, though, that there is not much explanation.
In the summer of 1863 a number of boys and myself were amusing ourselves by throwing clam shells (the hard shell variety) and watching them sail along through the air, turning now to the right, and now to the left. We became interested in the mechanics of it and experimented for an hour or more.
All of a sudden it came to me that it would be a good joke on the boys if I could make a baseball curve the same way. We had been playing “three-old-cat” and town-ball, and I had been doing the pitching. The joke seemed so good that I made a firm decision that I would try to play it.
I set to work on my theory and practiced every spare moment that I had out of school. I had no one to help me and had to fight it out alone. Time after time I would throw the ball, doubling up into all manner of positions, for I thought that my pose had something to do with it; and then I tried holding the ball in different shapes. Sometimes I thought I had it, and then maybe again in twenty-five tries I could not get the slightest curve. My visionary successes were just enough to tantalize me. Month after month I kept pegging away at my theory.
In 1864 I went to Fulton, New York, to a boarding school, and remained there a year and a half. All that time I kept experimenting with my curved ball. My boyfriends began to laugh at me, and to throw jokes at my theory of making a ball go sideways. I fear that some of them thought it was so preposterous that it was no joke, and that I should be carefully watched over.
I don’t know what made me stick at it. The great wonder to me now is that I did not give up in disgust, for I had not one single word of encouragement in all that time, while my attempts were a standing joke among my friends.
After graduating I went back to my home in Brooklyn, New York, and joined the “Star Juniors,” an amateur team. We were very successful. I was solicited to join as a junior member the Excelsior club, and I accepted the proposition.
In 1867 I, with the Excelsior club, went to Boston, where we played the Lowells, the Tri-Mountains, and Harvard clubs. During these games I kept trying to make the ball curve. It was during the Harvard game [October 7] that I became fully convinced that I had succeeded in doing what all these years I had been striving to do. The batters were missing a lot of balls; I began to watch the flight of the ball through the air, and distinctly saw it curve.
A surge of joy flooded over me that I shall never forget. I felt like shouting out that I had made a ball curve; wanted to tell everybody; it was too good to keep to myself.
But I said not a word, and saw many a batter at that game throw down his stick in disgust. Every time I was successful, I could scarcely keep from dancing from pure joy. The secret was mine.
There was trouble, though, for I could not make it curve when I wanted to. [Cummings lost the game 18-6.] I would grasp it the same, but the ball seemed to do just as it pleased. It would curve all right, but it was very erratic in its choice of places to do so. But still it curved!
The baseball came to have a new meaning to me; it almost seemed to have life.
It took time and hard work for me to master it, but I kept on pegging away until I had fairly good control.
In those days the pitcher’s box was six feet by four, and the ball could be thrown from any part of it; one foot could be at the forward edge of the box, while the other could be stretched back as far as the pitcher liked; but both feet had to be on the ground until the ball was delivered. It is surprising how much speed could be generated under those rules.
It was customary to swing the arm perpendicularly and to deliver the ball at the height of the knee. I still threw this way, but brought in wrist action. I found that the wind had a whole lot to do with the ball curving. With a wind against me I could get all kinds of a curve, but the trouble lay in the fact that the ball was apt not to break until it was past the batter. This was a sore trouble; but I learned not to try to curve a ball very much when the wind was unfavorable.
I have often been asked to give my theory of why a ball curves. Here it is: I give the ball a sharp twist with the middle finger, which causes it to revolve with a swift rotary motion. The air also, for a limited space[,] around it begins to revolve, making a great swirl, until there is enough pressure to force the ball out of true line. When I first began practicing this new legerdemain, the pitchers were not the only ones who were fooled by the ball. The umpire also suffered. I would throw the ball straight at the batter; he would jump back, and then the umpire would call a ball. On this I lost, but when I started the spheroid toward the center of the plate he would call it a strike. When it got to the batter it was too far out, and the batter would not even swing. Then there would be a clash between the umpire and batter.
But my idlest dreams of what a curved ball would do, as I dreamed of them that afternoon while throwing clam shells, have been filled more than a hundred times. At that time I thought of it only as a good way to fool the boys, its real practical significance never entering my mind.
I get a great deal of pleasure now in my old age out of going to games and watching the curves, thinking that it was through my blind efforts that all this was made possible.
The article below, by Beth Hise, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Ms. Hise is a top authority on the commonalities of and contrasts between baseball and cricket. Her 2010 book on the subject is Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect (Scala Publishing). A social history museum curator trained at Yale, she curated special exhibits on the two games last year at both the MCC Museum in London and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Her article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1862.3, reflects that it is the third entry for the year 1862. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1862.3, American Cricket in the 1860s: Decade of Decline or New Start?
Cricket is essentially an English game; a game in such favour with the English cannot well have much attraction for the American, the disposition of both people being as different as base ball is from cricket.
So proclaimed the Brooklyn Eagle on April 25, 1862. And yet, this same article goes on to preview, in glowing terms, the coming cricket season in Brooklyn: “from the preparations that are being made, and the interest manifested by the members, we have every reason to expect a brilliant season and many interesting matches.” Further, the “cricket clubs have been strengthened by several acquisitions of base ball players, as the latter have by cricketers.” How to explain these contradictory statements? If, as the article asserts, cricket has little attraction for Americans, why go on to outline plans for an active season involving up to seven clubs in Brooklyn alone? And if cricket reflects an English disposition, how is it that this alien game attracted baseball players, and that cricketers took up the apparently completely different American game of baseball? The article simultaneously dooms the sport (the past season was “very dull” with few matches of “no great importance”) and promotes its future (“as the coming season advances, the more promising do matters appear”).
A few weeks earlier, cricket had brought out the same double-speak in the Eagle. Cricket “is not an American game” and will never be “in much vogue” . . . but all the same the season promises “very fair” and “we shall have more to say hereafter through the columns of the Eagle.”
Such sentiments should come as no surprise from the Eagle’s Henry Chadwick, a well known English-born advocate of baseball who never stopped promoting and trying to reform cricket in America. But, such contradictions occur more widely in American press commentary on cricket in the 19th century. Indeed, this ambivalence seems to underline many aspects of the game in America from the 1840s to the 1870s and beyond. Cricket was an excellent game—it was interesting, strategic (scientific) and had many fine features—but as a British game it couldn’t be fully embraced in America without reservations. And it is true that as cricket became established in the 1840s, influential clubs such as the St. George Cricket Club in New York and Philadelphia’s Union Club were deeply Anglocentric. Moreover, many early American cricket clubs were formed by resident Englishmen. But it would be a mistake to conclude that few Americans played the sport or did so only under English influence. Or that by the 1860s cricket was an English-dominated sport of rapidly declining interest to Americans.
The 1860s were in fact a pivotal time for cricket in America, one that reinforced a desire in some quarters to Americanize the game and build bridges between cricket and baseball. At the same time, cricket lost momentum during and after the Civil War, and by the end of the 1860s couldn’t hope to match baseball’s rapid growth and popularity. Yet, paradoxically, the decade set the stage for cricket’s revival in the 1870s as an established, if minor, American sport.
Americans had long been interested in cricket. As early as 1839 New York’s Spirit of the Times asked, “What can be done to naturalise this beautiful game in America?” and press patronage in the 1840s, especially in New York, helped promote cricket as “fashionable” and “much in vogue.” In 1843, the Spirit of the Times insisted that “this invigorating and manly game promises to become exceedingly popular” with new clubs “springing up in all directions.” One was the New York Cricket Club, presided over by the Spirit’s editor, William Porter. This club encouraged more American-born and younger players to play and promoted American control of the organizational structure of the game, an example later emulated in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Newark.
Cricket grew rapidly in America in the 1850s. In 1855, the New York Clipper estimated that there were 5000 match-playing cricketers in all of the United States. By 1859, when 300–400 clubs were active in at least 22 states, the Spirit of the Times estimated 6,000 active cricketers lived within 100 miles of New York City alone, including Philadelphia. And pockets were decidedly American. The first all-American cricket match was played in August 1854 at Hoboken between a New York side, including many students from the Free Academy, and the Newark Club, a strong promoter of American-born players. In Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Cricket Club fielded an American eleven from 1856, and membership in the Young America Cricket Club, formed in 1855, was restricted to American-born players. Exciting all-American matches brought the Philadelphia and Newark clubs together in both competition and in spirit, encouraging the New York Clipper in 1857 to lambast “certain ignorant and prejudiced parties” for insisting that cricket was only played by Englishmen, and to wonder why anyone would object to “making Cricket an American pastime.”
North America was undoubtedly the stronghold of the game outside England at this time, and twelve of the best English professional players, eager “to promote and extend . . . that love for the noble game of Cricket,” made their international debut here in October 1859. American cricket authorities hoped the series of highly anticipated matches would increase cricket’s profile in the face of baseball’s growing popularity. Yet, the English cricketers, all seasoned full-time professionals, were destined only to prove that cricket was, after all, the “great national game of England.” Any hope that the English would “find their equal at Hoboken” was quickly dashed. The great match of the tour saw the Americans, given the then traditional handicap of additional players, in this case 22 against the England eleven, humbled in front of 24,000 spectators over three days at St. George’s ground at Elysian Fields. It was a humiliating loss when it was all over by an innings and 64 runs—the English didn’t even need to bat their second innings because the American batting total was so low. This result was sadly indicative of all the matches the English tourists played on that tour.
There have been many reasons put forward as to why cricket failed to capitalize on its promising start in America in the 1840s and ’50s and “lost out” to baseball as the premier bat and ball sport for the nation. One might presume that the disappointments of this lopsided tour, one of the most widely reported sporting events in antebellum America, might have harmed cricket’s viability. Certainly, the tour did little to captivate sustained popular enthusiasm, but many American cricketers, especially the Philadelphians, relished the opportunity to see and play the world’s best cricketers. The number of clubs and players did increase, including in schools and colleges, and, as only three of the 22 US players at Hoboken were born in America, that loss could be conveniently blamed on the amateur English residents playing against “English professional players, who make a living by it, and never do anything else.”
Throughout the 1860s this distinction between American-born and English-resident players encouraged the idea that it was not cricket per se, but the way the English residents played cricket that was the problem. Henry Chadwick was a prominent critic of their “bad habits,” especially their lack of punctuality in a country where time “is almost literally money.” The 1860s was a decade of shared grounds and shared players when the crossover between cricket and baseball was at its strongest. Chadwick, through the pages of the Brooklyn Eagle, saw this as a positive, declaring in 1862 that “Americans improve the game in one respect, certainly; they blend the intricacies and necessary tardiness of cricket with the alacrity of base ball.” And so a game often “a bore to an American, who could not think of playing a match for two consecutive days,” could be finished up in six or seven hours.
Likewise, Harry Wright, James Creighton, Asa Brainard, John Whiting and Thomas Dakin—all baseball players with strong cricketing backgrounds—founded the American Cricket Club in 1860 to infuse “an American spirit” into the game. According to club president Dakin, they formed to make cricket “popular among Americans, by making it a quicker game.” This short-lived club would be one of many attempts to “reform” cricket to suit the American temperament, and the injection of baseball players into cricket in the 1860s did speed up the game. One match in Long Island in 1860, the “shortest on record,” pitted the Americans of Long Island (including several Atlantic and Excelsior baseball players) against the Americans of Newark. The match commenced at 9 o’clock and took four hours and 50 minutes to play the full two innings. The success of these kinds of matches brought calls for closer affiliations between cricket and baseball clubs, increased opportunities for younger and more novice players, and restrictions on players appearing for multiple clubs. Some players even formed the short-lived American Cricketers’ Convention to try to implement these changes fully.
In 1868, Henry Chadwick was still advocating interclub play—that is between cricket and baseball clubs—to speed up and improve cricket. When Edgar Willsher’s team of English professionals crossed the Atlantic that same year, they found baseball’s exploding popularity meant that cricket no longer enjoyed the same éclat that it did when the first English toured in 1859. A baseball game played between the English cricketers and the Union Base Ball Club of Morrisania brought the biggest crowd to the St. George ground in almost a decade—a situation only mildly alleviated by the pronouncement of the New York Times that the “good old game of cricket has not been entirely given up in New York, and our old citizens still delight in this manly sport.”
So did baseball improve cricket for Americans? A cursory review of match results shows that many two day matches were played in one afternoon, the second innings left for another day that never came around. American cricket clubs had earlier copied English traditions and employed professional players to bowl, coach and look after all aspects of their cricket grounds at a time when baseball was strictly amateur. Now, as baseball took its first steps toward full professionalization, cricket moved in the opposite direction. While the professional All-England players were “hardly ever without a bat or ball in their hands,” the best American players were “unable to spare more than a few leisure hours a week from their offices and ledgers.” A combination of baseball’s influence early in the decade and the realities of amateurism meant that by the 1870s cricket matches were shorter, and, with less time to devote to the game, players did not achieve the highest skill.
Ambivalence and feelings that cricket needed improvement lingered. In 1890, prominent Philadelphian cricketer John Thayer proposed a whole new code of rules that would adopt, among other radical changes, baseball’s “three out, side out” rule with each side retiring after three wickets had fallen. By alternating batting and fielding, with no more than four minutes between “turns,” the game would, he proposed, be more interesting. Players would also spend less time waiting for their turn at bat. Even with Chadwick’s backing, these changes were never seriously implemented.
But that was still decades away and the end of the 1860s was a new beginning of sorts for American cricket after a lull early in that decade. The Clipper’s disappointment in 1862 at the meager attendance at an annual cricket convention should not be taken to mean the decline of the sport was nigh. True, baseball had overtaken it in popularity at home, and the international game had passed it by when the Civil War made a follow-up tour to North America impossible. A professional English cricket team went instead to Australia, launching the nascent beginnings of the international game. But some of American cricket’s brightest moments were still to come. The American Cricketer was launched in 1877 and ran for over fifty years. Competitive leagues, like the Metropolitan District Cricket League of 1890, were formed and the Gentlemen of Philadelphia toured England five times between 1884 and 1908. The decades from 1870 to 1910 are now considered cricket’s golden age in America, with Philadelphia at its heart.
1. “Cricket Season for 1862,” Brooklyn Eagle: Apr. 25, 1862.
2. “The Incoming Base Ball Season,” Brooklyn Eagle: Apr. 7, 1862.
3. The American Cricketer: a Journal Devoted to the Noble Game of Cricket 1.9, p. 34.
4. New York Herald: 1845; “City Intellegence,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: June 15, 1846.
5. “Cricket in America,” Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle: Dec. 3, 1843.
6. Kirsch, G. 2007. Baseball and Cricket: the Creation of American Team Sports, 1838–72 (p. 21).
7. New York Daily Times: Aug. 11, 1854.
8. New York Clipper: May 16, 1857, reprinted in: Sullivan, D. 1995. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825–1908 (p. 25).
9. Lillywhite, F. 1860. The English Cricketers’ Trip to Canada and the United States (pp. v–vi).
10. “News of the Day,” New York Times:Oct. 3, 1859.
11. “The Cricketers,” Chicago Press and Tribune: Sept. 28, 1859.
12. “The International Cricket Match,” New York Times:Oct. 4, 1859; “The Great Cricket Match,” New York Times:Oct. 5, 1859.
13. Melville, T. 1998. The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America (p. 43).
14. “The ‘International’ Game of Cricket—a Suggestion for a Game of Base Ball,” Chicago Press and Tribune: Oct. 12, 1859.
15. Chadwick, H. 1868. “The Game of Cricket in America,” The American Chronicle and Pastimes of Sports, Feb. 13, 1868.
16. “Cricket Season for 1862,” Brooklyn Eagle: Apr. 25, 1862.
17. Their first match was against the Satellite Club of Williamsburgh on Oct. 18, 1860. The American Club was victorious. See New York Times: Oct. 17, 1860, p. 1, and Oct. 20, 1860, p. 8.
18. New York Times: Oct. 20, 1860.
19. Spirit of the Times quoted in The American Cricketer, p. 45. See also New York Times: Sept. 4 1860.
20. Kirsch, G. 1989. The Creation of American Team Sports: Baseball and Cricket, 1838–72 (p. 106).
21. This was first tried almost by accident, when a snowstorm canceled an All-England cricket match in Rochester in 1859 and the touring English cricketers played a pick-up game of baseball instead. See Lillywhite 1860, 45–46; Rochester Union and Advertiser: Sept. 17, 1859; Rochester Express: Dec. 10, 1859.
22. New York Times: Sept. 3, 1868, and Oct. 21, 1868.
23. “Sporting News,” New York Times:Sept. 15, 1859.
24. Chadwick, H. 1890. “A Revolution in the Cricket Field,” Outing, June 1890, pp. 228–229.
25. New York Clipper: May 24, 1862, quoted in Protoball Cricket Chronology.
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.
For further detail about Adam Ford, see Nancy B. Bouchier and Robert Knight Barney, “A Critical Examination of a Source on Early Ontario Baseball: The Reminiscences of Adam E. Ford,” Journal of Sport History 15 (Spring 1988): 75-87. It is available on the web at: http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH1988/JSH1501/jsh1501e.pdf. Here is the original Ford letter as published in Sporting Life.
VERY LIKE BASE BALL.
A Game of the Long-ago Which Closely Resembled Our Present National Game.
DENVER, Col., April 26–Editor SPORTING LIFE–The 4th of June, 1838, was a holiday in Canada, for the Rebellion of 1837 had been closed by the victory of the Government over the rebels, and the birthday of His Majesty George the Fourth was set apart for general rejoicing. The chief event at the village of Beechville, in the county of Oxford, was a base ball match between the Beechville Club and the Zorras, a club hailing from the townships of Zorra and North Oxford.
The game was played in a nice, smooth pasture field just back of Enoch Burdick’s shops. I well remember a company of Scotch volunteers from Zorra halting as they passed the grounds to take a look at the game. Of the Beechville team I remember seeing Geo. Burdick, Reuben Martin, Adam Karn, Wm. Hutchinson, I. Van Alstine, and, I think, Peter Karn and some others. I remember also that there were in the Zorras “Old Ned” Dolson, Nathaniel McNames, Abel and John Williams, Harry and Daniel Karnand, I think, Wm. Ford and William Dodge. Were it not for taking up too much of your valuable space I could give you the names of many others who were there and incidents to confirm the accuracy of the day and the game. The ball was made of double and twisted woolen yarn, a little smaller than the regulation ball of to day and covered with good, honest calf skin, sewed with waxed ends by Edward McNamee, a shoemaker.
The infield was a square, the base lines of which were twenty-one yards long, on which were placed five bags, thus:
The distance from the thrower to the catcher was eighteen yards; the catcher standing three yards behind the home bye. From the home bye, or “knocker’s” stone, to the first bye was six yards. The club (we had bats in cricket but we never used bats in playing base ball) was generally made of the best cedar, blocked out with an ax and finished on a shaving horse with a drawing knife. A wagon spoke, or any nice straight stick would do.
We had fair and unfair balls. A fair ball was one thrown to the knocker at any height between the bend of his knee and the top of his head, near enough to him to be fairly within reach. All others were unfair. The strategic points for the thrower to aim at was to get it near his elbow or between his club and his ear. When a man struck at a ball it was a strike, and if a man struck at a ball three times and missed it he was out if the ball was caught every time either on the fly or on the first bound. If he struck at the ball and it was not so caught by the catcher that strike did not count. If a struck ball went anywhere within lines drawn straight back between home and the fourth bye, and between home and the first bye extended into the field the striker had to run. If it went outside of that he could not, and every man on the byes must stay where he was until the ball was in the thrower’s hands. Instead of calling foul the call was “no hit.”
There was no rule to compel a man to strike at a ball except the rule of honor, but a man would be dispised and guyed unmercifully if he would not hit at a fair ball. If the knocker hit a ball anywhere he was out if the ball was caught either before it struck the ground or on the first bound. Every struck ball that went within the lines mentioned above was a fair hit; everyone outside of them no-hit, and what you now call a foul tip was called a tick. A tick and a catch will always fetch was the rule given strikers out on foul tips. The same rule applies to forced runs that we have now. The bases were the lines between the byes and a base runner was out if hit by the ball when he was off of his bye. Three men out and the side out. And both sides out constituted a complete inning. The number of innings to be played was always a matter of agreement, but it was generally from 5 to 9 innings, 7 being most frequently played and when no number was agreed upon seven was supposed to be the number. The old plan which Silas Williams and Ned Dolsen (these were gray-headed men then) said was the only right way to play ball, for it was the way they used to play it when they were boys, was to play away until one side made 18 or 21, and the one getting that number first won the game. A tally, of course, was a run. The tallies were always kept by cutting notches on the edge of a stick when the base runners came in. There was no set number of men to be played on each side, but the sides must be equal. The number of men on each side was a matter of agreement when the match was made. I have frequently seen games played with 7 men on each side and I never saw more than 12. They all fielded.
The object in having the first bye so near the home was to get the runners on the base lines so as to have the fun of putting them out or enjoying the mistakes of the fielders when some fleet-footed fellow would dodge the ball and come in home. When I got older I played myself, for the game never died out. I well remember when some fellows down at or near New York got up the game of base ball that had a “pitcher” and “fouls,” etc., and was played with a ball hard as a stick. India rubber had come into use, and they put so much into the balls to make them lively that when the fellow tossed it to you like a girl playing “one o’d cat,” you could knock it so far that the fielders would be chasing it yet, like dogs hunting sheep, after you had gone clear around and scored–your tally. Neil McTaggart, Henry Cruttenden, Gordon Cook, Henry Taylor, James Piper, Almon Burch, Wm. Herrington and others told me of it when I came home from the University. We, with a “lot of good fellows more,” went out and played it one day. The next day we felt as if we had been on an overland trip to the moon. I could give you pages of incidents, but space forbids. One word as to prowess in those early days. I heard Silas Williams tell Jonathan Thornton that old Ned Dolson could catch the ball right away from the front of the club if you didn’t keep him back so far that he couldn’t reach it. I have played from that day to this, and I don’t intend to quit as long as there is another boy on the ground.
Yours, DR. FORD.
Nine Innings, Nine Players, Ninety Feet, and Other Changes: The Recodification of Base Ball Rules in 1857
The article below, by Eric Miklich, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Eric is Historian of the Vintage Base Ball Association and maintains an extensive website on nineteenth century baseball at http://www.19cbaseball.com. There one may view his compendium of baseball rules from 1845–1900. An active vintage-game ballplayer, he maintains a special interest in playing styles and playing fields from 1854–1884.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1857.1, reflects that it is the first entry for the year 1857. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1857.1, Nine Innings, Nine Players, Ninety Feet, and Other Changes: The Recodification of Base Ball Rules in 1857
The game shall consist of nine innings to each side. . . . In playing all matches, nine players from each club shall constitute a full field. . . . The bases must be . . . fastened on the four corners of a square whose sides are respectively thirty yards.
Although the Knickerbocker Club had laid down baseball’s earliest surviving rules in 1845, some of the game’s canonical features had not yet appeared as of 13 years later. Only when the rules underwent a fairly thorough revision in 1857 did baseball’s distinguishing dimensions—teams of nine playing nine innings on a field with 90-foot basepaths—enter its list of rules.
The Knickerbocker Club was content to play intramurally for many years, for its primary objectives were exercise and good fellowship, and rival clubs were not to be seen. Its initial list of 14 playing rules—while falling well short of comprehensiveness—sufficed for this period, with one rule added and another modified in 1848. By April 1854, three clubs—the Knickerbocker, the Gotham, and the Eagle—were playing interclub matches, and they added two new rules for those matches, thus introducing the force-play and specifying the size and weight of the baseball itself.
Just two years later, however, the nature of match play had changed materially. The number of clubs had increased nearly ten-fold, and the emphasis was rapidly shifting toward winning, and away from mere fellowship. In this new environment, there was evidently some agitation for a rethinking of the rules. In December 1856 the Knickerbockers publicly invited interested clubs to send three delegates each to a rules convention in early 1857 (16 clubs would be invited and 14 would participate). Knickerbocker Club members then set about proposing a new set of rules for the assembled delegates to consider.
What emerged from this convention looked like a fairly thorough overhaul. The 17 playing rules expanded to 28 rules (plus seven others that related to umpiring and player eligibility), with fewer than half of the 1854 rules remaining essentially unchanged. One scholar estimates that the total volume of text was three times that found in the 1854 rules.
Some major changes and their implications
A close reading identifies over 20 substantive additions to the rulebook in the 1857 version; a few of the more prominent of them are described below. In addition, for modern readers the terminology in the official rules was becoming more familiar. Section 9, for example, defines the results of crossing the plate as “runs,” and the prior terms “counts, or aces” are less conspicuous. “Innings” makes its debut in section 25, and the original term “hand” declines. Section 11 uses the simple term “out” in place of “hand lost.”
Nine Innings. The Knickerbocker draft rules proposed having games end after seven innings (with extra innings if needed), instead of at the end of whatever inning saw one or both clubs reach a score of 21 aces. Convention delegates, however, decided on a nine inning game, with Knickerbocker Louis F. Wadsworth advocating this outcome contrary to his own Club’s recommendation. The rationale for a choice of nine frames was evidently not recorded. We now know that in 1856 the average game (still played to 21 aces) had lasted only about 6 innings, and thus the 1857 convention was defining a game that was to be 50 percent longer. A good many of the 1856 games were suspended due to darkness, and longer contests would arguably make things worse; however, history has certainly proved the nine-inning decision to be both workable and durable.
Nine Players. While earlier rules had not specified the number of players on a team, it is generally believed that a custom had already evolved that match games required nine-player teams. If so, this new rule was simply conforming to de facto standards. (The Knickerbocker Club had voted in 1856 that, for its intramural games, the presence of seven Club members per team was sufficient. If they felt that the number of players and number of innings should be identical, as some suggest, they may have felt bound to recommend seven-inning games to preserve such symmetry. However, there is as yet no known evidence that they proposed seven-player teams to the 1857 convention to match the seven-inning idea.
Ninety Feet (30 yards). The original 1845 rules had prescribed an infield layout that separated the four bases by a little less than 30 “paces.” Only if we knew how clubs actually defined a pace, would we know whether the 1857 rule was a significant change. A three-foot pace would have dictated a baseline of nearly modern length. However, a pace was formally defined as 30 inches in those days, not 36 inches, and if that pace was used, the distance between bases was about 75 feet, and the 1857 rule would extend the distance by 20 percent, and affect rates of scoring. (If the length of a pace was left to the discretion or natural gait of the marker, as some have speculated, the distance will have varied from one match to another and from one marker to another.) It would be natural for the baselines to lengthen, over time, as the weight of balls increased, thus allowing for longer hits and longer throws. But whether they did lengthen in 1857 remains uncertain. In any event, there was apparently no controversy about this provision.
The Ball. The ball specified in section 1 of the new rules was measurably heavier, and its maximum size reduced, compared with the 1854 standards. The maximum circumference was reduced from 11 inches to 10.25 inches. (The laws of cricket at this time called for a maximum circumference of 9 inches for a ball weighing about the same as the baseball.)
Pitching Restriction. The 1854 stipulation was that the ball be “pitched, not thrown.” Section 6 of the new rules read that the ball be “pitched, not jerked or thrown.”
Pitcher Placement. The pitching distance was changed from 15 paces to 15 yards (section 5). The pitcher’s position was defined by a 12-foot line, and he was not restricted as to his point of delivery along that line. A nine-inch circular quoit placed at the center of the 12’ line gave umpires a way to see if pitchers were delivering balls illegally.
Base Advancement on Fly Outs and Bound Outs. The new rule 16 prohibited baserunners from advancing on fly outs, but said that they “shall have the privilege of returning” to their base. For outs effected via one-bounce catches, runners could still advance freely.
The Bat. Section 2 specified that the bat be made of wood and not exceed 2.5 inches in diameter; its length was not restricted.
Substitution. Under section 27, player substitution was disallowed “unless for reason of illness or injury.”
Runner Interference. Runners who intentionally interfered with fielders “shall be declared out.”
Three-Foot Baselines. Runners were to not to evade tags by running more than three feet out of a direct line between bases.
Ground Rules. Clubs are permitted to adopt ground rules particular to their playing areas.
Controversy and failed proposals
The Knickerbocker proposal eliminated the old bound-out rule; a batter was not out unless a fly ball was caught in the air. This change was narrowly voted down, reportedly due to concern about to hand injury to fielders. The fly rule would not be part of base ball until the 1865 season, eight years later. In a compromise adopted unanimously, however, runners were to be prevented from advancing on caught flies, giving fielders a new incentive to attempt catches on the fly. (Another suggested inducement, made in Porter’s Spirit of the Times, was to award the fielding team two outs for a fly catch and one out for a bound catch, while giving the batting team six outs per half inning.)
To help speed up play, Porter’s also endorsed the idea of called strikes to spur overly picky batters. The idea was not accepted, but did enter the rule book the following year.
The Knickerbockers also suggested, in vain, that flat bats be permitted.
Some overall patterns in the new rules and the defeated proposals
Clarity for New Players. Many of the 1857 rule changes appear to have been made in order to help new players and clubs understand details of the game better. A few examples are found in fuller descriptions of the balk (section 6), of fair and foul balls (section 8), what constituted a run (section 9), and of the five distinct the ways that outs are accomplished (sections 11–15.) These improvements must have been particularly valuable for those with little direct access to experienced players for advice.
Closing Revealed Loopholes. Several modifications appear to be intended to limit prior attempts to bend or exploit gaps discovered in the original rules. It was in order to limit such “sharp practices,” one might surmise, that the new section 6 proscribed “jerked” pitches, section 18 introduced the 3-foot baseline, section 21 prevented runners from impeding fielders, section 22 disallowed the use of players’ caps in fielding balls hit in play, and section 35 dictated that clubs that arrived more than 15 minutes late must forfeit the match.
The Shadow of Cricket? Some rules, and proposed rules, appear to be intended to reinforce baseball’s standing as a game suitable for adults. The new inducement to discourage the bound out in section 16 had that character. More generally, one can discern the shadow of cricket—a manly game indeed—behind several of the items that were raised for consideration: the fly rule proposal, the heavier and smaller ball, the notion of using flat bats, the move toward a fixed number of innings, and even in the appointment of a “committee to draft a code of laws” (not “rules”) for baseball.
1. From sections 26, 27, and 3, Rules and Regulations of the Game of Base Ball Adopted by the Base Ball Players of New York, January 1857.
2. See essay 1845.1, Larry McCray, “The Knickerbocker Rules—and the Long History of the One-Bounce Fielding Rule,” http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/10/06/the-knickerbocker-rules/.
3. Many essential rules were left implicit. Take one example, of many: say that you are a baserunner at second base, with first base occupied, and the batter hits a low liner to left field. Should you run, or stay at second, go half way to third, or what? The original rules give you no clue, except that if the fielding team manages to get the ball to a fielder touching third base before you can get there, you will be out. Maybe you should stay put: there is no force rule, and the written rules don’t even say you will be sanctioned if you end up sharing a base with the runner from first, if he decides to advance. Clearly something beyond the original 17 rules was required to actually play the game in 1845.
4. The notable changes in 1848 were that only at first base could a runner be retired by a fielder’s throwing the ball to a base before the runner arrived there, and that with two outs, a run could not score if the batter was “caught out.”
5. See Ivor-Campbell, F. “Knickerbocker Base Ball,” Base Ball 1.2, p. 59.
6. Ibid., 60.
7. It remains unclear that “aces” was uniformly or extensively used from 1845–1857; in fact, the Knickerbocker game books, as early as 1846, show “runs,” not aces as the units of scoring. See, e.g., Ivor-Campbell, 57 (illustration).
8. See essay 1856.4.
9. John Thorn, email correspondence, 2009.
10. “Out-Door Sports. Base Ball,” Porter’s Spirit of the Times: Mar. 7, 1857, p. 5.
The article below, by David Dyte, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. David is a leading authority on early ballplaying in Brooklyn, his adopted home. One of his areas of expertise is the hundreds of Brooklyn playing fields from 1820 to the present, and his expansive website about Brooklyn’s historic ballparks, http://www.brooklynballparks.com, continues to accumulate data on Brooklyn hardball.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1845.4, reflects that it is the fourth entry for the year 1845. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1845.4, Base Ball in Brooklyn, 1845 to 1870: The Best There Was
The Base Ball match between eight Brooklyn players, and eight players of New York, came off on Friday [October 10] on the grounds of the Union Star Cricket Club. The Yorkers were singularly unfortunate in scoring but one run in their three innings. Brooklyn scored 22 and of course came off winners.
This short 1845 newspaper account, lacking any of the dramatic flair later brought to baseball writing by the likes of Henry Chadwick, represents the earliest record of an organized baseball game in Brooklyn. The result points to a game by the Knickerbocker Club’s rules, which called for a winning score of 21 runs, and it put Brooklyn ballplayers at the top of the new game at its very dawn.
We know less about earlier local forms of the game, but they had been played in Brooklyn for decades. Late in the century, a former mayor recalled that “I went to school in 1820–1, to one Samuel Seabury, on Hicks street . . . . I also attended Mr. Hunt’s school, over George Smith’s wheelwright shop in Fulton street, opposite High. Foot racing and base ball used to be favorite games in those days.”
Colonel John Oakey, who took his schooling at Erasmus Hall in Flatbush from 1837, recalled the ballplaying there:
Erasmus Hall academy had a fine play ground surrounding it. Here John Oakey and his school fellows played many a game of three base ball. The boys who played were called binders, pitchers, catchers, and outers, and in order to put a boy out it was necessary to strike him with the ball. On one occasion John Oakey threw the ball from the second base and put another boy out. The boy . . . went down in a heap, but instantly sprang to his feet and cried out, “It didn’t hit me; it didn’t hit me.” But John Oakey and all the boys knew better. For a week after that boy had a lame back, but he would never acknowledge that the ball did it.
While Brooklyn and New York sides played twice more in October 1845, records of organized base ball in Brooklyn disappear between these matches and the emergence in 1854 of the Excelsior Club of South Brooklyn, a baseball team organized by the members of the Jolly Young Bachelors social club. With the founding in 1855 of the Eckford Club of Greenpoint, and the Atlantic Club of Bedford, Brooklyn’s triumvirate of great baseball clubs was complete. These teams would dominate baseball for more than a decade.
In fact, by 1856 there were already more interclub games being played in Brooklyn than anywhere else in the New York area, and the “New York Game” had, in one sense, skipped town. (Brooklyn was a separate political entity until 1898.) During the years when baseball became America’s game, it was played best in Brooklyn.
When the National Association of Base Ball Players formed in 1857, the explosive rise of the game in Brooklyn was evident. Nine of the sixteen founding clubs were from that city, and Brooklyn men would soon take a large role in NABBP governance. When the Association first recognized a formal champion in 1859, the Atlantic Club claimed the title, sporting a record for the year of eleven wins against just one loss.
Over the next few years, Brooklyn teams would monopolize competition for the championship, which was passed along to a club that defeated the incumbent champion in a best-of-three match. In 1860, the Excelsiors, having poached the devastating pitching ability of young James Creighton from the Star Club, bid strongly to wrest the title from the Atlantics. On July 19, 1860, the South Brooklyn club hosted the Atlantic and took its signal victory in the first game of the series, 28–4. The Brooklyn Eagle described the spectacle the following day:
For a month or more the Base Ball public has been alive with interest concerning this great match . . . . There could not have been less than five or six thousand persons present. The greatest excitement prevailed, and betting stood at 10 to 8 on the Atlantic Club. The Atlantics were not up to their usual play in any one point, missing balls on the fly and bound, overthrowing and misbatting. The result of the game was an entire disappointment to the large crowd in attendance, judging from their moving away like a solemn funeral procession after the game was over.
On August 9, the Atlantic turned the tables at their own ground, scoring nine runs in the seventh inning and holding on for a 15–14 victory. The Eagle was again enthusiastic: “From one to three o’clock, yesterday afternoon, the avenues leading to the Atlantic ball ground, at Bedford, were thronged with pedestrians, en route to witness the great match at base ball that was to take place between these two clubs, who have no superiors in the country.”  The crowd was far more pleased with the result on this occasion: “The shout that rent the air from the stentorian lungs of the countless friends of the gallant Atlantics was terrific . . . so eager were all to congratulate them on such a victory as they had so manfully achieved.”
The concluding match of the series at the Putnam Grounds on August 23 was to be a disaster. With the Excelsior Club leading 8–6 in the sixth inning, the abusive behavior of the crowd, which again had a decidedly pro-Atlantic tone, became so bad that Excelsior captain Joe Leggett took his team from the field. With the game called off, the Atlantic Club retained the championship, in fact if not in spirit. The two Brooklyn foes would never play each other again.
Some clubs were forced temporarily to disband when the Civil War began, but baseball continued to be a focus of popular attention in Brooklyn. In 1862, William Cammeyer set out to convert his skating pond in Williamsburgh to a summer sports venue, and created the Union Base Ball and Cricket Grounds, the first enclosed baseball park. Rather than charging his tenant clubs rent, as had the owners of other fields, he let them play for free, instead taking ten cents from each spectator as the price of admission.
The Union Grounds proved to be instantly popular, as the Eckford, Putnam, and Constellation Clubs shifted their homes to the new field. The Eckford Club, a working class collection of shipbuilders and dockworkers, hosted the champion Atlantics for three matches at the Union Grounds, splitting the first two. On September 18, the finest day of the Eckford Club, they took the championship with an 8–3 victory.
Even in wartime, the game itself was constantly evolving. Henry Chadwick, a Brooklyn resident whose enthusiastic baseball writing and recordkeeping became the stuff of legend, organized regular prize matches at the beginning of each season. These matches, involving picked nines of players from various teams, would often try out new rules. The long-contested fly rule, which was exhibited in prize matches in Brooklyn in 1864, and had been a feature of regular games involving the Excelsior and Star Clubs as far back as 1859, was finally adopted for general use by the NABBP in December 1864. This rule ended the retirement of hitters by means of one-bounce “catches” in fair territory.
The Atlantic Club regained its title from the Eckford Club in 1864 and was undefeated in 1864–1865. Challenges now began to come from further afield. A visit to Boston in 1865 to play the Tri-Mountain Club on Boston Common seemed to cement the dominance of the champions from Brooklyn—the Atlantics scored 68 runs in the last two innings to cap a 107–16 win.
To the south, however, the Athletic Club in Philadelphia was making noise. The Atlantics finally visited Philadelphia on October 30, 1865. The Eagle reported a huge attendance—“not less than 15,000 spectators present”—at the Athletic Grounds. The Philadelphians would be disappointed, however, as the Atlantic Club finished strongly to win, 21–15. A week later, at the Capitoline Grounds, the Atlantic withstood a late comeback from their Quaker State foes, winning 27–24 to retain the championship.
But now the rest of the baseball world was catching up. The next few years in Brooklyn baseball were a story of gradual decay at the top level. Some of the best players on the top teams bickered over money shared from gate receipts, or left the city completely. The Atlantic Club remained strong, although no longer unbeatable, and retained the championship in 1866 before giving the title up to the Union Club of Morrisania (then in Westchester, now in the Bronx) in 1867. In 1868, the powerful Mutual Club moved from Hoboken to Brooklyn, and claimed the championship.
It was a club from the distant west that heralded the bitter end of Brooklyn’s preeminence in baseball. The Red Stockings of Cincinnati, stocked largely by players from the New York area, were the first club to be incorporated as a for-profit business, and the first openly to employ fully professional players under contract. In 1869, the Red Stockings traveled extensively and won 57 games while losing none. Their efforts vitiated the challenge system for crowning baseball’s champion, as the Cincinnati team chose not to schedule its games that way. The Atlantic Club, which won 40 of 48 games in 1869, finished as official champions for the seventh and last time—but now to general derision.
In 1870, the Red Stockings continued to take all before them, and in June the mighty club brought in an 89-match winning streak to meet the Atlantics, still the pride of Brooklyn. The Eagle was, as always, present with superlatives at hand:
The most remarkable game, in more respects than one, was played upon the Capitoline ground yesterday between the celebrated old Atlantics and the celebrated young Red Stockings. Notwithstanding the energetic protest of the Atlantics, they were compelled to charge fifty cents admission to the ground, and yet from nine to ten thousand people congregated there, and in the hot sun, watched with intense interest the progress of the game. The general impression previous to the game, was that the Atlantics would lose the game . . . . The result therefore was, that the most stubborn game ever played, was finished yesterday on the Capitoline ground.
History records that the Atlantics, by some miracle, scored three runs in the eleventh inning to win 8–7. One editorial was most effusive:
Eleven innings, a total score of fifteen, and that standing just eight to seven, tell a story to professional minds which sends the blood tingling in joy to their toes. It was the greatest game ever played between the greatest clubs that ever played and, as usual, when Brooklyn is pitted against the universe, the universe is number two.
But the incredible victory over the Red Stockings was the last gasp of the era. The universe would soon strike back.
The three great clubs of Brooklyn withered. The Excelsior had already disappeared, and the Atlantic and Eckford Clubs saw their best players leave when the new professional league, the National Association, opened for business in 1871. Brooklyn baseball was no longer the best baseball.
1. New York True Sun, Oct. 13, 1845, p. 2.
2. “School Days Recalled,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 22, 1887, page 8.
3. “Sports in Old Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 21, 1894, page 21.
4. Data from the Protoball Project’s Games Tabulation, compiled by Craig Waff. See http://retrosheet.org/Protoball/GT.NYC.pdf.
5. “Base Ball—Excelsiors vs Atlantic,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 20, 1860, p. 3.
6. “Base Ball—Grand Match at Bedford,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug. 0, 1860, p. 2.
8. “Our National Game—Atlantic versus Athletic,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct. 31, 1865, p. 2.
9. “The Atlantics Triumphant — A Glorious Victory for Brooklyn—The Local Nine Beat the ‘Picked Nine’ from the West,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1870, p. 2.
10. “The Atlantic’s Victory,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1870, p. 2.
The article below, by Larry McCray, appeared in print in a special issue of the journal Base Ball. Larry designed and developed the Protoball Project to help researchers and writers locate and refine primary data on the evolution of ballplaying up to 1870. He long served as chair of the SABR Committee on the Origins of Base Ball and is a member of the MLB origins committee and a key participant in Early Baseball Milestones.
His article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1859.24, reflects that it is the twenty-fourth entry for the year 1859. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.
1859.24, State Championship Wicket Game in Connecticut: a Hearty Hurrah for a Doomed Pastime
The most important game [of wicket] ever played in this town was…for the championship of the State. . . . Monday morning the whole town was afoot early and a holiday was practically declared. . . . It is estimated that when the game commenced there were fully 4000 people in and around the grounds . . . thousands stood in the hot sun watching for ten hours the contest that was to decide the supremacy.
The big game took place on an otherwise normal Monday (July 18, 1859) in Bristol, Connecticut, and the home team prevailed, 190–152, over the New Britain visitors. Bristol had issued a statewide challenge to play, and thus considered the match to be a contest for the state title. Fans from Hartford filled a railroad car in a special early morning train from the state capitol. By the time the train reached Bristol, four cars, each trimmed with flags and bunting, were filled with wicket fans, the New Britain players, and a brass band. For fans, the windows of the nearby Congregational Church provided crowded indoor vantage points all day long.
Writing in 1904, Connecticut governor Abiram Chamberlain, whose 26-year-old brother had scored five runs for New Britain in the 1859 contest, recalled the game as arousing interest “fully equal to that of baseball at the present time.” Largely overlooked until recently by sports historians, the American game of wicket appears to have been the dominant safe-haven ballgame in several parts of the United States, right up to the time that the New York form of baseball swept the nation.
Wicket was a batting-and-running game featuring two wickets that were defended by batsmen, and it thus bore an obvious resemblance to cricket. The ball, however, was considerably larger, and apparently softer, than the ball used for cricket and baseball, and the angled wicket club was generally depicted as much heftier than the bats used in those other sports. The wickets were low (only a few inches off the ground) and long—commonly described as five or six feet in length—and placed 25 yards apart. The bowler was required to keep the delivery to a batter very low, so that it struck the ground some minimum number of times before it reached the batting area. Teams commonly comprised up to 30 players; for the Bristol–New Britain game, each side fielded 27 men. Wicket was an all-out-side-out game, most commonly described as lasting three innings, with the side scoring the most runs (sometimes termed “crosses”) emerging as the victor. Baserunning on struck balls was optional, as it is in modern cricket. Retiring runners by means of plugging them with thrown balls is not mentioned in any of the surviving rules or game descriptions.
There are indications that wicket was not a game for wimps. Bowlers were reported to deliver the large ball with impressive speed, and it required strength and agility for a batter to defend a wicket as wide as he was tall. The heavy bats may have been a source of substantial risk, as well. Within 60 days in spring 1863, in fact, two Union soldiers were reported to have died from injuries sustained while playing wicket.
The Protoball Project had, as of 2010, assembled more than 75 references to wicket play in the United States from 1725 through the Civil War years. The earliest of these reports places the game on Boston Common in about 1725, and George Washington was reported to have played wicket during the Revolutionary War. However, most citations of wicket refer to play after 1830, and about half the accounts (as well as all of the lists of rules) refer to play from 1850 to 1860. Thus, the pastime remained strongly rooted until abruptly displaced by the New York form of baseball.
Wicket now appears to have been most warmly embraced in Connecticut (it was sometimes referred to as the Connecticut Game) and western Massachusetts, where annual town vs. town matches were reported. One account reports that the towns declared holidays on such occasions. Local variants of the game seem to have evolved within its western New England range, as it was necessary in some cases for rival teams to stipulate to the particular rules to be used for the big game.
We also have several reports of less formal games being played on university campuses. Yale and Amherst students played games of wicket—including one that pitted one college class against another. The game is also described at Harvard College, in an area where the Massachusetts Game was to emerge, as late as 1854. For pickup games near towns and villages, the use of roadways for informal contests was irresistible—as would be expected with a game featuring a bowled ball—and a few reports center on conflict between players and passing travelers. In New York State, pickup games were not unusual in available town lots, and we have accounts of such games in western New York towns. Accounts of juvenile play were not frequent.
While wicket’s original foothold may have been in western New England (nearly two-thirds of the references are from that area), the game spread westward from there, presumably carried by migrating New Englanders. Wicket was evidently strong in Rochesterand Buffalo, for example, and one Rochester account recalls it as the primary game played in that area before baseball arrived from downstate. We also now have more than 10 pre–Civil War accounts from Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin. There are solitary reports of wicket play in Hawaii and Baltimore, and of a wicket club forming in 1844 in New Orleans, as well.
The original source of American wicket is unclear. Noting the familiar shapes of the wicket and bat, some cricket historians have surmised that the game branched off from some form of cricket very early in America’s history; by 1744, English cricket had already developed the tall, narrow (six-inch) wicket format that we know today. However, there is no record of a pre-1744 variant of early cricket that displays the special traits of American wicket. Absent from the English record, it would seem, are accounts of the large ball, the very wide wicket, and teams numbering as many as 30 players. That leaves us to speculate that whatever the form of the game that arrived from abroad in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, wicket most likely evolved markedly once it had set down American roots.
Once the National Association rules for baseball were distributed nationally, and that game had become the national passion, wicket fell into decline. Of Protoball’s compilation of 150 ballplaying references in Civil War camps, only nine cite wicket as the game that was played; while this sum is greater than that of the known accounts of cricket play, it is far exceeded by accounts of baseball in the war camps. (Most of the military wicket play involved Union regiments recruited from westernMassachusetts, but four reports reflected wicket play among soldiers inWisconsin andMinnesota regiments.) After the war, it is only throwback games of wicket that appear, spottily, and chiefly in the area of Bristol, Connecticut.
Soon enough, wicket was forgotten. Baseball researchers, perhaps, interpreted the term “wicket” as just a mislabeled reference to English cricket, and thus scant attention was accorded to a game that was, in fact, the favorite safe-haven game for large swatches of the new nation in the 1800s. But everybody else had neglected the pastime too. Daniel Genovese, who devotes a full chapter to wicket in his 2004 book on ballplaying in Westfield, Connecticut, worked with many local historians in the area, and reports that none had ever heard of wicket. Genovese’s sad epitaph for wicket: “The point is clear, even among well-respected historians, the game is lost.”
1. Norton, F. 1907. “That Strange Yankee Game, Wicket,” in Bristol Connecticut (p. 295). Originally published in the Hartford Courant in 1904.
2. Ibid., 295–296. The estimation of the crowd of observers, in the absence of admission gates, must have been difficult. An estimate of 4,000 exceeds Bristol’s population of less than 3,500 souls in 1859, so the estimator must have believed that few locals stayed at home that day.
3. Ibid., 296.
4. Palmer, M. 1913. “Diary Entry of Captain Milo E. Palmer, 12th Wisconsin Regiment,” in History of Brown County Wisconsin (p. 216). Paxson, L. 1908. “Paxson Diary,” in Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (part 2, vol. 2) (p. 132). These accounts are summarized as Cases 51 and 57 of the Protoball chronology, “Ballplaying in the Civil War Camps”: retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm
5. See: “Wicket: A Working Chronology,” at retrosheet.org/Protoball/Sub.Wicket.htm. References to wicket play in England are rare, but “wicket” was sometimes used as a term for English cricket, and we know of a few cases in which US players called wicket by the name of cricket.
6. Sewall, S. 1882. “Diary of Samuel Sewall,” in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (vol. 7) (p. 372). Summarized in Protoball entry 1725c.1.
7. Anderson, J., ed. 1896. The Town and City of Waterbury (vol. 3) (pp. 1102–1103). Summarized in Protoball entry 1858.52.
8. Wicket-playing at Yale is summarized in Protoball entries 1818.1 and 1843.4. Wicket at Amherst is summarized in entries 1846.7 and 1846.8. Wicket at Harvard is summarized in entries 1840c.39 and 1854.13.
9. “Baseball Half a Century Ago,” Rochester Union and Advertiser: Mar. 21, 1903. Summarized in Protoball entry 1850s.16.
10. “Ballplaying in the Civil War Camps,” retrosheet.org/Protoball/CivilWar.htm (accessed Oct. 7, 2010).
11. Genovese, D. 2004. “Wicket Ball: The Predecessor to the ‘New York Game,’” in The Old Ball Ground: The Chronological History of Westfield Baseball (pp. 9–25).
12. Ibid., 11.
OK, folks, now that we’ve posted Tom Altherr’s article ”Barn Ball,” we may as well have an all-out Altherrfest. Below is his Fall 2011 article in the journal Base Ball, “Basepaths and Baselines: The Agricultural and Surveying Contexts of the Emergence of Baseball,” which won the McFarland-SABR Research Award for 2012. It is a bad pun but an accurate statement to call it pathbreaking. Tom is our field’s premier collector of primary data on all species of ballplaying. He is a history professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver; among his courses is one on baseball history that he has taught since 1991. His article appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company.
Recent research has established that baseball and baseball-type games predate the 1840s. In other words, they predate the hoary but erroneous 1839 Abner Doubleday / Cooperstown / Immaculate Conception theory of baseball’s invention. Most notable among the books has been David Block’s definitive Baseball before We Knew It, and my own articles, “‘A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball’: Baseball and Baseball-Type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic” and “Chucking the Old Apple: Recent Discoveries about Pre–1839 North American Ball Games.” George Thompson’s discovery of 1823 accounts of baseball in New York City and John Thorn’s uncovering of a 1791 Pittsfield, Massachusetts, ordinance prohibiting baseball-playing, among other sports, have been two of the more exciting examples of this research. The energies of SABR’s Origins Committee, expanding to roughly 200 members under the leadership of Larry McCray, have resulted in a valuable database, Protoball, a Protoball glossary, and a monthly newsletter, Originals, updating the finds.
Baseball thus existed, but the question now arises: Why did baseball appeal to an increasing number of Americans in the early Republic? Why in those transitional decades, moving from the settlement of the Revolutionary ferment to the volatile Jacksonian trends, did Americans move toward allegiance to baseball-type games? What other American developments may have affected, modified, paralleled, or drawn along the expansion of baseball and baseball-type games? Certainly baseball did not emerge in a cultural vacuum, a total escape from the agricultural and commercial cares of the times.
To start down a path toward some sort of answer, it is necessary to revisit the Country Game thesis. According to this interpretation, baseball originated in rural environs and even as the sport exploded in urban locales by the 1840s and 1850s, players and spectators alike ever since have celebrated baseball as some sort of pastoral design, a pleasant recreation of the rural past fading before their eyes, a harkening back to some sort of golden age of rustic simplicity and harmony. Many commentators have celebrated the rural roots of the game, waxing eloquently about green fields as temporal heavens, barefoot boys with cheeks of tan whiling away summer afternoons, and rural virtues manifesting themselves in the practitioners of the game. Nevermind that once professionalism overtook the amateur game, most players did not hone their skills in cow pastures and the juggernaut of commercialism relegated small-town baseball to minor league, bush league, and farm team statuses. But longings for the rural origins have persisted so strongly that the creation myth of baseball—the Abner Doubleday “Immaculate Conception” scenario—involves Elihu Phinney’s pasture in Cooperstown.
These claims often rest heavily on nostalgia, an attractive but fundamentally false collection of sentiments, or on a Leo Marxian model of the pastoral middle landscape, rather than a closer understanding of the material and cultural connections of agriculture and the folk games that gave rise to baseball. As worthy as those emphases on the concept of the middle landscape are, in the end they fuel an idealized portrait of farming that most actual farmers themselves would not have recognized. But those same agriculturalists experienced a concrete specificity of objects in their work duties, tangible materials that provided a framework for their lives and also served as important ingredients for ballplaying.
The Agricultural Contexts of Baseball: Getting Good Wood on the Ball
The bat is, of course, one of the key instruments for bat-and-ball games. Today bats come in ceramic and aluminum versions, as well as the traditional wooden ones. For early Americans, wood was a constant reality in their lives. In the eastern woodlands colonists found a staggering abundance of forests, which allowed even the most amateur carpenter the choice of very prime wood and encouraged profligacy with wood supplies. As one writer from the Androscoggin River region of Maine recalled in 1800:
The richest and straightest trees were reserved for the frames of the new houses; shingles were rived from the clearest pine; baskets, chair bottoms, cattle bows, etc., were made from brown ash butts; all the rest of the timber cleared was piled and burned on the spot…. All the pine went first. Nothing else was fit for building purposes in those days. Tables were made 21.2 feet wide from a single board, without knot or blemish.
Most parts of furniture, some kitchenware, and many decorative items were all wooden. Wood construction dominated house-building and barn-raising, despite some use of stone and brick. Most outbuildings were wood construction. Fencing often depended on wood, posts and split rails. Wicket gates.a device replicated in wicket and cricket-style ball games.and stiles were wooden. Many a roadway and walkway consisted of wooden crossbeams or corduroy planking. Byproducts of wood, such as charcoal and potash, were important to home products and the burgeoning metallurgy.
As agriculturists, early Americans frequently wrapped their hands around a variety of wooden implement handles, plow handles (or hales), and similar tools. Indeed the employment of several common farm tools necessitated bodily motions very similar to swinging a bat. Many a major leaguer swung an axe or sledgehammer during the offseason to stay in shape. Longtime baseball man Charlie Metro and Hall of Famer Ted Williams discussed designing a bat with an oblong handle, such as those on farm tools, to improve swinging accuracy. The following comment by an Englishman watching cricket in England in 1825 could have as easily pertained to an American baseballist: “I have myself whiled away whole mornings in seeing him strike the ball (like a countryman mowing with a scythe) to the farthest extremity of the smooth, level, sunburnt ground….” Wooden team yokes and singletrees (or badikins, whippletrees, whiffletrees, or swingletrees) facilitated plowing and hauling. Other large wooden implements such as harrows, carts, cultivators, horsehoes, barrows, drills, drags, mouldbaerts, and sledges were all necessary for cultivation and harvest. Even many iron, and later steel, implements had wooden handles or grips. Indeed the swingle part of a flail owed its etymology to the root word for swinging.
Wood appeared in manifold additional manners. Harvesters filled many a wooden basket or trug. Processors packed many a wooden barrel, box, or crate. Wooden pails were ever present for carrying water, milk, or cider, as well as animal feed, slop, and silage to livestock who often fed at wooden troughs. Other wooden buckets and carts carried off the constant waste products. Rowers grasped wooden oars and rudders; canoeists propelled their crafts with wooden paddles, usually of ash. Wood was literally everywhere. As Lewis Mumford wrote about the ubiquity of wood in an eotechnic economy:
As for the common tools of the time, they were more often of wood than of any other material. The carpenter’s tools were of wood, but for the last cutting edge: the rake, the oxyoke, the cart, the wagon, were of wood: so was the washtub in the bathhouse: so was the bucket and so was the broom: so in certain parts of Europe was the poor man’s shoe. Wood served the farmer and the textile worker; the loom and the spinning-wheel, the oil presses and the wine presses were of wood, and even a hundred years after the printing press was invented, it was still made of wood. The very pipes that carried water in the cities were often tree-trunks, so were the cylinders or pumps. One rocked a wooden cradle; one slept on a wooden bed; and when one dined one “boarded.” One brewed beer in a wooden vat and put liquor in a wooden barrel. Stoppers of cork, introduced after the invention of the glass bottle, begin to be mentioned in the fifteenth century. The ships of course were made of wood and pegged together with wood; but to say that is only to say that the principal machines of industry were likewise made of wood: the lathe, the most important machine-tool of the period, was made entirely of wood—not merely the base but the moveable parts. Every part of the windmill and the water-mill except for the grinding and cutting elements was made of wood, even the gearing: the pumps were chiefly of wood, and even the steam engine, down to the nineteenth century, had a large number of wooden parts: the boiler itself might be of barrel construction, the metal being confined to the part exposed to the fire.
But these are simply categories. The variety within many of these tool types was impressive. For example, the woodworking process from forest to finishing could entail using twenty or more different types of axes alone.
Until Euroamericans reached the more barren prairies and plains, wood supplies were usually so plentiful that rarely did anyone forecast decline, scarcity, or deforestation. So when it came time to furnish an implement for bat-and-ball games, the natural choice understandably was wood. Wooden tools had been extensions of a person’s hands for so long that any other material would have probably seemed alien. Early bats ranged from stout tree branches to sturdy clubs to eventually the wood-turned cylindrical bats. Clifton Johnson surmised that when boys played ball games at early–19th century country schools, they appropriated a longer piece of firewood: “The club was a round stick selected from the woodpile.” Such a piece was available as woodcutters often cut firewood to manageable lengths for drying before they cut them to stovewood dimensions. Fashioning a favorite bat most likely occurred quickly, much as agriculturalists and woodworkers had devoted design and care to favorite wooden tools. Unlike British cricket bats, which were mostly flattish, early Americans probably relied on more simplistic designs of common woods, rather than the rarefied woods the British were fashioning into elaborate bats by the mid–18th century. Whatever the case, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of wood in the quotidian experience of early Americans. Perhaps Steven Gelber’s insightful thesis that late–19th century baseball replicated work skills and patterns for players and spectators alike might have some application a century or so earlier, as baseball may have been a natural extension of the wooden workaday world. Wood-oriented terms occasionally carried right down to more modern times in baseball lingo. For example, when an overmatched batter swung wildly at a pitch, he “flailed” at it. Similarly “flail” was a slang word for a bat in the early 20th century. Did the several baseball uses of the word “hook” derive from some agricultural origin by way of vaudeville? How else would one understand the baseball phrase “to take a hack at the ball?”
Balls and Bases
Similarly, the making of balls was undoubtedly pretty easy. Livestock, especially cattle and horses, provided a ready supply of leather. By the 1770s at least, tanners had perfected the process of tanning leather white, by use of horse urine. If leather was not available, other fabrics familiar on the farm surely sufficed. Stuffings for balls ranged from feathers to rags to any similar filler. As Johnson wrote of the country school ball play, “The ball was a home-made affair of old stocking ravellings wound together and covered with sheepskin.” Occasionally the ball may have been all wood, carved and smoothed round, although evidence for those is scanty. For centers, ball-makers used wood, maybe rubber, and according to one source, cartilaginous fish noses. Early Americans who were used to crafting so many objects in their work certainly found fashioning a ball no hard chore.
Providing bases also fit the agricultural lifestyle fairly easily. There were always trees, stumps, or natural items that served conveniently as bases. Stones and boulders, or more artificially sculpted mileposts, also became bases. In the 1744 illustration about “Base-Ball” in John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, boys or young men played the game using what were apparently mile markers, survey corner markers, or possibly even gravestones. When town ball became more formalized, or perhaps even before, players easily found material for the four wooden stakes that demarcated the active portion of the playing surface. The proto-baseball game of stoolball used three-legged wooden stools, often known also as crickets. Milkmaids used such stools for their twice-daily milkings of livestock, and in the evenings or even in daylight, people sat on such stools near the fireplace. Some of the folk games also utilized stumps of trees, those stumps themselves often called stools, fallen to clear future crop fields. Even when players started using filled cloth sacks as bases, a practice whose exact incipience is still unknown, the connection was there, too, somewhat related to agriculture. In those days before differentiated packaging, customers and suppliers regularly bought or packed commodities in sewn cloth sacks. How many current non-agriculturalist Americans would make this association when they hear a phrase such as “the sacks are full” or “the bags are loaded?” Similarly how many modern Americans would make the connection of the word “basepath” to the prevalence of dirt paths in the lives of agricultural Americans, the paths that cattle trod from pen to barn to pasture, the paths that farmers stepped along to the fields and back, the lanes connecting the farmstead to a larger thoroughfare? To be sure, many were winding or curvilinear, following the contours of creeks, levels of the land, and animal meanderings. But paths they were, and they would conform to more rectilinear patterns later.
Pastures for the Pastime
Early Americans spent a lot of time working in pastures, herding livestock, mostly during the warmer seasons. Pasturing itself involved cycles of movement, transitions from field to field in a fairly systematic pattern to ensure even grazing. During a day it may not have been unusual to relocate grazing stock through three or four pastures, somewhat paralleling the crop rotation sequences in the fields. Worn pathways would appear as a result from these herding movements. In the morning farm people herded their stock out to morning pasture and by dusk usually had maneuvered them through the other pastures then home for milking or night-time protection. Agricultural people were accustomed to moving from base to base often in a cyclical pattern. Did baseball provide an echo of these transitions? Baseball speeded them up, but the basic patterns may have been similar.
As for playing space and fields, the agricultural lifestyle also accommodated the enthusiasm for games, but did not relegate certain patches of lands to permanent ball fields. In some areas pasture was dear or in need of fallowing and recovery, and thus off limits to animal and human trampling. But in each town in the North and South some crossroads had designated commons lands. Sometimes this common land was forested or a broken mosaic of small clearings, salt licks, breaks, and other irregularities that would probably not suit a full-scale baseball-type game. But the case of the central commons in most towns was different. Admittedly, the quaint, cozy village green of New England fashion arrived only in the mid- and late 19th century. But to the extent that commons existed, these multi-use sections of towns allowed for a variety of human uses—farming, grazing, militia trainings, sermons and speeches, public punishment and occasional executions, and, last but not least, recreation. Boys and men played a variety of ball games ranging from marbles to something called football, which actually resembled soccer, to bandy, a precursor of field hockey, to types of golf to baseball-type games. Referring to the village green in Norfolk, Connecticut, Frederic Dennis wrote in 1917, “It was an arena for all sorts of athletic sports, such as base ball, foot ball, wicket playing, jumping, wrestling, tugs of war, and foot and horse races.” But because the commons was just that, a commons, available to public usages, no one usage could usually monopolize the space.
Although it may be that the terminology for segments of the baseball field—the “infield” and “outfield”—derived more directly from cricket, farming peoples would have recognized the use of those words to refer to those more valuable fields closer to the village center and those less valuable further away. According to an agricultural dictionary, “Infield consisted of the best land, about one-third of the extent of the outfield, usually near the farm buildings. The infield received all the winter dung which was put on about one-third of the field and was ploughed three times and then sown with barley.” Outfield, on the other hand, “was the extension of arable cultivation beyond the infield, but within the head-dyke, and was cropped for a restricted period without the benefit of any manuring, and then rested until it regained its natural fertility.” British farmers had long characterized such field divisions, and early New Englanders carried on the custom. As historian Joseph Wood noted in his study, The New England Village, “large common fields were divided into rectangles and small common fields were widely dispersed in New England towns, and included infields and outfields,” and led to enclosure and dispersal to unified farmsteads.
Opening Days and Fall Classics
Perhaps surprisingly to today’s techno-driven American, agriculture also provided some stretches of leisure that could support some more formalized recreation such as baseball. A series of agriculturally oriented holidays, pre-industrial in scope and origin, as well as militia training days, punctuated the calendar. How often townspeople and rural residents congregated on these days for the express purpose of playing baseball is
uncertain, but much like the later Fourths of July, types of play became more and more integral to the celebrations and ceremonies.
Admittedly, farm people worked hard, perhaps women as much or more so than the men, but the rhythms of the agricultural cycles left some times where the main task was awaiting the maturation of the crops. Sabbath prohibitions most likely restricted this leisure and dampened some baseball-playing, but even then some boys such as the future Massachusetts reformer and Union officer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, found ways to steal away for clandestine ball games behind someone’s barn.
In an allied manner, early Americans had a deeper reliance on seasonality than do modern ones. As Michael Kammen and John Demos have demonstrated so eloquently, preindustrial Americans lived their lives according to cyclical patterns firmly rooted in sunlight and moonlight, weather cycles, natural phenomena, and agrarian bloomings and die-offs. Seasons were sharper for those generations as opposed to the more flattened or blurred seasonal experiences for modern Americans. Baseball may have had some similar delineations. Baseball’s playing season paralleled the agricultural one. Opening Day often occurred right about when many flowers were also opening for pollination or two or three weeks after Lady Day, March 25, one of the feasts of the Virgin Mary and the agrarian New Year. Until the calendar revisions of 1752, March 25 served as the conventional start of the agricultural year, and in rural areas lasted as that traditional demarcation between winter and spring. In later decades, the rural associations would persist in the notion of a seasoned veteran or sending a prospect back down to the farm team for more seasoning. Although several pundits have made much about the number three and its multiples in baseball—three outs per inning, three strikes, nine innings, 27 outs per game—the number four has also had its importance in the game. Four balls for a walk arrived later in the formalization of the sport, but much earlier baseball proponents settled on four bases—not the two from cricket or the various cat games, or the five from rounders, but four. No specific evidence exists to support the next speculation, but did early agriculturally oriented Americans sense a similarity in baseball with its four stations, mirroring the yearly cycle, suggesting the four directions and winds? Likewise it is important to recall the contemporaneity with the Second Great Awakening, which produced some evangelical religions that stressed the Foursquare gospel, not to mention the four gospel writers and four Apocalypse horsemen, among other celebrated cornerstones in Christianity. The concept of four, whether from seasonality or religion, likely resonated strongly for those generations, who found a numerical echo in baseball.
The Surveying Contexts of Baseball: Baselines and Squares
Thinking of the Early National period also suggests another possibly overlooked reason for baseball’s emergence. Writers who have cogitated on the structure of the field often declare the design as somehow divinely inspired, as if some angel descended with the mandate for 90-foot basepaths, or some Moses type appeared directly from the Big Commissioner in the Sky’s office with tablature laying out baseball’s commandments. Theories that posit that the ball field is hostile territory in which the hero must negotiate a dangerous traverse around four small outposts of safety in a quest to return to ultimate safety at home, to capture the Holy Grail of home base, or fourth stake in town ball, are all well and wonderful and provocative. But might not there be an alternative interpretation? One that turns the field of danger image inside out? That links the game to the national grid pattern of land-surveying and other surveying methodologies?
The profound impact of the national grid land-surveying system that Congress formalized in 1785 helped many Americans embrace an increasing rectangularity in measurements.  The ordinance enacted May 20 of that year stipulated that for land in the western territories “the surveyors shall proceed to divide the said territory into townships of 6 miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles, as near as may be….” Further subdivision into square-mile lots would facilitate land purchases and settlement. Thomas Jefferson was in many ways the chief architect of this plan. Jefferson sought to integrate a mathematically rational system of measurements into the codification of laws and weights and measures and coinage for the new republic based on metrical and decimal systems coalescing in Europe, especially France. Archaic and traditional means of measurement, often wildly variable and imprecise, would yield to the beauties of mathematics, the omnipresent square. The system had its critics, particularly Southerners more used to irregular patterns, and over the long run led to ecologically short-sighted settlement trends, but the federal determination to employ rectangularity had a long-running definitive impact on land distribution and settlement over the next couple of centuries as anyone who has driven through or flown above the Midwest and plains can attest. As Vernon Carstensen remarked, “The patterns imposed on the American land by the rectangular survey influenced enormously the economic, political, and social life of the people who came to make their farms and villages and cities on a land marked out in squares of townships and sections, quarter sections, and forties.” Eventually some 70 percent of land in the lower 48 states received such rectangular plotting. Carstensen thought also that the patterns specifically helped reduce the feuding and wrangling over irregularly surveyed parcels farther East. Perhaps the patterns also influenced recreational activities such as baseball.
Rectangularity was the main feature of the new surveying system used for the 1785 national grid ordinance, as illustrated by this plat map of the first seven ranges surveyed in what is now eastern Ohio (source: USGenWEB at http://www.tngenweb.org/tnland/seven-ranges/).
Rectangular surveying was not new in the 1780s. Romans had featured such shapes in their centuriation field patterns. As early as the early 1680s, William Penn had promulgated a grid system for the streets of the proposed city of Philadelphia. The towns of Savannah, New Haven, and Charleston had also developed along a grid pattern center. Pittsfield, Massachusetts, famous recently for its 1791 sports ordinance, contained some rectangular, even square, parcels in its landholding patterns in the early 18th century. The national grid system applied most directly at first to what became eastern Ohio, known then as the Virginia Military District. Much helter skelter, crazy quilt patterns of town and city development persisted in colonial and Revolutionary America as both center villages increased along with dispersal to unitary farmsteads some distance from village centers. But by the 1780s the federal government had envisioned a more orderly geometric plan that would rationalize American westward expansion. Rectangularity based on squarely surveyed sections would add a more consistent precision missing in previous decades. Second, from the colonial era onward, matters of surveying, mapping, and territorial ownership preoccupied Euroamericans. Surveyors were very important participants in these legalities, and many a colonist had some surveying skills. Indeed, scratch below the surface descriptions of many prominent Americans—Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Daniel Boone—and their relationship to surveying becomes obvious. Famous surveyors such as Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker carried on the federal mission of measuring the landscape. Third, some towns, especially in New England, had already created commons and town squares that reflected this rectangularity, sections they devoted to public uses such as communal grazing or school support. Fourth, farmers had long been performing one perennial task on the farm in relentlessly rectangular fashion, namely crossplowing, the process of plowing new or waste ground at right angles to make the soil more friable. Later, with the rectangular survey plots, farmers found encouragement to plow long, straight furrows.
Some terms from surveying vocabulary may have found a few echoes in baseball terminology. The most obvious example is “baseline.” Surveyors, seeking to establish a line from which to measure other lines and parcels, called that first or most important line a baseline. One dictionary of surveying terms defined it: “A surveyed line established with more than usual care, to which surveys are referred for coordination and correlation.” In baseball, of course, a baseline came to demarcate between fair and foul territories and designate a running path to which runners are technically supposed to hew from base to base. The baselines serve theoretically to confine the running actions in baseball. But, as such, a baseball baseline retains some of the importance of a surveying baseline. The very common surveying term “bound” served as a synonym for “base” in the Massachusetts Game, although in baseball the word was more likely to refer to the actual bouncing action of the ball. Similarly, various surveying uses of the word “corner” may have found an echo in the various meanings of the word in baseball. The use of a three-foot pace in surveying found implementation in stepping off the distances between bases later in the National Pastime.
Is it merely coincidental that baseball in America grew in the very years and decades that land expansion increasingly adhered to a grid pattern? Or did those first waves of baseball enthusiasts survey their own squares, laying out the fields, pacing out the basepaths, incorporating the right angles, marking those corners with bases, and then redesigning a game that would fit these fields—a contest that rewarded hitters with the privilege of running around this square, accumulating bases and by extension acquiring the described property? Many Americans would answer that the sport most identified with territorial acquisition would be American football, indeed a sport whose use of the term “gridiron” fairly shouts out rectangularity—first downs, 10 yards at a time demarcated by chainbearers and linesmen, ferocious marches to possess desirable acreage in the end zones. But the chronology does not match here; football did not develop contemporaneously with Early National and antebellum expansions. A version of an athletic contest answering to that name really was more of a shin-kicking free-for-all. The game gaining American favor as the rallying phrase of Manifest Destiny sounded as a clarion call by the mid–1840s was baseball, not football.
Rogations and Perambulations
Another type of surveying may have had some influence on the development of baseball and baseball-type games, namely the Christian observance of Rogation and one of its practices, a walking of the boundaries known as perambulation. Rogationtide was a moveable holiday because it depended on when Easter and Holy Week fell during the spring. Rogation week followed the fifth Sunday after Easter, contained Ascension Day, and was two weeks before Whitsunday, the seventh Sunday after Easter. Generally the message of this Christian rite was to emphasize the role of God as the great provider. One of the major parts of the ceremony was the perambulation. Simultaneously remembering and reaffirming older land claims and inspecting and protecting current ones, perambulation constituted an important procession for the congregation. Customs varied in England and other parts of Britain, but usually some group of parishioners accompanied by a religious official traversed the metes and bounds or in other cases paid a gang of persons to walk said boundaries and destroy or dismantle any encroachments. The custom was known by several different names: Cross-Week, Grass-Week, and Gang-Week; Scots referred to it as “riding the Marches.” The more Catholic aspects of the ceremonies came under criticism from Protestants, but generally the custom survived the Reformation, fading away in the 18th and 19th centuries due to land enclosures and expense. Christianity organized other processions throughout the year, including some that involved reviewing property boundaries in other seasons, but Rogationtide connected with other springtime rituals of renewal.
Colonial Americans did not always transfer homeland customs exactly, and even jettisoned some of them to make way for practices that they thought served better in the colonies. But apparently perambulation persisted, at least according to Charles MacLean Andrews in his study of colonial Connecticut River towns:
The ancient right of perambulation, or going the bounds, was in full operation in the Connecticut colony. The custom dates back very far in history, and was, in early Saxon times, attended with considerable ceremonial [sic]. The bounds of manors, and later of parishes, were fixed by trees, heaps of stones and natural marks, and the perambulation of half the parishioners from mark to mark was made yearly for the purpose of resetting the bounds if destroyed, or of reaffirming them and seeing that no encroachments had taken place. The Connecticut settlers were familiar with the old custom and early applied it, but in a less pretentious fashion than that which in the mother country.
Andrews then quoted from colonial records requirements that selectmen in adjoining towns had to appoint at least three persons to make such a collaborative walking inspection of boundary markers yearly. Colonial Virginians also observed their own landmarking processions, carrying the English practice across the ocean. Virginia courts frequently heard disputes over such perambulations and attempted to regularize the custom among the Anglican parish vestries. Even when the commonwealth of Virginia disestablished the Anglican church, perambulation phased into a secular custom in October 1785, not that long after Congress initiated the national grid-survey system. As William Seiler noted, “The regular enforcement of land processioning in eighteenth-century Virginia indicates that it was an accepted feature of the colony’s land policy and that it contributed in an essential way to the determination of property lines within the colony.”
Did baseball, as it developed in Europe and America, reflect some sort of connection with perambulations and other similar processions, some sublimated continuation of the rituals of property inspection and marking? To be sure, ballplayers ran around the bases at speeds faster than perambulators trekked around the boundaries. But whatever the speed, baseball may have been a symbolic act of running possession—a faster perambulation—whose purposeful circlings acquired bases at the corners of a rectangular plot, station to station until the closure of the square occurred.
Rounding the Square: Circularity Versus Linearity
Against this backdrop baseball emerged in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Even in town ball days, baseball-type games featured rectangularity, departing from whatever irregular patterns had existed in rounders, stoolball, trapball, wicket, cricket, and the like. Perhaps as important as the rectangularity are some of the uncanny similarities to surveying. The stakes that town ball employed resembled nothing so much as surveying stakes, marking so many rod-and-chain lengths. Baseball dispensed with the perpendicular stakes but continued the idea of boundedness. Although it is much easier to see a sport such as football as a war for territorial dominance—Demos classified baseball as the circular game and football as the linear game—it is just as likely that early Republic Americans saw in baseball and baseball-type games a reaffirmation of territorial possession, that the bases and baselines bounded a piece of territory that the runner and offensive team symbolically owned and the defense likewise competed for. Early settlers, at least in New England, even referred to a piece of potentially productive land as a “pitch.” In Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Vermont Tradition, for example, she recreated a probably typical conversation among would-be Connecticut emigrants in the 1760s eyeing land in what would later become Vermont: “Save a pitch for us. One with good fishing. We’ll be after you soon.” Every run around the bases presaged the later land runs and booms that energized Manifest Destiny, a phenomenon that coincided with the Knickerbockers and the concretization of baseball in Manhattan in the 1840s.
The notion of transition brings yet one other possibility. As fewer Americans were directly involved in farming, as the Industrial Revolution accelerated, and as a burgeoning middle class drew sustenance from service economy positions, several fundamental changes reverberated throughout American culture. One was a surge in sentimentalism and nostalgia about the agrarian lifestyle, following the typical pattern in America of glorifying groups and former lifestyles as they were disappearing or in decline. Second, urbanization, still small by modern ideas, undercut traditional family and church institutions, freeing up individuals who gloried in individualism or re-formed a sense of communitas with new organizational and associational forms. A third was, as Demos analyzed, a transition from “the logic of circularity” to linear, and rectangular, thinking. The old agricultural rhythms, diurnal, lunar, and seasonal in nature, gave way to unit time measurements, statistical thinking, mechanistic calibrations, mathematical calculations and numeracy.
Many commentators, especially Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden, have documented the first trend, and baseball scholars have been assiduous in locating the pastoral imagery in baseball. Warren Goldstein showed in Playing for Keeps how the second development resulted in modern organized baseball coalescing in a city context, particularly in the urban environs of Manhattan, among such cohorts as the Knickerbockers and other early amateur baseball clubs. Cities, such as New York, provided ambitious middle-class groups who energized the former versions of baseball, speeded up and streamlined the game, and eventually sensed the commercial possibilities of city-based entertainment. Indeed shortly after more formalization, praises for baseball often championed it as a game whose action and pace matched the faster-paced rhythms of city life. Add onto that the American penchant for city boosterism—that the fortunes of one’s city found a mirror in the qualities of its baseball teams—and the connection of baseball and cities was firm.50 But Demos’s analysis and its possible connection to baseball remain unexplored.
Did baseball emerge as an attempt to reconcile the logic of circularity with increasingly linear and rectangular thinking? Runners circle the bases, which are resolutely rectangular in format. Baselines extend in a straight direction, but so much of the other action in baseball moves in more fluid, swooping, even circular motions. To return to the phrase “rounding the bases,” there is a similar phrase in carpentry and furniture-making whereby artisans would abrade or smooth off corners and edges for esthetic, safety, or comfort reasons. Did the very actions of baseball reflect this central tension of a traditional, agricultural, cyclical mentalité conflicting with the nexus of 90-degree angles forecasting the future?
1. Block, D. 2005. Baseball before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game; Altherr, T. 2000. “‘A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball’: Baseball and Baseball-Type Games in the Colonial Era, Revolutionary War, and Early American Republic,” NINE 8.2, 15–49; Altherr, T. 2008. “Chucking the Old Apple: Recent Discoveries of Pre–1839 North American Ball Games,” Base Ball 2.1, 29–43.
2. Thompson, G. 2001. “New York Baseball, 1823,” The National Pastime, 6–8; Thorn, J. 2007. “1791 and All That: Baseball and the Berkshires,” Base Ball 1.1, 119–126.
3. For a convenient exposition of this theme, see: Grella, G. 1975. “Baseball and the American Dream,” Massachusetts Review 16, 556–567.
4. For a historical analysis of these practices in New England, see: Cronon, W. 1983. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (ch. 6).
5. Cronon 1983, 111.
6. For a look at the extent of wood use in the construction of fences, see: Meredith, M. 1951. “The Nomenclature of American Pioneer Fences,” Southern Folklore Quarterly 15.2, 109–151.
7. See: Rasmussen, W. 1981. “Wood on the Farm,” in Material Culture of the Wooden Age, ed. B. Hindle, 15–34.
8. Metro, C., and T. Altherr. 2002. Safe by a Mile (pp. 480–481).
9. “Merry England,” Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction: Jan. 6, 1825, p. 557.
10. Mumford, L. 1934. Technics and Civilization (pp. 119–120).
11. For fuller descriptions and illustrations of many of these tools, see: Sloane, E. 1964. A Museum of Early American Tools; Partridge, M. 1973. Farm Tools through the Ages.
12. Johnson, C. 1907. The Country School (p. 16).
13. Green, H. 2006. Wood: Craft, Culture, History (pp. 337–338).
14. Gelber, S. 1983. “Working at Playing: the Culture of the Workplace and the Rise of Baseball,” Journal of Social History 16.4, 3–22.
15. Dickson, P. 2009. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, Third Edition (p. 328).
16. Ibid., 431–432.
17. See the quotation by Samuel Dewees in Altherr 2000, 25.
18. Johnson 1907, 16.
19. Newbery, J. 1744. Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Amusement and Instruction of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly (p. 88).
20. Wood, J. 1997. The New England Village.
21. Dennis, F. 1917. The Norfolk Village Green (pp. 5–6).
22. Adams, I. 1976. Agrarian Landscape Terms: a Glossary for Historical Geography, Special Publication Number Nine (pp. 82–83).
23. For a detailed examination of the varieties of infield and outfield configurations in western and central Europe, see: Uhlig, H. 1961. “Old Hamlets with Infield and Outfield Systems in Western and Central
Europe,” Geografiska Annaler 43.1/2, 285–312.
24. Wood 1997, 47.
25. Higginson, T. 1898. Cheerful Yesterdays (p. 30).
26. Kammen, M. 2004. A Time to Every Purpose: the Four Seasons in American Culture; Demos, J. 2004. Circles and Lines: the Shape of Life in Early America (especially Chapter One).
27. For discussions of the customs linked to Lady Day, see: Hutton, R. 1996. The Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in Britain (p. 173); Wright, A. 1938. British Calendar Customs, England, Volume II: Fixed Festivals January–May, Inclusive (pp. 166–168); Banks, M. 1939. British Calendar Customs, Scotland, Volume II: the Seasons, the Quarters, Hogmanay January to May (pp. 189–191).
28. See: Linklater, A. 2002. Measuring America: How the United States Was Shaped by the Greatest Land Sale in History; Stilgoe, J. 1982. Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845 (pp. 99–107).
29. Partial text of the ordinance quoted in Linklater 2002, 70. For the full text of the act and a concise commentary, see: White, C. 1982. A History of the Rectangular Survey System (pp. 11–15).
30. Linklater 2002, chapters 7–9.
31. Pattison, W. 1957. Beginnings of the Rectangular Land Survey System, 1784–1800, Department of Geography Research Paper No. 50 (ch. 12).
32. Carstensen, V. 1985. “Patterns on the American Land,” in Plotters and Patterns of American Land Surveying, ed. R. Minnick (pp. 94, 100).
33. Thrower, N. 1966. Original Survey and Land Subdivision: a Comparative Study of the Form and Effect of Contrasting Cadastral Surveys (pp. 8–11).
34. See the 1738 map of Pittsfield reproduced in Trewartha, G. 1946. “Types of Rural Settlement in Colonial America,” Geographical Review 36.4, p. 579.
35. Johnson, H. 1976. Order upon the Land: the U.S. Rectangular Land Survey and the Upper Mississippi Country (pp. 40–49).
36. Friis, H. 1985. “Highlights in the First Hundred Years of Surveying and Mapping and Geographical Exploration of the United States by the Federal Government 1775–1880,” in Minnick 1985, 109–118; Brown, J. 2000. The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718–1806 (pp. 49–55).
37. Bedini, S. 2001. With Compass and Chain: Early American Surveyors and Their Instruments (pp. 152–173).
38. Carstensen 1985, 98.
39. Definitions of Surveying and Associated Terms (1978, p. 17).
40. Dickson 2009, 129.
41. For further explanation of Rogation perambulations, see: Bushaway, B. 1982. By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England 1700–1880 (pp. 81–88).
42. For a detailed account of Rogationtide variations, see Hutton 1996, 277–287.
43. Andrews, C. 1889. The River Towns of Connecticut: a Study of Wethersfield, Hartford, and Windsor, Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Seventh Series, VII–VIII–IX (p. 98).
44. Seiler, W. 1949. “Land Processioning in Colonial Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly 6.3, 416–436. Quotation is on p. 435.
45. Demos 2004, 81–82.
46. Fisher, D. 1953. Vermont Tradition: the Biography of an Outlook on Life (pp. 35–36).
47. Demos 2004, especially ch. 2.
48. Ibid., 62. See also: Cassedy, J. 1969. Demography in Early America: Beginnings of the Statistical Mind, 1600–1800; Cohen, P. 1982. A Calculating People: the Spread of Numeracy in Early America.
49. Marx, L. 1964. The Machine in the Garden: the Pastoral Design in American Culture. See also Grella 1975, 556–567; Gaughran, R. 1989. “Baseball Literature’s Complex Pastoralism,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation,
50. Goldstein, W. 1989. Playing for Keeps: a History of Early Baseball (especially ch. 1).