Louis Fenn Wadsworth: Baseball’s Man of Mystery and History

The Laws of Base Ball

The Laws of Base Ball

I gave this talk at the Litchfield Historical Society on April 24, 2016. While Louis Fenn Wadsworth came in for some discussion in my 2011 book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, I felt I could try the patience of general readers with a great deal of biographical detail unrelated to his baseball exploits. However, now that the trio of documents relating to baseball’s 1857 convention (see: http://goo.gl/VndQXx) sold on Sunday for a prodigious sum, the timing could not be more right for some talk about Wadsworth, the man who reversed the convention’s original ruling that baseball should be a game of seven innings, and made it, instead, nine.

Only yesterday, some documents from 1857 that constitute the first draft of baseball’s rules as we know them today were auctioned off for 3.26 million dollars. With the rediscovery of these “Laws of Baseball,” crafted for presentation by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club to the first convention of baseball clubs, we have tangible evidence of the genius of Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, a rediscovered hero who was the top vote-getter among old-timers on last year’s ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Daniel L. "Doc" Adams

Daniel L. “Doc” Adams

At the dawn of the twentieth century, baseball’s origins were already too old to be remembered, so stories were devised to rationalize what was otherwise baffling. Baseball history then was in the hands of folklorists, not historians. Members of the Mills Commission—also referred to as Albert Spalding’s Commission, for he formed it in 1905 to determine the true origin of the national pastime—lacked the mundane primary documents that typically aid historians of everyday life in the reconstruction of events. Accordingly, they looked to octogenarian reminiscences of events witnessed long ago if at all; thus we were handed a pretty story of Abner Doubleday as baseball’s inventor, supposedly in Cooperstown one bright day in 1839.

Almost immediately upon the Commission’s naming the Civil War hero as baseball’s dad, others came forward to declare the story a fable … insisting that instead it had begun in 1845 with another father figure: Alexander Cartwright, a teammate of Doc Adams on the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club (KBBC). Both men had gone to their graves not knowing they had invented baseball.

While Doubleday gave Cooperstown an excuse to establish a fine museum in an economically challenged upstate village, Cartwright (unlike Doubleday) was awarded a plaque in the Hall of Fame that credits him as having “set bases 90 feet apart” and “established 9 innings as a game and 9 players as [a] team.” This is demonstrably false, as none of these aspects of the game were settled until 1857, some eight years after Cartwright had left New York for Hawaii, never to return east. 

Cartwright Plaque

Cartwright Plaque

In 1868, Henry Chadwick, the only writer inducted into the Hall of Fame, wrote, “our present National game [is] a great step in advance of the game of base ball as played in 1840 and up to 1857.” Yes, 1857 was the year that baseball made its great leap forward, and these are the documents that reveal what it was like to be present at the creation of a national institution. Adams was the guiding force; William Henry Grenelle rendered his teammate’s draft into the presentation, in fine Spencerian script, that was placed before the convention. They were two of the three Knickerbocker Club delegates to the convention, which convened for its opening session on January 22, 1857.

The third Knick member was Louis Fenn Wadsworth, about whom so little was known for so long, but whose compelling story is the one that principally concerns us today. It was Wadsworth who stood up at the convention, which had just ratified the Knickerbocker club’s preference for a game of seven innings—an outcome that was reported in the press!—and turned the delegates around to his proposal of nine innings. That Wadsworth may have been responsible for a great deal more in baseball’s evolution—including the provision of a new diagram of the game, and becoming the game’s first professional player—will come in for discussion today, too. But it is his life story—with mysterious details that did not yield themselves to me until after more than twenty years of digging—that may be most interesting in the end. Only when I was able to place his missing pieces into the jigsaw puzzle of baseball’s origins story did I write the book that was published five years ago as Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game. 

L.F. Wadsworh, Plainfield, NJ 1875

L.F. Wadsworth, Plainfield, NJ 1875


In the late eighteenth century, Berkshire County in Massachusetts, eastern Dutchess County in New York, and northern Litchfield County in Connecticut basically formed one community, with travel up and down the Housatonic valley, so these areas could be considered cohesively one. The border between New York and Massachusetts had long been a matter of contention, and was settled only in 1787, while the New York–Connecticut border dispute wore on until … 1857.

Ball play was rampant in this “Housatonic Triangle.” Pittsfield, in 1791, enacted a bylaw that barred “any game of wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball,” within 80 yards of a newly constructed meeting house. Of these, baseball appears to have been the dominant game in Massachusetts, and wicket the preferred game in Connecticut, though certainly both games were played in each state.

Enter Louis Fenn Wadsworth, born in either Amenia, New York—where an elder brother had died in infancy in 1823—or Litchfield, or Hartford, by various accounts, on or about May 6, 1825. His father was Amos Cowles Wadsworth, born in 1787 and buried in Litchfield in 1850, where he had descended into boarding-house poverty. Louis’s mother, Amanda Mann Wadsworth, had gone west to Michigan with Amos around 1845 and remained there, in Allegan County’s township of Owosso, with her other surviving son—Charles Waldstein Wadsworth, a year older than Louis—until her death in 1885.

Washington College, Hartford; Episcopal Watchman, March 26, 1827

Washington College, Hartford; Episcopal Watchman, March 26, 1827

The family resided in Litchfield when Louis left it in the fall of 1841 to begin his freshman year at Washington College in Hartford, long since renamed as Trinity. Louis’ early years proved a bit simpler to reconstruct than his later ones, but I get ahead of myself.


While Philadelphia, New York, and New England played their distinctive regional variants of baseball, in Connecticut an odd game called wicket or wicket ball reigned. It resembled what Britons thought of as “country cricket,” a game that by the 1750s had been utterly supplanted in England by the standardized modern game. Wicket had gone wherever Connecticut emigrants settled: to the Western Reserve of Ohio and Michigan, or with the Congregational missionaries to Hawaii.

Wicket was played along a seventy-five-foot alley of hard ground, rolled, skinned of grass, with the wicket bowler having to skip the ball along the ground, touching down at least once in his own thirty-seven-and-a-half-foot portion; it bears mentioning that this figure represented baseball’s 1857 pitching distance of forty-five feet reduced by one-sixth, which was its probable original distance and the one long after recommended for inexperienced players.

The bowler would skim the ball toward a low wicket some five feet in length but only inches off the ground. The batsman held a long curved club with an enormous gnarled bulb at its curved end. The bare wicket alley, unlike the manicured grassy pitch of cricket, survives in baseball as the mysterious strip of dirt between the pitcher’s mound and home plate that is sometimes evident today … in unwitting reference to a game perhaps older than baseball.

Wicket in 1821, engraved by John Cheney

Wicket in 1821, engraved by John Cheney

Little recalled or understood today, wicket was the diversion of choice for young Nutmeggers until nearly 1860. One of wicket’s hot spots was Hartford, on the campus of Washington College, where it may well have been played by Louis Fenn Wadsworth, Class of 1844.


No one credited Wadsworth as an innovator, let alone a possible Father of Baseball, until the winter of 1907, when the Mills Commission neared the end of its three-year mandate. Abraham G. Mills had received the Commission’s findings so late that he could not finish his review; he dictated a letter to his stenographer in the afternoon of  December 30, 1907 in which he hurriedly stated his conclusions and anointed Doubleday as per his friend Spalding’s wishes. Still, he commented on an unsettled question:

A.G. Mills

A.G. Mills

“I am also much interested in the statement made by Mr. Curry, of the pioneer Knickerbocker club, and confirmed by Mr. Tassie, of the famous old Atlantic club of Brooklyn, that a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is today, was brought to the field one day by a Mr. Wadsworth. Mr. Curry says ‘the plan caused a great deal of talk, but, finally, we agreed to try it.’” Duncan F. Curry had made the statement to reporter Will Rankin in 1877, and Rankin had written about it to Mills in 1905.

With that report the Commission’s work was done, and its conclusions were published in Spalding’s Official Guide for the 1908 season. No more was heard about Wadsworth until 1973, when Harold Peterson wrote a book about Alex Cartwright called The Man Who Invented Baseball. In it he observed: “Mr. Wadsworth, whose Christian name, occupation, residence, and pedigree remained secreted in Mills’s bosom, was never heard of before or until long after that fateful afternoon [meaning, in 1877, when Curry spoke with Rankin].”

Rankin wrote in The Sporting News in April 1908 that in 1886 he “had forgotten the name of the person mentioned by Mr. Curry, so I went to see Mr. Thomas Tassie, and when I related to him that which Mr. Curry had told me, he said, ‘That is true, and the name of the man was Mr. Wadsworth, a very brilliant after-dinner talker, the Chauncey M. Depew of that day. He held a very important position in the Custom House….’”

But Rankin told Mills that he had erred in recording Curry’s man as Wadsworth — upon reflection nearly thirty years later, he was sure that Curry had said Cartwright. Furthermore, he bullied the elderly Tassie into allowing that perhaps he too recalled Cartwright … though Cartwright had left New York in 1849, years before Tassie became involved in baseball.

In his final official function Mills concluded his commission’s report by writing:

“It is possible that a connection more or less direct can be traced between the diagram drawn by Doubleday in 1839 and that presented to the Knickerbocker club by Wadsworth in 1845, or thereabouts, and I wrote several days ago for certain data bearing on this point, but as it has not yet come to hand I have decided to delay no longer sending in the kind of paper your letter calls for, promising to furnish you the indicated data when I obtain it, whatever it may be. [He never was to learn anything further, of course, despite his documented attempts.]

Here are the last words of the Mills Commission report:

“My deductions from the testimony submitted are:

“First: That ‘Base Ball’ had its origin in the United States. 

“Second: That the first scheme for playing it, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N. Y., in 1839. 

“Yours very truly,

“A. G. Mills [signed]” 

The commission report thus anointing a single inventor was published on March 20, 1908. A. G. Mills’ imagined double-play tandem of Doubleday to Wadsworth did not pan out, but it was not long before writers would speculate about a similar handoff from Doubleday to Cartwright, with Wadsworth disappearing from the discussion. Wadsworth had left so cold a trail for the Mills Commission that his time on earth could not be recalled accurately nor could his current whereabouts, above ground or under it, be confirmed. Sixty-five years later, not even Cartwright’s biographer could pick up a clue, and conveyed that “Mr. Wadsworth” was a fanciful concoction.


By the 1980s, before the advent of digitized newspapers, this mysterious fellow had eluded me, too, as well as the several genealogical experts I had enlisted to find him. Even Wadsworth family histories and historians offered no clue. I knew Lou Wadsworth had played first base with the Gothams and the Knickerbockers from the early 1850s to 1862, had parlayed his Whig Party sentiments into patronage posts, and was generally recorded in the press as L. F. Wadsworth, but where did he live after that, when he disappeared from the New York City directories?

Slowly the details came into view. What cracked the ice was stumbling upon an obituary in the New York Times not findable with a search for “Wadsworth”; instead OCR (optical character recognition) had “filed” it under “Wacsvorth,” thus assuring that no one could find it by direct means. From the Times of March 28, 1908—eight days after the issuance of the Mills Commission report—under the heading “Once Rich, Dies a Pauper,” here is the obituary that no one in baseball ever saw:

Wadsworth Obit, NYT, March 28, 1908

Wadsworth Obit, NYT, March 28, 1908

“Plainfield, N.J., March 27.—Louis F. Wadsworth, once worth $300,000 [$8 million in today’s dollars] and a graduate of Trinity College, Hartford, Conn., died a pauper at the Plainfield Industrial Home to-day, a victim of drink. His father was a wealthy New England merchant. Wadsworth became identified with Tammany Hall and obtained a lucrative position in the New York Custom House. In 1873 he moved to Plainfield. He took to drink, and though he maintained his political position for many years his fortune dwindled away. In 1898 he was admitted to the Industrial Home after swearing that he was unable to support himself.”

This was the crowbar that rapidly opened onto all the rest, although details continue to emerge that round out his life. Just days before handing in my manuscript of Baseball in the Garden of Eden, for example, did I learn that he had applied unsuccessfully to West Point in 1845. And only in preparing this talk did I hit upon a document showing that he also registered for the Civil War draft in 1863, though he was not called to duty.

The story of his later years has continued to fill in, with additional if not crucial detail that had been unavailable to me for Eden. Let’s proceed to do a racehorse run through the life of Louis Fenn Wadsworth, baseball’s man of mystery.


Envelope for Wadsworth's West Point Application Envelope

Envelope for Wadsworth’s West Point Application Envelope

After graduating with honors from Washington College in 1844 and applying to West Point, he lived in Michigan, where his father had obtained a land grant from President Martin Van Buren in 1838. By 1848 he had returned east to embark on a legal career on Wall Street (in those days—and perhaps ours!—a  law degree was not a necessary predicate; one had only to pass the bar examination). In 1853 he was nominated by the Eighth Ward Democratic Whigs, for whom he was the recording secretary, to the patronage position of School Inspector. His daytime job was as, Thomas Tassie had declared, a naval office attorney in the Custom House.

A tempestuous character, Wadsworth commenced his ball playing days with the Gothams, a venerable club that actually predated the Knickerbockers, with whom he quickly achieved prominence as the top first baseman of his time. Then, on April 1, 1854, he switched his allegiance to the Knickerbockers … perhaps for “emoluments,” as recompense was euphemistically known then; his skilled play would increase the Knickerbockers’ chances of victory. It is these circumstances that incline me to believe that Wadsworth may thus be termed baseball’s first professional player. Within a few years the practice of switching clubs in season, or “revolving,” became sufficiently pervasive for it be banned in Doc Adams’s new rules ratified at the 1857 convention.

One of the veteran Knicks, in recalling some of the old players for the New York Sun in 1887, said: “I had almost forgotten the most important man on the team and that is Lew Wadsworth. He was the life of the club. Part of his club suit consisted of a white shirt on the back of which was stamped a black devil. It makes me laugh still when I recall how he used to go after a ball. His hands were very large and when he went for a ball they looked like the tongs of an oyster rake. He got there all the same and but few balls passed him.”

In his time with the Knicks, Wadsworth found his notions thwarted on at least two occasions, resigning each time before reconsidering and permitting the restoration of his name to the membership rolls. But things came to a head in 1856.


Along with Doc Adams and other progressives, Wadsworth backed a motion in a Knickerbocker meeting to permit non-Knickerbockers to join in with Knicks in their intrasquad games at the Elysian Fields if fewer than 18 Knicks were present. Nine men to the side had been the standard for match play to this point, and Wadsworth and his allies thought it more important to preserve the quality of play than to exclude those who were not club members. Duncan Curry counter-moved that if 14 Knickerbockers were available, the game should admit no outsiders and be played shorthanded (at least by match standards).

Seven or nine? The KBBC fight.

Seven or nine? The KBBC fight.

The Curry forces, referenced in the Knickerbocker minutes as the “Old Fogies,” prevailed, 13-11. Just as Chadwick would later match the innings in his proposed ten-man model to the number of men on the field, the Knicks were now resolved to recommend a seven-inning game to replace the old custom of playing to 21 runs, which had recently produced a highly unsatisfactory 12-12 tie game, called on account of darkness.

This proved to be one of the most heated and divisive votes in club history, so at this point member William Ladd suggested that a committee be formed to cooperate with other clubs to decide upon the proper number of players for a match, with its concomitant effect on the number of innings if the 21-run rule were to be scrapped. This motion carried unanimously, and the committee appointed was Curry and Ladd; Ladd declined, and Adams took his place, thus placing one seven-inning advocate alongside a nine-inning advocate, as the Knicks pointed toward their next meeting, at Smith’s Hotel on 462 Broome Street, December 6, 1856, for the purpose of considering a convention of all the clubs.

The hotheaded Wadsworth had offered his resignation to the Knicks on July 31, 1856, then withdrew his resignation on August 26. Curry resigned on December 6, the very day of the meeting at Smith’s, testifying to how heated the discussions had become. The Knicks proceeded to establish a three-man commission to enlist the attendance of other clubs at a convention for the purpose of standardizing the rules. The three were Wadsworth, Adams, and Grenelle … which brings us back to the documents auctioned yesterday.

In the aftermath of the convention’s adoption of seven innings, on motion of Mr. Wadsworth, the aggregation reconsidered Section 26 and modified the Knicks’ proposal of seven innings to nine. Clearly, in enlisting the support of other teams, Wadsworth was following his own lead—and the expressed preference of the Adams contingent against the Curry forces—rather than that of the Knickerbocker majority.

Porter's Spirit of the Times, September 12, 1857; Gothams vs. Eagles

Porter’s Spirit of the Times, September 12, 1857; Gothams vs. Eagles

Wadsworth’s victory was Pyrrhic as far as his own future as in the club. Made to feel uncomfortable, the Knicks’ “ringer” failed to appear for a game on June 8, 1857 against the Eagles, though he had been named to play. Six days later he resigned for the final time, and by the following month he was again manning first base with his accustomed panache for his former club, the Gothams.


In 1859 Louis F. Wadsworth married Maria Isabel Meschutt Fisher, a wealthy widow nine years his elder with two children from her first marriage. As a Meschutt, she had been born into a family of restaurateurs and café proprietors in New York and New Jersey that dated back to 1777, with Meschutt’s Metropolitan Coffee House in operation at 433 Broadway. (James Meschutt invented the doughnut.) After a brief residence in Michigan and a return to New York, the Wadsworth family (stepson Charles kept his Fisher name; stepdaughter Marianne, who had been adopted, became a Wadsworth) settled in Rockaway, New Jersey in 1863. By 1872 or so, the family had resettled in Plainfield, New Jersey, where Louis became a justice of the peace and then a judge. After his wife’s death in 1883, drink and poor management of his assets left him a pauper—only recently have I learned that his wife’s will left most of her fortune to her sister, Susan Meschutt Sparks. After some years of selling Sunday newspapers on the streets of Plainfield as his sole source of income, in 1898 he committed himself to the poorhouse.

Wadsworth, Inmate at Plainfield Industrial Home, 1900 Census

There, according to his obituary in the Hartford Daily Times, belatedly published on April 4, 1908, though he had died on March 27:

“He became sadly dissipated, and it was not long before he was reduced to absolute want. In 1898, the [Plainfield Industrial Home] was the only haven, and for ten years he has spent most of his time reading. A veritable book worm, day after day, he would sit reading. The bent old man, on his trips between the home and public library, was a familiar sight. Always carrying books, and with few words for those he met, he went back and forth. In the summer he was particularly interested in following the scores of the ball games of the big leagues, and of late years the game was the one great object of interest to him.

“His associates came to forget him. Politicians who had sat in state conventions where he presided and where his exercise of parliamentary rules was able and astute lost him out of sight. Society, that had insisted on calling him Judge Wadsworth, passed by on the other side. For the last eight months he had slowly failed, through infirmities of old age. Until his mental capacity was obscured he rarely if ever mentioned his birthplace or Alma Mater, but in his decay he would speak of Hartford, and of old times “’Neath the Elms.” He had no family of his own, and it is hardly likely that any of his brothers and sisters can be located. He rarely mentioned them and as no letters ever came to him, the attendants at the home surmised that he preferred not to let them know where he was.”

But someone knew where he was, for only three days after his death his body was interred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, in a family plot along with James Meschutt; Susan Meschutt; Phillip Meschutt; William Sparks and his wife Susan Meschutt Sparks; Maria Isabel Meschutt Jackson Wadsworth; and Sophia Lines.

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

While Abraham G. Mills was searching for the baffling “Mr. Wadsworth,” his possible trump card to Doubleday, no one connected Louis F. Wadsworth, long-term inmate of the Plainfield Industrial Home, with baseball’s invention. With the death of all the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club members from their first decade of play—unbeknownst to the baseball world, Wadsworth was the last to go—no one was left to gainsay the declaration by Bruce Cartwright in 1909 that his father had been the one to invent baseball. Journalists who should have known better rallied around this alternative theory in reaction to what they saw as the absurdity of the claim on behalf of Doubleday.


In three weeks I will be at Green-Wood Cemetery for the dedication of a grave marker for James Whyte Davis—a member of Curry’s “Old Fogy” contingent that backed the seven-man and seven-inning plan—who was buried there in pauperdom in 1899 (see: http://goo.gl/j4k6qp). I will also visit the gravesite of Louis Fenn Wadsworth. As I did twenty years ago when I made the pilgrimage to Green-Wood to visit the graves of Henry Chadwick and 1860s star pitcher James Creighton, I will leave a baseball for him, with a message.






Walt Whitman, Baseball Reporter

2009 Topps Heritage

2009 Topps Heritage

America’s poet expounded on America’s game in this little-known June 18, 1858 ed­itorial from the Brooklyn Daily Times. (For calling it to my attention, thanks to Jim Carothers.) But these were not Whitman’s only published words on the national pas­time: in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass appears the line “Upon the race-course, or enjoying picnics or a good game of base-ball”; and in the Brooklyn Eagle of July 23, 1846 (only one month after the Knickerbockers’ purported first match game), he wrote: “In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base,’ a certain game of ball.” By the way, in the box score you’ll note a heading “H.L.”—this signifies “Hands Lost,” or outs made at bat or on the base paths; you’ll also note Pierce at shortstop for the Atlantics—this is the celebrated Dickey Pearce. Here’s Walt, before he became our Good Gray Poet, in his only known reportage of a baseball game.

The game played yesterday afternoon between the Atlantic and Putnam Clubs, on the grounds of the latter club, was one of the finest and most exciting games we ever witnessed. The Atlantics beat their opponents by four runs, but the general opinion was that the defeat was as much the result of accident as of superior playing.

Atlantics, 1859-60

Atlantics, 1859-60

On the fourth innings the Putnams made several very loose plays and allowed their opponents to score nine runs, and those careless plays were sufficient to lose them the game. On every other innings, they played carefully and well, as the score will show. They were also particularly unfortunate in having three of their men injured in the course of the game. Mr. Masten, their catcher, being disabled from occupying his position on the fifth innings, was compelled to take the first base and his place taken by Mr. Burr, who in his turn was disabled on the seventh innings and his place supplied by Mr. McKinstry, the fielder, Mr. Burr taking the third base. Mr. Jackson was injured on the eighth innings so much as to be compelled to discontinue playing, and Mr. Ketcham was substituted in his stead, so that at one time no less than three men on the Putnam side were so seriously injured as to be unable to run their bases. Notwithstanding these accidents, however, the score is highly creditable to the Putnams (always excepting the fourth innings), and we doubt if any other club can show a better one in a contest with such opponents. The Atlantics, as usual, played splendidly and maintained their reputation as the Champion Club. Messrs. M. O’Brien, P. O’Brien, Boerum, Pierce, and Oliver of that club cannot easily be surpassed in their respective positions. Messrs. Masten, Gesner, and McKinstry, of the Putnam Club, also deserve special commendation.

The score is as follows [here I offer the more expansive box score from Porter’s Spirit of the Times, a weekly more readily accessible than the Brooklyn Daily Times–jt].

Atlantic 17, Putnam 13

Atlantic 17, Putnam 13

A Peek into the Pocket-book

Block, Baseball before We Knew ItI have just returned from SABR’s annual Nineteenth Century Baseball Conference in Cooperstown. There a handful of old hands swap stories, in some measure for the benefit of relative newcomers who will extend our studies further. Besides an unparalleled parade of erudition, the meetings are characterized by presentations and panels and convivial times at various groaning boards and pubs. David Block is an old friend whom I am always eager to see again. His interests and exploits in the prehistory of the game are unmatched, most notably in the 2004 book Baseball before We Knew It (Nebraksa, 2005); see: http://goo.gl/ECciIw. Recent inquiries to my social media feeds about what might be the earliest mentions of baseball in print recalled to mind this outstanding essay he wrote for the journal Base Ball in 2008. It is reprinted with the gracious permission of the publisher, McFarland & Company.

A game called baseball arose from the primeval playing fields of southern England during the earliest decades of the ¡8th century. This we can deduce from a smattering of clues that have trickled down from the 1740s and 1750s. While these tidbits generally reveal little about the pastime’s makeup during that era, one specimen rises vividly above the rest: the “base-ball” page from John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-book. 

Little Pretty Pocket-book, 1787

Little Pretty Pocket-book, 1787

Many readers of this journal will be familiar with A Little Pretty Pocket-book’s contribution to our slender understanding of early baseball. The iconic children’s book, first published in 1744, has long been recognized as providing an important benchmark for tracking the game’s evolution. Its employment of the term “base-ball” is the earliest known, and its primitive woodcut and accompanying snippet of verse offer our first fragmentary insights into how the game was played.

The Ball once struck off,

Away flies the Boy

To the next destin’d Post,

And then Home with Joy. 

These few simple lines capture baseball’s essence. Their mentions of a boy striking a ball, flying to the “next destin’d post,” and then returning to “home” suggest that by the 1740s the incipient game was already recognizable. Augmented by the woodcut—in which a striker, a pitcher, and three posts or bases are pictured—it is no wonder that Newbery’s baseball page is treasured by those of us with an abiding interest in the pastime’s early history. Yet despite our long familiarity with it (the historian Robert W. Henderson first alerted us to the book’s importance in his 1937 essay, “How Baseball Began”), in many ways it remains an enigma. The goal of this article is to take a closer look at A Little Pretty Pocket-book and, the author hopes, persuade it to give up a few more of its secrets.

* * *

To the kiddies of mid–18th-century England, A Little Pretty Pocket-book must have seemed like a sneak preview of paradise. Never before had any of them encountered a book that illuminated such a cornucopia of pastimes and amusements for their enjoyment. Everything was there: from kite-flying to hopscotch, from leapfrog to “blindman’s buff,” as the book has it. John Newbery’s startling invitation to play games and have fun was an almost total turnabout from the snarling admonitions against frivolous behavior that had snapped at the heels of young folk for centuries. And while A Little Pretty Pocket-book did not forsake all responsibility for tutoring children to be upright and virtuous (after all, it included letters from Jack the Giant-Killer to Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly promising them a whipping if they misbehaved), the book clearly relegated traditional moral instruction to a secondary role.

Little Pretty Pocket-book, 1760.

Little Pretty Pocket-book, 1760.

Among the pastimes offered for the delight of A Little Pretty Pocket-book’s young readers were five constituents of the extended baseball family. In addition to baseball itself, these included the games of cricket, stool-ball, trap-ball, and tip-cat. The latter four were widely played amusements of the era, and it is no surprise that Newbery would elect to feature them in his book. Far less obvious is why he included the relatively new game of baseball, given the likelihood that many of his potential readers in the mid–18th century would not have been familiar with it. His selection of it suggests that he may well have gained an intimate acquaintance with the pastime during his own childhood, raising the tantalizing premise that baseball’s first steps could have been taken on terrain very close to Newbery’s own upbringing.

That would be in Berkshire County, England, where in 1713 Newbery was born on a farm near the small village of Waltham St Lawrence. Having had no formal education, but motivated by curiosity and ambition, he left home at the age of 16 to become apprenticed to a printer in the nearby city of Reading, about fifty miles west of London. When his master died a few years later, Newbery took over the business and married the widow—not an unusual arrangement for the times. By the early 1740s he was publishing a newspaper in Reading and beginning to produce occasional book titles for an adult readership. It was also during those years that he began experimenting with other commercial ventures, including the one that was to become his most profitable lifelong source of wealth, the sale of patent medicines. In 1746 he signed a contract to be the exclusive marketer of Dr. James’ Fever Powder, a concoction that was to become widely popular in Britain. Meanwhile, Newbery came to realize that his expanding enterprises were outgrowing the limited market opportunities available in Reading, and in the late summer of 1743 he began to shift his base of operations to London.

It was also in the 1740s that the constrained and stuffy world of children’s-book publishing was beginning to undergo a major change. The influences of the Age of Reason and, in particular, the progressive educational ideas of the philosopher John Locke began seeping into juvenile literature, and a trickle of new titles appeared with the revolutionary premise that books might entertain as well as educate. Moral instruction itself, though still an essential component of the genre, no longer threatened children with the throes of hellfire as the penalty for their naughtiness.

Tommy Thumb’s Song-Book

Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book

Newbery was always on the lookout for another good business opportunity, and he quickly recognized the potential of this new type of juvenile literature. A Little Pretty Pocket-book was his first entrant in the field, and its great success led him to produce many more children’s titles before his death in 1767. The Pocket-book has been hailed as “the first true children’s book” or, more commonly, “the first book intended primarily for children’s enjoyment.” Evidently it was neither. Preceding it in the early 1740s were Thomas Boreman’s series of “Gigantick Histories,” and Mary Cooper’s two titles, The Child’s New Plaything and Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book. The essayist Mary Thwaite, in her introduction to the 1966 facsimile edition of A Little Pretty Pocket-book, conceded that the Tommy Thumb book “rivalled the Pocket-book in importance in the chronicle of children’s literature.”[1]

But if Newbery wasn’t the very first to see the wisdom in producing books for children’s entertainment, he was certainly the first to go for the fences with the idea. One key to his success was his marketing skill, and particularly his adroitness at “puffing” his works. He carried over to his juvenile publishing venture the same creative persuasion he employed in hawking his assortment of patent medicines. His earliest display of this talent is expressed in the following advertisement that, according to all Newbery sources, first appeared in the June 18, 1744, issue of the Penny London Morning Advertiser:

This Day is publish’d,

According to Act of Parliament

(Neatly bound and gilt.)

A Little pretty POCKET BOOK

intended for the Instruction and Amusement of little Master Tommy and pretty Miss Polly; with an agreeable Letter to each from Jack the Giant-Killer; as also a Ball and Pincushion, the Use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good Boy, and Polly a good Girl. To the whole is prefix’d, A Lecture on Education, humbly address’d to all Parents, Guardians, Governesses, &cc., wherein Rules are laid down for making their Children strong, hardy, healthy, virtuous, wise and happy.

Children, like tender OZIERS, take the Bow,

And as they first are fashioned, always grow.

Just as the Twig is bent the Tree’s inclin’d.

’Tis Education forms the vulgar Mind. 

Printed for J. Newbery, at the Bible and Crown, near Devereux-Court, without Temple-Bar.

Price of the Book alone 6 d. with a Ball or Pincushion 8 d.

There are many things to be observed about this ad, not the least being its deftness at appealing to both of its target audiences: the parents who might consider purchasing A Little Pretty Pocket-book for their children, and the little kiddies themselves. Notable among Newbery’s inducements to the latter is his optional offer to bundle a ball or pincushion with the book. This revolutionary notion of attaching a toy anticipates by 250 years the Klutz Book series of today.

May 19, 1744 ad in Daily Gazetteer

May 19, 1744 ad in Daily Gazetteer

Scholars who have written about Newbery’s works have assumed that the ball and pincushion were two separate items, the former intended for boys and the latter for girls. A careful reading of the book, however, reveals the objects were one and the same: a soft, red-and-black-colored ball that allowed for the insertion of pins. The “letters” from Jack the Giant-Killer published in A Little Pretty Pocket-book, and addressed to Tommy and Polly respectively, prescribed a common purpose for the ball/pincushion whether its recipient was a boy or a girl. The child was directed to hang the toy up by a string that came attached to it. Then, using 10 pins that were also supplied, the child was instructed to stick a pin in the red half of the ball/pincushion whenever he/she did something good, and a pin in the black half for every bad act. If the child managed to accumulate all 10 pins in the red side, Jack the Giant-Killer pledged (ostensibly) to send the child a penny. Conversely, 10 pins in the black side would result in Jack sending a rod with which the child was to be “whipt.” The publishers of the modern Klutz Books evidently had the good sense not to adopt this darker aspect of Newbery’s innovation.

No one knows how many individual ball/pincushion premiums were sold in tandem with copies of A Little Pretty Pocket-book over the course of the book’s long publishing history in the 18th century. One thing that is certain, though, is that few or none of the toys have survived. The only institution to claim ownership of an original specimen is the Morgan Library in New York. Its example of the ball/pincushion, however, is white on one side with an embroidered design on the other, not at all like the red and black object described in all known editions of the Pocket-book. Moreover, the library’s records cannot document the provenance of its copy, having no information earlier than 1991 when the toy was received as a gift.

To book and baseball historians alike, the most significant contribution of Newbery’s June 1744 advertisement for A Little Pretty Pocket-book may well be its opening phrase: “This day is publish’d….” Here, it would seem, is proof of the exact moment in history when this landmark children’s book first rolled o› the presses. Such evidence is vital in establishing the book’s origins, for no actual copies of A Little Pretty Pocket-book from 1744 have survived. In fact, no actual copies of any of the book’s first nine editions are known to exist, which makes, by default, the British Library’s single incomplete copy of the 1760 10th edition the earliest surviving example. And of all the thousands of copies of the book printed in England in the 18th century, fewer than 10 remain.[2] Why this near extinction? In all likelihood, it is the unfortunate byproduct of two parallel phenomena. On the one hand, the little darlings who were lucky enough to get their hands on the book probably loved their copies to death. And if an original owner didn’t leave the book in tatters, his or her next youngest sibling or cousin would have finished the job. Parents, all the while, would have had little interest in the book, at best valuing it as a diversion for their kids, but not as something they would bother preserving for posterity (not unlike those ill-fated shoeboxes of baseball cards of more recent memory).

Little Pretty Pocket-book, 1760.

Little Pretty Pocket-book, 1760.

But while the books themselves are gone, we still have Newbery’s helpful advertisement from 1744 to mark the starting point of baseball’s recorded history. Right? Well, not so fast. It seems that even this seemingly safe assumption turns out not to be airtight. Writing in 1973, Newbery’s foremost bibliographer, Sydney Roscoe, offered a cautionary word about relying upon newspaper ads to fix a book’s publication date:

… the unsupported evidence of a newspaper advertisement cannot, as a rule, be relied on for dating purposes…. It may well be that A Little Pretty Pocket-book did bear the date 1744 and did appear in (or near to) June of that year; but the evidence of the advertisements is not sufficient to prove it; it might have been published a year or two before, or even in 1745 or later.[3] 

Reading these lines prompted me to see if there was anything further to be discovered about Pocket-book’s publication date. On a recent trip to England I consulted with the longtime archivist of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, a 600-year-old organization that has been registering the publication of individual books for most of its existence. Disappointingly, no entry for A Little Pretty Pocket-book appears in the company’s records, most likely because children’s books in the 1740s were deemed too unimportant for such formality. Thwarted here, my next step was to examine newspapers from the era, especially issues of The Reading Mercury; or Weekly Post, the paper that Newbery owned and operated during those years. I found several ads for Pocket-book in the Mercury, with the earliest appearing on May 28, 1774. This ad, like the one that would appear three weeks later in the Penny London Morning Advertiser, began with the phrase “this Day is publish’d,” confirming that the use of those four words was not a literal announcement of the book’s publishing date.

Moving my search to the many London daily newspapers of the era, I came across a quantity of additional advertisements for A Little Pretty Pocket-book, most with the same “this day is publish’d” lead-in. These were scattered over a period of months and years, with the earliest ones clustered in mid–May 1744. The first three of these appeared on May 18 of that year, and four more showed up the following day. I found none earlier than May 18, despite spending a couple of days with microfilm archives and electronic newspaper databases. Clearly, this concentration of advertisements in mid–May 1744 does not in itself reliably pinpoint when A Little Pretty Pocket-book first rolled off the presses, nor even when it first was sold. It does imply strongly, however, that those two days in May marked the beginning of Newbery’s marketing push for the book, and suggests that his production of it very possibly occurred in the immediate weeks beforehand.

My combing of the newspapers also produced several interesting testimonials to the wonderments of A Little Pretty Pocket-book. One of them was dated June 14, 1744, and addressed “to the unknown author of the Little Pretty Pocket-book.” It rambled on and on with flowery praises such as: “here the paths of virtue are painted so as to please and engage, the child is captivated and led into a habit of doing well and made imperceptibly, as it were, both wise and virtuous.” Two more such letters were published on July 16 in Newbery’s own paper, the Mercury. One accurately describes how the book presents “brief descriptions in verse … of the several plays or games with which children usually divert themselves, each game being represented by a small copper plate print, with a suitable moral or rule of life subjoined.” This same writer observed that although “the author has modestly concealed himself … his performance … will undoubtedly meet with the approbation of all who would rather make learning a pleasure to those under their care, than weary themselves and their children with fruitless severities and correction.” While those who wrote testimonials were on the mark with their recognition of Newbery’s educational innovations, none of them, unfortunately, was prescient enough to praise the Pocket-book for its foresighted presentation of baseball.

Cricket, Little Pretty 1760

Cricket, Little Pretty 1760

At least one modern scholar has raised the cynical hypothesis that Newbery himself may have written the newspaper testimonials praising his book, doing so as part of his campaign to puff it to the public. But a more fundamental question is whether Newbery actually wrote A Little Pretty Pocket-book itself. As noted by the two testimonial writers quoted above, the book was issued anonymously. While no hard evidence of the author’s identity has ever been produced, a clear consensus among those who have written about Newbery maintain that he is, by far, the most likely candidate. The style of the book parallels the whimsical approach he displayed in most of the works he is known to have written, especially in the many humorous title pages that introduce all of his many children’s books.

If the advertisements identified above give us more confidence that A Little Pretty Pocket-book was indeed first published in 1744, then the matter of when baseball first appeared in print should now be resolved. Yes, perhaps. But it seems that one small element of doubt still remains. While we know for certain that the 1760 10th edition of Pocket-book included the famous “base-ball” page, as did all subsequent surviving editions of the book, how can we know that it appeared in each of those earlier nine editions that are now extinct? We can’t rule out the small possibility that Newbery tinkered with the book between 1744 and 1760, and that the baseball content was not part of its original makeup. The caveat here is that when we celebrate the iconic year of 1744 for giving us the earliest reference to baseball, we must do so with a small asterisk.

A couple of other little baseball mysteries attach to A Little Pretty Pocket-book, one being that of the missing bat, and the other of the missing ball. The book’s illustration of baseball depicts three boys standing next to three posts or bases. One of the players is seen raising his hands out to his sides, while a second player appears ready to toss a ball. None of them, quite plainly, is holding a bat. What does this mean? Did the artist simply overlook the necessity of drawing a bat, or was a bat not actually part of the game in 1744? To pursue these questions, I examined every known early reference to the game of baseball from both England and the United States. What I found was somewhat surprising. Of the nine instances in the 18th century where the term “baseball” appeared in either a handwritten manuscript or in a printed book, only once was there mention of a bat being part of the game. That came in a description of “English base-ball” from a German book published in 1796, in which an odd-shaped, two-foot-long bat was depicted.[4]

Base-Ball, 1760 (and 1744 too?)

Base-Ball, 1787 (and 1744 too?)

Turning next to early 19th-century baseball references from both countries, I continued to find little evidence of bat usage. In fact, after 1796 it was not until 1834, when the American author Robin Carver mentioned the use of a bat in describing “base, or goal ball” in The Book of Sports, that the terms “baseball” and “bat” were again definitively linked with each other.[5] This is not to suggest that American baseball was batless prior to 1834. Obviously, that was not the case. Ballplayers from that era, reminiscing about their experiences many years afterwards, recalled using a bat during those early decades. Moreover, young players standing with bat in hand feature prominently in woodcut illustrations of baseball-like games found in children’s books of the early 1800s.

But the question of when a bat was first introduced to the pastime remains a mystery. It is certainly possible, if not probable, that, at its outset, the game of baseball did not employ a bat, and that a bare hand was used to strike the pitched ball. The innovation of utilizing a bat may not have come about until the latter part of the 18th century. Notwithstanding the evidence of the 1796 German book, the variety of baseball that evolved in England may never have fully embraced the bat, since none of the 19th-century references to the game there mention anything about using such an implement. On the other hand, despite the absence of concrete evidence, it is quite likely that use of a bat became an integral part of the game in the United States well before the end of the 18th century. This divergence in how the pastime developed may be explained by its different social underpinnings in the two countries; in England, baseball became a pastime primarily for girls and young women, while in America it became the near-exclusive province of boys and men. The faster, larger-scaled, and, perhaps, rougher version of the sport that accompanied the adoption of the bat may well have edged beyond what was considered acceptable behavior for young English ladies of that era.

Pitcher in 1760 and 1787

Pitcher in 1760 and 1787

Then there is the matter of the missing ball, which is a puzzling result of A Little Pretty Pocket-book’s adventures in North America. With the great popularity of Newbery’s books in Britain, it was only a matter of time before they would begin to show up in the American colonies. As early as 1750, advertisements for his juvenile works were appearing in newspapers on the eastern seaboard.[6] Surprisingly, these first ads did not include A Little Pretty Pocket-book, despite it being among Newbery’s most successful titles. The first known reference to Pocket-book in the future United States did not materialize until 1762, when it appeared in an advertisement by New York bookseller Hugh Gaine.[7] But rather than importing and reselling copies produced by Newbery in England, Gaine apparently decided to cut costs by producing his own pirated edition of the children’s classic. No copies of Gaine’s edition have survived, leaving us unable to determine whether it exactly replicated Newbery’s content. From his advertisement, however, we know that Gaine abbreviated the book’s title to A Little Pretty Book, but otherwise retained all the verbosity about Master Tommy, Miss Polly, and Jack the Giant-Killer in the subtitle. The printer William Spotswood of Philadelphia appears to have introduced another such unauthorized edition of A Little Pretty Pocket-book in 1786, although, like Gaine’s, no copies are known to have survived.

Hugh Gaine's Little Pretty, New-York Mercury, Aug 30, 1762

Hugh Gaine’s Little Pretty Book, New-York Mercury, August 30, 1762

Producing pirated copies of English books seems to have been a common practice of publishers in the American colonies and the young United States. Isaiah Thomas’s familiar edition of A Little Pretty Pocket-book also falls into this category. Thomas was a prolific book publisher in Worcester, Massachusetts, and in 1787 produced a version of Newbery’s juvenile gem that remains by far the most “common” of all 18th-century editions of this work, with as many as fifty copies still in existence. Thomas, who later founded the American Antiquarian Society, retained the original ninety or so pages of Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-book, but added to it another 35 pages consisting of “rules for behaviour.” Likely these were a concession to the strict Puritan ethic that carried considerable weight in 18th-century New England, though it is somewhat doubtful that Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly would have welcomed their inclusion.

Thomas made several slight changes to A Little Pretty Pocket-book’s baseball page, one of which is significant. In Newbery’s original editions, one of the players in the woodcut illustration is shown getting ready to pitch a ball. In Thomas’s Worcester edition that same player’s hand is empty. The ball had disappeared! This is peculiar because, in most other ways, the woodcuts in the two versions of the book are nearly identical. Thomas took care in copying many details of the Newbery image, such as the clothes of the boys and the features of the houses in the background. But he removed the ball. What does it mean? Was it a subliminal attempt to emasculate Newbery? Was it a protest against Newbery’s omission of a bat? Was Thomas too distracted by the sexual-harassment charges pending against him to notice? We may never know the explanation for this oddity, but, then again, does anyone other than I really care?

John Kidgell's The Card, 1755

John Kidgell’s The Card, 1755

From what we know, the pirated versions of Thomas, Gaine, and Spotswood comprised most of the copies of A Little Pretty Pocket-book that were sold in 18th-century America. Few booksellers seem to have imported Newbery’s originals for resale, and there is no evidence of any of them having done so earlier than 1772. Still, it is logical to assume that individual copies of the earlier editions printed in England crossed the ocean in the company of families emigrating to the colonies. Would these have marked the earliest landings on American shores of the term baseball? Not necessarily. In the Fall 2007 issue of this journal, I described a second book published by John Newbery, The Card, in which the term baseball also is referenced. Newbery’s publishing company issued The Card in 1755, and its survival rate greatly exceeds that of A Little Pretty Pocketbook, undoubtedly because as a book for adults it was not subject to the ravages of children. Thirty copies of the first edition of The Card still exist in American libraries, some of which reside in the collections of institutions that predate the American Revolution. It is quite possible that The Card preceded A Little Pretty Pocket-book as the earliest bearer of the word baseball to these shores. Then again, this honor may not have gone to any book at all. The author John Rowe Townsend, in describing the early importation of children’s stories and books to America, commented that “old tales and rhymes, needing no cargo space but people’s heads, crossed the ocean like stowaways with the early settlers in American colonies.”[8] These words could well be applied to the innocent games and pastimes enjoyed by those same travelers.

Earlier I mentioned that it was likely during his youthful days in Waltham St Lawrence and Reading that John Newbery acquired his knowledge of baseball. As an exercise, I thought it might be interesting to link those Berkshire locales with other early geographic indicators of the game to plot the periphery of the English landscape in which the pastime, hypothetically, may have first been played. This territory comprises a crescent that curves a few miles beyond the western and southwestern reaches of the London metropolitan area, and encompasses parts of the counties of Berkshire and Surrey, along with tiny slivers of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire counties as well.

Northanger Abbey 1818

Northanger Abbey 1818

The northern tip of this crescent begins near Cookham, on the River Thames, where stood Cliveden, the 18th-century country estate of Frederick, Prince of Wales. In a 1748 letter, Lady Hervey famously described Frederick’s family engaged at baseball; although she witnessed this activity at Frederick’s London residence, it was at Cliveden where the family members spent the bulk of their time and where they possibly became familiar with the game.[9] Nine miles southwest of Cookham is the tiny village of Harpsden near the town of Henley-on-Thames, located at the southeastern tip of Oxfordshire. This was the site of the childhood home of Jane Austen’s mother, Cassandra Leigh, through whom Jane likely learned about baseball (she employed the word in her novel Northanger Abbey).[10] It was here that Cassandra Leigh’s younger Oxford cousin, also named Cassandra Leigh, would visit her often. Years later that same cousin, by then writing under her married name of Cassandra Cooke, produced the novel Battleridge in which she too mentioned baseball.[11]

Ten miles south from Henley-on-Thames lies the city of Reading, where, as we have noted, John Newbery worked as a young man, and where too Jane Austen went to school for one and a half years. It was also where the author Mary Russell Mitford lived most of her years. Mitford, whose mother was a childhood friend of Austen, found multiple opportunities to use the term “baseball” in her early 19th-century writings.

Completing our tour of early baseball country, we venture 25 miles southeast of Reading to the county of Surrey, and to the village of Shere. This was the home of William Bray, the lifelong diarist whose reference to baseball in 1755 was the subject of my article in the previous issue of this journal. Joining him in having Surrey connections was John Kidgell, the author of the aforementioned, baseball-bearing 1755 book The Card.

The tight geographic concentration of these early baseball references is intriguing. While far from o›ffering decisive proof that the pastime originated within the boundaries of this fertile crescent, it does suggest a target area for further exploration. I only hope the eager burghers of the region don’t set off prematurely to challenge their counterparts in Cooperstown and Pittsfield.

By all accounts, John Newbery was a super guy. He was loving to his children and generous to his friends, who included such literary luminaries as Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. It is also obvious that he looked fondly upon the little masters and misses who were the target audience for his children’s books—an attitude that seems to have been genuine and not simply a device for ensnaring customers. He maintained a running dialogue with his youthful readers through his writings, conveying to them that he was always looking out for their well-being, and revealing a personality that was fatherly and warmly humorous. In Britain, Newbery’s legacy is not widely celebrated, certainly not as much as those of many other literary figures. On my recent visit I asked many Brits what they knew of Newbery, and none but a few librarians were familiar with his name. No archives or libraries there have compiled a special collection of his works, nor have scholars taken a particular interest in him. The lone full biography on Newbery’s life was written in 1885, and only a few short books and a bibliography have been dedicated to him in the years since.

Newbery Medal

Newbery Medal

By contrast, his name is better known in the United States, principally because it is attached to the Newbery Medal, the award recognizing the most distinguished children’s book of the year. (Ironically, Newbery knew nothing of the United States, having died eight years before its founding.) But whether his contributions to literature are underappreciated in Britain or overblown in the States are matters of little importance to baseball historians. To us he was that farsighted young man who plucked the nascent pastime of baseball from his childhood memories and slid it into his pioneering opus of games and amusements. Without him we would not be able to gaze back in time at those first tentative steps of that toddler that was to become our National Pastime.


Author’s note: The details of John Newbery’s biography provided in this article are generally known, and have been drawn from a variety of sources, including the Thwaite, Roscoe, and Townsend books cited below.

  1. Thwaite, M., ed. 1966. A Little Pretty Pocket-book. London (pp. 14–16).
  2. Documents filed in a 1752 legal dispute give an indication of the size of Newbery’s press runs for A Little Pretty Pocket-book. An itemization of his stock on hand stated that he currently held one thousand copies of the book in his warehouse. Welsh, C. 1885. A Bookseller of the Last Century. New York (pp. 33, 293).
  3. Roscoe, S. 1973. John Newbery and His Successors 1740–1814, a Bibliography. Wormley, Hertfordshire (p. 392).
  4. Gutsmuths, J. ¡796. Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden. Schnepfenthal (p. 78).
  5. Carver, R. 1834. The Book of Sports. Boston (pp. 37–38).
  6. See, e.g., Pennsylvania Gazette: Dec. 11, 1750.
  7. New York Mercury: Aug. 30, 1762.
  8. Townsend, J. 1994. John Newbery and His Books. Metuchen, N.J./London (p. 150).
  9. Lepel, M. 1821. Letters of Mary Lepel, Lady Hervey. London (pp. 139–140).
  10. Austen, J. 1818. Northanger Abbey: and Persuasion. London.
  11. Cooke, C. 1799. Battleridge. London.

Introducing “1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas”

1922-23 Kolbs Mothers' Bread Pinback

1922-23 Kolb’s Mothers’ Bread Pinback

This is an essay I wrote for ESPN’s new project, “1927:The Diary of Myles Thomas,” which launches today. While it appears on the project’s site (espn.com/1927DMT), by posting it here as well I am hoping to reach those who read me regularly. 

I’d like to tell you about a new project coming from ESPN to which I have been invited to pull up a chair. Debuting today, it has utterly gripped me.

After a long career, it’s no fun to step again in old footprints, so I’m always on the lookout for something new. I am certain there has never been anything quite like this — the story of a team and a season expressed through what is essentially a historical novel formed by a diary, letters, and tweets; an exploration of not only a ball team but a peak year of the Jazz Age — all of it released cross-platform in real time over the course of this summer, with an outcome that is unknown not only to its protagonists but also its creators.

It is a tale told by a bit player on the ’27 Yankees — pitcher Myles Thomas. In true life, Thomas was an insignificant member of the team, and for the purposes of this work the creators are using only his baseball statistics. They are creating his diary and letters, through which Thomas will introduce us not only to his teammates but also to luminaries of the day who cavorted with the ballplayers, from Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke to Barbara Stanwyck and Al Jolson. Lesser lights may play major roles: Myles’s Penn State teammate Hinkey Haines, still the only man to play for a championship team in the NFL and in MLB; Fred Merkle of “bonehead” fame, a coach with the ’27 Yanks; Gertrude Ederle, who swam the English Channel that year; Paul Robeson, who was once Lou Gehrig’s baseball coach; Ty Cobb, John McGraw and Rube Foster. Truly, the cast would do justice to a Sol Hurok gladiator epic.

But first and last, in 1927 and perhaps in all of American legend, is Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, the Beatified Bambino, the Paul Bunyan of Baseball. Had he not lived, we would have had to make him up. The embodiment of the Jazz Age, “he was a parade all by himself,” wrote Jimmy Cannon, “a burst of dazzle and jingle. Santa Claus drinking his whiskey straight and groaning with a bellyache caused by gluttony…. Babe Ruth made the music that his joyous years danced to in a continuous party….” In the summer of ’27 Charles Lindbergh would briefly eclipse Babe Ruth as the one-man parade and darling of the newsreels, but by season’s end Ruth had retaken his pedestal.

He saw it all.

He saw it all.

“1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas” never strays far from the Babe. It is a tale of jazz and speakeasies, bucket-shop brokers and movie stars, Lucky Lindy and the Great White Way. It’s about elevator boys offering stock tips, gamblers and mobsters mingling with athletes and entertainers, and socialites at Harlem nightclubs in search of thrills.

The Jazz Age was a normless bundle of contradiction — the sale of alcohol was prohibited by the Volstead Act, yet in the cities, it was readily available and saw greater demand than before it was banned. As the federal income tax had begun to make America a nation of accountants, the Prohibition era made it a nation of lawbreakers. With America’s immigration spigot shut tight by the 1920s, the melting pot had begun to boil, as the nation’s popular culture — film, music, and radio programming — bubbled up from former denizens of the bottom.

The Great War had made young people newly conscious of their mortality and impelled them to seize the moment, to live life improvisationally, to kick over their parents’ plans for them. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age and Colleen Moore’s film Flaming Youth provided the map to fly-boys and flappers, giving them new paths to personal freedom, led by the music of a legion of jazz pied-pipers.

“This was different, shifted the lay of the land… guys, playing and singing, writing their own material… opened up a whole world of possibilities.”

Bruce Springsteen said that about The Beatles’ impact on his life and career, but it could have been said about Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven. Where in the 1960s, it had been hip to be cool, back in the ’20s everyone was looking for hot. It was no accident that the first big talking motion picture was named “The Jazz Singer.”

Lou Gehrig closeup by Conlon

Lou Gehrig closeup by Conlon

Myles Thomas’s diary will not be telling merely the story you think you know — about Babe Ruth and his 60 home runs, Lou Gehrig and his 173 RBIs, Murderers’ Row and their famous five o’clock lightning — instead, it will provide a peephole into the past, a view of what it was really like to be young and a Yankee in the greatest city in the world, at maybe the greatest time to be alive. In “1927: The Diary of Myles Thomas,” there will be booze, sex, drugs, and, while no rock ’n’ roll, plenty of jazz.

In the sports year 1927, the New York Giants would win the NFL title. The New York Rangers would begin their rush to capture their first Stanley Cup in their second season of existence. The New York Celtics would be champions of the American Basketball League. In New York, this was certainly the Golden Year of Sports. And it might have been fairly called that even if the Yankees had been the city’s only champion; that’s how extraordinary a team they were.

The greatest baseball team of all time? There was only one answer: the 1927 Yankees, the team that scored nearly two and a half runs per game more than their opposition — a figure surpassed only by the Yankees of 1939, and never again — and the team that coasted to the pennant, 19 games ahead of runner-up Philadelphia; who swept the Pirates in the World Series. Maybe the 1998 Yankees could have given them a run for their honors, or maybe sabermetric analysis may send you back for another look at the 1902 Pirates, but among 99 percent of baseball fans today, the legendary status of the 1927 Yankees is secure: They won 110 games and lost only 44. Their batters finished first in home runs, batting average, and RBIs — a team triple crown — yet had the fewest strikeouts in the league. Their pitchers were first in ERA and shutouts while allowing the fewest hits and walks.

1927 Yankees

1927 Yankees

What is my role in this exciting project? My goal is to play spiritedly in the principal writers’ sandbox, to scribble alongside them every now and then and, as Major League Baseball’s official historian, to assure readers that our crew’s flights of fancy will not veer far from known fact, and will never contradict it.

The goal of the project, says its creator, Douglas Alden, is “to create a work of real-time historical fiction that explores the nexus of baseball, jazz and prohibition, a deeply personal exploration by one fictional ballplayer from the 1920s of race, sex, and the meaning of heroes and greatness.” My role as historian, in short, is providing a bevy of story nuggets to the principal writers, as well as a personal “Seal of Plausibility” for all of the incidents and adventures.

And part of what makes this project so much fun is that we’re constantly discovering new facts about the 1927 real-life cast of characters that astonish us, and we’re sure will astonish you — to the point where the project will include online citations and links to our discoveries, as some of them are so hard to believe.

When imagination is thrown into the mix, well, that’s where the fun lies.

Poster Girl

Model with Lily, 1897

Model with Lily, 1897

Last week I received an unusual email from a baseball fan who will go unnamed here. It provides me with an excuse to share with you one of my (regrettably) all-too-many non-sports interests: nineteenth-century graphic art, from antebellum engravings and lithographs to Art Nouveau posters. From the email: ” My wife and I are avid fans of vintage posters, and Ethel Reed is one of our favorite artists. Some years ago, when Reed’s personal history was still more unknown than it is now, I was looking online for whatever I could find — and was stunned when I found material by a ‘John Thorn.’ I didn’t imagine it could possibly be ‘the same you’ who writes the baseball books, but I readily saw that indeed they’re both you.”

Yep. My long-dead loves include not only Ethel Reed but also Annette Kellermann, Evelyn Nesbit, and Mary Astor. But back to Miss Reed, about whom I wrote the following for the Woodstock Times ten years ago this month:

Some years ago when I wrote regularly for this paper on art, I devoted two successive columns to Edmonia Lewis, a sculptress, as they called her back in the day, of mixed Negro and American Indian breed … again as they used to say. She was a fantastic character with a propensity for self-invention, so not all the strange stories about her could be corroborated as fact, but what did it matter, if her art were fine? Born near Albany, New York on the Fourth of July 1844, according to her passport application, she lived on a reservation as a child, was educated at Oberlin, and came to fame in Boston during the Civil War. Her sculpture was at first of indifferent quality, the critics wrote, but there was to be said for it the splendid novelty of brown hands on white marble. (For those interested to learn more about her, see the two-parter “Inventing Edmonia Lewis” at: http://goo.gl/2wCsRc and http://goo.gl/U5ngWQ.)

Her supporters sent her to Rome in 1865 to advance her art, which she did: her crowning achievement, Cleopatra,was exhibited to acclaim at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. By the turn of the century the vogue for neoclassical sculpture had waned, and Lewis ended her days in Europe. No one knows precisely where or when. I came across a census listing for her from 1901, locating her at 154 Store Street in London, near Bloomsbury, where she worked at home as an “artist/modeller.” Scholar Marilyn Richardson placed her back in Rome by decade’s end, but there the trail appeared to vanish [until recently, when Ms. Richardson’s research confirmed Edmonia Lewis’s burial at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, in London, in 1907]. All along for Edmonia Lewis, the life and the art had competed for public attention; at the end both receded from view.

Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis

The same could be said, almost eerily, of another Boston girl who made good, poster artist Ethel Reed, in whom I have taken a frankly obsessive interest lately since winning one of her posters in an internet auction. Like Lewis, she was a natural, a phenomenon — essentially self-taught, with only a smattering of formal instruction. Her meteoric burst of fame in the mid-1890s was followed by a failed romance, flight to Europe in mid-1896, disappearance from the published record after 1898, when she was only 24, and an end to her visible career.

Prowling on Project Wombat, an online discussion list for difficult reference questions, I came across scholar Donna Halper’s discovery of a 1901 census listing in London for an Ethel Reed residing at 106 Grosvenor Road in Pimlico with four-month-old son Anthony and servant Mary Gay, but no husband. Her occupation was recorded as “Artist (Painter)” with “Sculpt.” overwritten.

Could these two Boston émigrée artists have known about each other’s presence? Could they have chatted over tea, or absinthe? We will never know, but Google Maps made clear that, at least in mid-1901, Lewis and Reed lived only 3.1 miles apart. This is the stuff of which novels are made, I am thinking.

Ethel Reed was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on March 13, 1874 to photographer Edgar Eugene Reed and wife Elizabeth Mary. They moved to Amherst sometime before 1880. Ethel’s precocious artistic talents were recognized at age 12 when she entered a crayon work at the Essex County Agricultural Society Fair and was awarded a 50-cent “gratuity.” In this year she had begun some schooling with Laura Coombs Hills (1859-1952), whose attraction to Ethel dated back to a sketch of her executed six years before. Coombs went on to paint a miniature on ivory of Ethel as one of “Seven Pretty Girls of Newburyport,” shown at the Boston Water Color Club in December 1893.

Ethel Reed in 1880, Laura Coombs

Ethel Reed, 1880, Laura Coombs Hills

At this time Reed, age 19, was engaged in an unsuccessful pursuit of employ in New York City. But she soon returned to Boston, to which her family had repaired in 1890, and took on a studio of her own at 367 Boylston. She had been taking classes at the Cowles School of Art and exhibiting landscapes at the Boston Arts Students’ Association. Like many artistic souls of her generation, she was consumed with the romanticism of Keats, the exoticism of Omar Khayyam, and the formalism of Japanese art, as introduced to Boston by Harvard Professor Ernest Fenollosa.

It was during this period that her flamboyant personality was evidenced in costume balls, dance parties, pageants, and nonconformist life styles. Three months earlier, the Boston Journal (March 25, 1893) reported: “As the time for the artists’ festival approaches, society gets more and more excited over it. Young people who are born with the love of dressing up do not by any means have it all to themselves. Mr. Goodhue, the architect, is to head the King René group, as the regal ruler himself, with Miss Alexander of Cambridge as King René’s daughter; Ethel Reed, who danced so well at the pageant, as the Queen, and Mr. Herbert Copeland, Mr. Fred Day, and Mr. Abbott will be in the long train of courtiers…. Ralph Adams Cram is to be Pope Nicholas V., and will be surrounded by eighteen Cardinals.”

Several of the above-named revelers would be at the core of Bohemian Boston in the years to come. Reed would be involved in a ménage à trois with the architects Goodhue and Cram; would pose nude for the photographer Fred (Holland) Day; and would execute book designs and posters for Messrs. Copeland and Day, as well as publishers Lamson, Wolffe & Co., the Boston Herald, and others. She would become engaged to one of the Hub’s most eligible bachelors, artist Philip Hale—son of Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man without a Country—and then disengaged, fleeing to Europe in heartbreak and shame.

Girl in sheer drapery on leopard skin, in nature, reclining (Ethel Reed); photo by F. Holland Day

Girl in sheer drapery on leopard skin, in nature, reclining (Ethel Reed); photo by F. Holland Day

She had ridden the new wave: a fad of Orientalism, experiments in free love and hashish, and, crucially for the history of art in America, a craze for posters. The boom had begun in France two decades earlier, when Jules Chéret and others pioneered a new form of advertising, favoring images over text, and color over monochrome. The lines between art and commerce were blatantly blurred, and the streets of Paris became an art gallery for the common man: in the words of A. Hyatt Mayor, they were “pictures meant to be seen by people who did not mean to see them.” By the 1890s the posters became more prized than the products they advertised, and connoisseurs lined up to buy the lithographs not earmarked for the walls and kiosks of the city.

In America the first posters went primarily to advertise magazines and books. Edward Penfield heralded the new simplified, straightforward style in his posters for Harper’s in 1893. In May 1894 Will H. Bradley contributed a more sinuous style — influenced, no doubt, by England’s master of decadence, Aubrey Beardsley — to the cover of the Chap-Book.

Butterfly Thoughts

Butterfly Thoughts

Reed, meanwhile, was sending sentimental hackwork to magazines without much success. A syrupy vignette titled “Butterfly Thoughts” became her first published work when St. Nicholas magazine ran it in the June 1894 issue. In the winter of 1894-95 an unnamed friend came to Reed’s studio, saw a portrait she had painted, and suggested that she copy it to become a poster promoting the Boston Sunday Herald, with which he was associated. “You can see,” she told an interviewer in 1895 as she pointed to her painting, “that the reproduction flattened and quite spoiled the effect of the original.”

She missed the point, seemingly. It was precisely the flatness, the simplicity, the atonality, the graphic quality that made “Ladies Want It,” issued on February 24, 1895, a milestone. In that portrait and nearly all those of women that followed, a critic noted “a certain uniformity of type began to assert itself as I glanced from one to another, and it dawned upon me at last that the original of these studies was the artist herself. Later, when she confirmed my observation, I had the pleasure of congratulating her on her choice of a model.”

Ladies Want It

Ladies Want It

Ethel Reed was a striking woman, not exactly beautiful by the standards of today, and with a wide-eyed gaze that hints at madness. But in her day she was universally regarded as a dish. A writer in the Chap-Book offered: “Lamson and Wolffe’s first book was published on Washington’s birthday, ‘so timed to call attention to what we intended to make the keynote of the firm, healthy Americanism, as opposed to the general tendencies of the younger publishers toward imported realism.’ It naturally followed that the new firm should ‘discover’ Miss Ethel Reed: no healthy American would lose any time in discovering Miss Reed, if she were anywhere in sight.”

The Boston Daily Advertiser described her well in 1896:

Large, dark eyes, looking out under a wide, white brow; a rather broad, firm face, the skin clear, with what the French call a “fine pallor,” set in a mass of dull black hair above a strong neck; expressive features, the mouth begins sad; a supple figure, though sturdy withal, and of just medium height, neither tall nor short—that is Ethel Reed, the Boston girl of 21 [actually 22], whom critics have hailed as the greatest woman designer of that latest creation of modern art, the poster.

“I am governed by moods in my work,” she says, “and I cannot work when the mood is not on. It does not come at my bidding, and sometimes for a fortnight I can accomplish nothing. Then in a few hours I can dash off all that I wished to do in that fortnight.”

Fleeing Boston in the wake of being jilted by Philip Hale, she landed a position in London as the replacement for Aubrey Beardsley, who had been dismissed as editor of The Yellow Book. She commenced an affair in late 1897 with the writer Richard Le Gallienne while he was engaged to Julie Noiregard, the woman who would become his second wife.

And then she was done. A drawing of a girl with a cat appeared in the Studio Magazine of March 1898, a sad pierrot in The Sketch. Le Gallienne wrote a poem for her in 1910.

The Quest of the Golden Girl

The Quest of the Golden Girl


I said I had forgotten her,

That I had put away

Our memories of Paradise

Until the Judgment Day;

That never more the laughing earth

Should see us hand in hand,

That I long since had shut the door

Of the old fairyland.

Then on a sudden came strange news

Upon the gossip wind

My love of those sweet years ago

Great God — my love was blind!

I said — the news must be a lie,

Cruel as are the years,

They could not be so merciless

To such great eyes as hers.

Little child of long ago,

God grant the news untrue!

Except for one strong selfish thought —

That I may come to you

And sit beside you in the dark,

And, as in Paradise

I gave you all my breaking heart,

Now bring to you — my eyes.

Yellow Book, January 1897

Yellow Book, January 1897

The special poignancy of Reed’s story deserved a better poem and less egotistical a poet. A. E. Housman will do:

And round that early-laurelled head

Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,

And find unwithered on its curls

The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Just a year after her work with The Yellow Book and a few other final projects, Reed disappeared entirely. Until recently, with United Kingdom’s unlocking in 2011 of its divorce records from the period 1902-1912, the story of the remaining years of her life, and even the date of her death were shrouded in mystery. William S. Peterson, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, published a fine biography of Reed in 2013, The Beautiful Poster Lady: A Life of Ethel Reed,  which revealed that the artist died in 1912 at the age of 38. In an interview, Peterson added that in her last decade Ethel Reed “had a succession of lovers, bore two children by them, and in 1903 married an English army officer, but the marriage fell apart immediately — on the honeymoon, no less. In her final years she sank into poverty and obscurity and died of an overdose of sleeping tablets in 1912. There is no simple answer as to why she was unable to relaunch her artistic career in London, but it is worth noting that she became an alcoholic, was addicted to several drugs (including opium), had an extraordinarily turbulent love life, and frequently complained of depression and poor health.”






The Baseball Convention of 1857, a Summary Report

Porter's Spirit, March 7, 1857

Porter’s Spirit, March 7, 1857

From Porter’s Spirit of the Times, March 7, 1857, page 5.




The final meeting of the delegates from Base Ball Clubs to the above Convention, met at Smith’s Hotel, 462 Broome street, on February 25, and adopted the report of the committee of one from each club, which was appointed some time since, to draw up a code of rules for the government of the game of Base Ball. The following clubs were represented: The Knickerbocker, Gotham, Empire, Putnam, Baltic, Excelsior, Harlem, Atlantic, Eagle, Union, Eckford, Continental, Nassau, Harmony, and Olympic. Mr. Adams, of the Knickerbocker, was president; Mr. Andrews, of the Excelsior, was secretary; and Mr. Brown, of the Harlem, treasurer.

The Knickerbocker Club, having played the game for many years at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, were desirous of changing the rules of the game, from the easy mode in which they have hitherto played it; and, with that view, called a convention of all the clubs, to discuss the revision of the rules. The Knickerbocker was the only club in the convention which existed previous to 1853; and the majority of the clubs were only organized during the last two years—some only last year. Although many old Base Ball players wore connected with the new clubs, it was generally conceded, and expected, that the Knickerbockers would, from their well-known experience, as to the requirements of the game, take the lead in proposing the necessary reforms. They, accordingly, submitted a new code of laws, in which they clearly defined every point in the game; and, with a view of making the game more manly and scientific, they proposed, that no player should be out on a fair struck ball, if it was only taken by the fielder according to the old rule, after it had touched the ground once, and was then caught on the bound; but that the ball must be caught in the air before it had touched the ground, or the player was not out. This rule, Sec. 16, was discussed in the committee, some objecting to it as being too much like Cricket, some that it would hurt the hands more than by taking the ball on the bound, the committee being pretty equally divided. The advocates of the reform finally acceded to a proposition of their opponents; namely, that if a man was caught out before the ball touched the ground, that then the players who were running to the different bases, or home, could neither make an Ace nor Base, but had to return to their original position. This was, certainly, a greater inducement to a display of nerve on the part of the fielders, as, by the former rules, the players could make as many Aces and Bases as they pleased, if the ball was taken on the bound. This section was adopted by the committee unanimously. Many other rules were adopted, and a code of 34 rules was laid before the convention for its action.

Knickebockers' First Recorded Game, at Hoboken, October 6, 1845

Knickebockers’ First Recorded Game, at Hoboken, October 6, 1845

The Knickerbockers also proposed that strikers might have the privilege of squaring down the round bat, or club, if they desired to play with a flat face, instead of the uncertain round club; this was not adopted; and Sec. 30 had a rider attached to it, which protected the players back to their places of starting, instead of allowing a premium for sharp fielding, if the ball was passed quickly to the pitcher, and again back to a base, before a player got back to his original post. Many ambiguous rules have been clearly defined, whilst others are susceptible of doubt: much will depend upon the prompt decision of the Umpires. Sec. 1 determines the weight and make of the ball, which has hitherto been very uncertain. Sec. 5 settles a doubtful point, as to the position of the Pitcher. Sec. 6.–This was always a mooted question. The Knickerbockers desired to settle it by making it imperative for the Pitcher to deliver the ball whenever one of his feet was over a settled line; then, if he did not deliver the ball, but threw it to one of the bases, it was to be declared a baulk. Now, as adopted by the convention, it entirely depends upon the opinion of the Umpires, who may declare it a baulk, although the Pitcher, in drawing back his hand, may really intend to throw the ball to a base, and not to the striker: it is a knotty point for the umpires and referee. Sec. 10 is the old rule, which we have already suggested ought to be altered to “every three fair pitched balls,” if not struck at, should be considered as a miss; this would prevent playing against time; but, as Sec. 26 was adopted by the committee, on the recommendation of the Knickerbockers, making the game “seven innings,” and amended in convention, on motion of Mr. Wadsworth, to “nine innings,” instead of the old game of twenty-one Aces, the inducement to make a drawn game is done away with, if the section is taken in connection with Sec 31.

Section 21.—Such dishonorable conduct as is supposed, should have been visited by a penalty on the party offending, and not merely allow that, which might have been reached without the interference of the offending party.

Sec. 22.—A ball may be struck with such force as to bring all the men home; yet, in such a case (were it possible to suppose such a thing could be) Short, might stop it, return it to the Pitcher—the only penalty—Instead of the side coming home, a man is out sure. Ought there not to be a penalty?

Sec. 27 is an excellent rule, and will prevent much dissatisfaction. Sec. 28 Is another good rule, which will prevent good players from monopolizing the play in matches. Sec. 30 is another good rule, and will tend much to prevent over-anxiety and ill-humor during a match. Sec. 33.—Experience has shown the necessity of this rule; it will prevent much annoyance to the persons engaged in the game. And section 35 will save much valuable time and many a drawn game, which has been too often frittered away, much to the disgust of parties who have gone into the field for an afternoon’s recreation.

The new rules do not tend to elevate the scientific character of the game much more than the former ones, as intended by the originators of the convention, yet there is considerable improvement. The objection of some of the young members of the convention to catching the ball “on the fly,” ought not to have had much weight simply for the reason, that it is the way the ball is caught in the English game of cricket or, if Englishmen choose to hurt their hands by catching the ball before It touches the ground, why should Americans do so?

The Game of Base Ball, New York Clipper, September 19, 1857

The Game of Base Ball, New York Clipper, September 19, 1857

Let it be known that cricket was played in America before base ball; that within a year of this present time, more Americans played cricket than base ball; and that many of our best base ball players are Englishmen, who have joined it for a quick, lively game. And above all, let not Americans reject a manly point in the game merely because it is English, and hurts the hands (which it does not, if played in a scientific manner); for, surely, what an Englishman can do, an American is as capable of improving upon. Even the American cricketers, who played with the Englishmen last fall, and were defeated, are organizing their forces for the spring campaign, and intend to defeat the Englishmen in their national game (In a friendly way). But the rules of base ball are fixed for the present, and will meet a fair trial in the first match game between two clubs, and experience will settle all doubts as to their working. Practice will increase the ability to take the ball on the fly, as the inducement will cause the attempt oftener than heretofore. In any case, the game will be more popular than ever, and renewed health, both physically and morally, must accrue to those who practise this healthful out door exercise. The cricket-ground of thirty acres, will, by favor of our Republican Solons at Albany, soon be covered with a green carpet, inviting our base ball clubs to “spread themselves” that is, if the happiness of the white slaves of labor, and of Mammon, of this city, can have a consent to be allowed to spend their own money, in improving their waste lands for the benefit of the health of their families.

We have, in a former number, recommended a new rule for playing base ball, which we should like to see tried in a practice game, to see how it would work. It is to make six out all out, instead of making three out all out. A player who is caught out on the fly, being marked 00, or two out to his side; whilst a player who Is only caught out on the bound, is marked 0, or only one out on his side. This rule is an incentive to Increased activity by the fielders; as by catching the ball in a manly way, before it touches the ground, the six out all out, are practically reduced to three out all out. This rule will accomplish all that the “Knickerbockers” wished, and will give a chance to the young gentlemen with soft hands, and a double chance to those who fail to take the ball on the fly, where they cannot possibly reach it till it touches the ground, or on occasions where their fingers have been buttered.

Cricket Match at Hoboken, Canda vs. U.S., Sept. 9-10, 1856. 10, 1856, Clipper, Sept 27.

Cricket Match at Hoboken, Canada vs. U.S., Sept. 9-10, 1856, Clipper, Sept 27.


Sec. 1. The ball must weigh not less than 6 nor more than 6-1/4 ounces avoirdupois; it must measure not less than 10, nor more than 10-1/4 inches in circumference ; it must be composed of india-rubber and yarn, and covered with leather. It shall be furnished by the challenging Club, and become the property of the winning Club, as a trophy of victory.

Sec. 2. The bat must be round, and must not exceed 2-1/2 inches In diameter, in The thickest part; it must be made of wood, and may be of any length, to suit the striker.

Sec. 3. The bases must be four in number, placed at equal distances from each other, and securely fastened upon the four corners of a square, whose sides are respectively thirty yards. They must be so constructed as to be distinctly seen by the umpires and referee, and mast cover a space equal to one square foot of surface; the first, second and third bases shall be canvas bags, painted white, and filled with sand or saw-dust; the home base and pitcher’s point to be each marked by a flat circular iron plate, painted or enamelled white.

Sec. 4. The base from which the ball is struck shall be designated the homer base, and must be directly opposite to the second base; the first base must always be that upon the right hand, and the third base that upon the left hand side of the striker, when occupying his position at the home base.

Sec. 5. The pitcher’s position shall be designated by a line four yards In length, drawn at right angles to a line from home to the second base, having its centre upon that line, at a fixed iron plate placed at a point fifteen yards distant from the home base,.

Sec. 6. The ball must be pitched, not jerked or thrown to the bat, and whenever the pitcher draws back his hand, with the apparent purpose or pretension to deliver the ball, he shall so deliver it. The pitcher must deliver the ball as near as possible, over the centre of the home base, and must have neither foot in advance of the line at the time of delivering the ball, and if he fails in either of these particulars, then it shall be declared a baulk.

Sec. 7. When a baulk is made by the pitcher, every player running the bases is entitled to one base, without being put out.

Sec. 8. If the ball from a stroke of the bat is caught behind the range or home and the first base, or home and the third base, without having touched the ground, or first touches the ground behind those bases, it shall be termed foul, and must be so declared by the umpires, unasked. If the ball first touches the ground, or is caught without having touched the ground, either upon or in front of the range of those bases, it shall be considered fair.

Sec. 9. A player making the home base, shall be entitled to score one run.

Sec. 10: If three balls are struck at and missed, and the last one is not caught, either flying or upon the first bound, it shall be considered fair, arid the striker must attempt to make his run.

Sec. 11. The striker is out If a foul ball is caught, either before touching the ground or upon the first bound.

Sec. 12. Or, if three balls are struck at and missed, and the last is caught either before touching the ground or upon the first bound.

Sec. 13. Or, if a fair ball is struck, and the ball is caught either without having touched the ground or upon the first bound.

Sec. 14. Or, if a fair ball is struck, and the ball is held by an adversary on the first base, before the striker touches that base.

Sec. 15. Or, if at any time he is touched by the ball while in play in the hands of an adversary, without some part of his person being on a base.

Sec. 16. No ace nor base can be made upon a foul ball, nor when a fair ball has been caught without having touched the ground; and the ball shall, in both instances, be considered dead and not in play, until it shall first have been settled in the hands of the pitcher. When a fair ball has been caught without having touched the ground, the players running the bases shall have the privilege of returning to them.

Sec. 17. Players must stand on a line drawn through the centre of the home base not exceeding in length three feet from either side thereof, and such line shall be parallel with the line occupied by the pitcher. They shall strike In regular rotation; and after the first innings is played, the turn commences with the player who stands on the list next to the one who lost the third hand.

Sec. 18. Players must make their bases in the order of striking; and when a fair ball is struck, and not caught flying, nor on the first bound, the first base must be vacated, as also the second and third bases, if they are occupied at the same time. Players may be put out upon any base, under these circumstances, in the same manner as the striker when running to the first base.

Sec. 19. Players running the bases must, so far as possible, keep upon the direct line between the bases; and, should any player run three feet out of this line, for the purpose of avoiding the ball in the hands of an adversary, he shall be declared out.

Sec. 20. Any player, who shall, intentionally, prevent an adversary from catching or fielding the ball, shall be declared out.

Sec. 21. If a player is prevented from making a base, by the intentional obstruction of an adversary, he shall be entitled to that base, and not be put out.

Sec. 22. If any adversary stops the ball with his hat or cap, or takes it from the hands of a party not engaged in the game, no player can he put out, unless the ball shall first have been settled in the hands of the pitcher.

Sec. 23. If a ball, from the stroke of the bat, is held under any other circumstances than as enumerated in section 22, and without having touched the ground more than once, the striker is out.

Sec. 24. If two hands are already out, no player, running home at the time a ball is struck, can make an ace, if the striker is put out.

Sec 25. An innings must be concluded at the time the third hand is put out

Sec. 26. The game shall consist of nine innings to each side, when, should the number of runs be equal, the innings shall be continued until a majority of runs, upon an equal number of innings, shall be declared, which shall conclude the game.

Sec. 27. In playing all matches, nine players from each club shall constitute a full field, and they must have been regular members of the club which they represent, for thirty days prior to the match. No change or substitution shall be made after the game has been commenced, unless for reason of illness or injury. Positions of players shall be determined by captains, previously appointed for that purpose by the respective clubs.

Sec 28. Any player holding membership in more than one club, at the same time, shall not be permitted to play in the matches of either club.

Sec. 29. The umpires in all matches shall take care that the regulations respecting the ball, bats, bases, and the pitcher’s position, are strictly observed; they shall be the judges of fair and unfair play, and shall determine all differences which may occur during the game; they shall take especial care to declare all foul balls and baulks immediately on their occurrence. They shall together select a referee, from whose decision in case of a disagreement between them there shall be no appeal.

Sec. 30. No person engaged in a match, either as umpire, referee, or player, shall be either directly or indirectly interested in any bet upon the game. Neither umpire, referee nor player shall be changed during a match, unless with the consent of both parties, except for a violation of this law, and except as provided in section 27, and then the referee may dismiss any transgressor.

Sec. 31. The umpires and referee in any match, shall determine when play shall be suspended; and if the game cannot be concluded, it shall be decided by the last even innings, provided five innings have been played; and the party having the greatest number of runs shall be declared the winner.

Sec. 32. Clubs may adopt such rules respecting balls knocked beyond or outside of the bounds of the field, as the circumstances of the ground may demand, and these rules shall govern all matches played upon the ground, provided that they are distinctly made known to every player and umpire, and the referee, previous to the commencement of the game.

Sec 33. No person shall be permitted to approach or to speak with the referee, umpires, or players, or in any manner to interrupt or interfere during the progress of the game, unless by the special request of the umpires or referee.

Sec. 34. No person shall be permitted to act as umpire or referee in a match, unless he shall be a member of a Base Ball Club, governed by these rules.

Sec. 35. Whenever a match shall have been determined upon between two clubs, play shall be called at the exact hour appointed; and should either party fail to produce their players within fifteen minutes thereafter, the party so failing shall admit a defeat.


Knickerbocker—D. L. Adams; W.H. Grenelle; L. F. Wadsworth.

Gotham—W. H. Van Cott; R.H. Cudlip; G. H. Franklin.

Eagle—W. W. Armfield; A. J. Blxby; J. W. Mott.

Empire–R. H. Thorn; Walter Scott; Thomas Leavy.

Putnam—Theo. F. Jackson; J. W. Smith; E. A. Walton.

Baltic—Philip Weeks; R. G. Cornell; C. W. Cooper.

Excelsior—J. W. Andrews; J. Rogers; P. B. Chadwick.

Atlantic—C. Sniffen; W. Babcock; T. Thasie [Tassie].

Harmony—R. Justin, jr.; G. M. Phelps; F. D. Carr.

Harlem—E. H. Brown; J. L. Riker; C. M. Van Voorhis.

Union—Thos. E. Sutton; Wm. Cauldwell; S. D. Gifford.

Eckford—C. M. Welling; Francis Pidgeon; J. M Gray.

Bedford–John Constant; Charles Osborn; Thomas Bogart.

Nassau—W. P. Howell; J. R. Rosenquest; E. Miller.

Continental—John Silsby; N. B. Law; J. B. Brown.

Olympic—Charles Smith; W. B. Dodson

D. L. ADAMS, President.

JAMES W. ANDREWS, Secretary.

The Momentous Baseball Convention of 1857

Daniel Lucious "Doc" Adams

Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams

With the newly discovered “Laws of Base Ball” coming to auction this weekend (http://scpauctions.com/), I thought it might be a fine time to post the text of contemporary news coverage. While the source is Porter’s  Spirit of the Times, January 31, 1857, the report of the New York Herald, published the morning after the convention of January 22, is incorporated. Note the use of the phrase “national pastime” in connection with the rising sport of baseball, and the difficulty that the sport’s proponents had in securing equal standing with cricket in the laying out of the new Central Park. For a great deal more about the proposal by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York to modify and standardize the rules, see “The Making of Baseball’s Magna Carta” (http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2016/02/28/the-making-of-baseballs-magna-carta/).


A convention of the Base Ball Clubs of this city and the vicinity was held on Thursday evening, 22nd inst., at Smith’s Hotel, Broome street, for the purpose of discussing and deciding upon a code of laws which shall hereafter be recognized as authoritative in the game.  Base ball has been known in the Northern States as far back as the memory of the oldest inhabitant reacheth, and must be regarded as a national pastime, the same as cricket is by the English.  It is a manly and healthful exercise, and if generally known would become popular, being full of excitement and rendering the body lithe and hardy.  It is played in most of the New England schools, and those who have once engaged in it never lose their interest in the game.  We should hail it as a favorable omen for the next generation if that bright specimen of humanity, yclept Young New York, would join the base ball or cricket clubs and quit his bar rooms, and other night amusements, and seek the open air.  The following account is copied from the “Herald” of the 23rd:–

The Knickerbocker is the oldest base ball club now existing in this city, and seems to be the most influential.  The present convention was called by that club, and is composed of three delegates appointed by the various associations.  Fourteen separate and independent organizations were represented last evening by the following gentlemen, and it was stated that others would have been present but for distance, or the impossibility of getting home the same night.

Knickerbocker–Messrs. D.L. Adams, Wm. H. Grinnell [Grenelle–jt], L.F. Wadsworth.

Gotham–Messrs. Wm. H. Van Cott, R.H. Cudlip, Geo. H. Franklin.

Eagle–Messrs. W.W. Armfield, A.J. Bixby, John W. Mott. Empire–Messrs. R.H. Thorn, Walter Scott, Thomas Leary.

Putnam–Messrs. Theo. F. Jackson, Jas. W. Smith, Edw. A. Walton.

Baltic–Messrs. Phillip Weeks, Robt. Cornell, Dr. Chas. W. Cooper. Excelsior–Messrs. Jas. W. Andrews, Jas. Rogers, P.R. Chadwick.

Atlantic–Messrs. C. Sniffen, W. Babcock, T. Tassie.

Harmony–Messrs. R. Justin, Jr., G.M. Phelps, Frank D. Carr. Harlem–Messrs. E.H. Brown, John L. Riker, C.M. Van Voorhis.

Eckford–Messrs. Chas. M. Welling, Francis Pidgeon, James M. Gray.

Bedford–Messrs. John Constant, Chas. Osborn, Thos. Bagot.

Nassau–Messrs. Wm. P. Howell, J.R. Rosenquest, Eph. Miller.

Continental–Messrs. John Silsby, Nath. B. Law, Jas. B. Brown.

Porter's Spirit of the Times, September 12, 1857

From Porter’s Spirit of the Times, September 12, 1857

The Convention met together shortly after the hour appointed, and being satisfied with each other’s personal appearance, (justily [sic] so, for most of them were splendid looking fellows,) the delegates proceeded to elect a President and officers, when the following were appointed:-

President–Dr. D.L. Adams, of the Knickerbocker.

Vice President–Reuben H. Cudlip, Gotham; John W. Mott, Eagle.

Secretary–Jas. W. Andrews, Excelsior.

Assistant Secretary–Walter Scott, Empire.

Treasurer–E.H. Brown, Harlem.

Porter's Spirit, January 31, 1857

Porter’s Spirit, January 31, 1857

After some remarks from the President, a brisk discussion ensued on the motion that a committee of five be appointed to prepare a code of laws which shall be authoritative on the game.  An amendment was offered, that twenty should form such committee; and, again, that the Convention should go into Committee of the Whole upon the laws.  The various propositions were sweated down to two, and, being put to the vote, it was finally determined that the delegates from each club should appoint one member to sit on said committee.  The gentlemen so appointed are as follows:–

Committee to Draft a Code of Laws on the Game of Base Ball, to be Submitted to the Convention–Messrs. L.F. Wadsworth, W.H. Van Cott, W.W. Armfield, Thos. Leavy, Thos. F. Jackson, Dr. Chas. W. Cooper, P.R. Chadwick, T. Tassie, F.D. Carr, E.H. Brown, Francis Pidgeon, John Constant, Wm. P. Howell and Nathaniel B. Law.  This committee will meet next Wednesday.

Mr. Armfield moved that an assessment of $2 be made from each club, in order to defray incidental expenses, and referred to the proposed Central Park as a most suitable spot for playing matches. Provision had been made there by the Commissioners for the English national pastime of cricket, but none for base ball,* and he trusted that this convention would put itself in communication with the authorities on this subject.

Mr. R.G. Cornell submitted three specimen balls of various sizes, 6 1/3 oz., 6 1/2 oz., and 6 3/4 oz.; the convention will eventually be called upon to decide which is orthodox of the trio.

Mr. Francis Pidgeon proposed that a committee of five be appointed by the Chair to confer with the Central Park Commissioners in relation to a grant of public lands for base ball purposes.  This being carried, the Chair named the following:–

Committee to treat with the Commissioners for a plot of ground in the Central Park–Francis Pidgeon, E.H. Brown, George F. Franklin, John W. Mott, L.F. Wadsworth.

A motion was then made and carried that each club forthwith pay the Treasurer $2, when that officer remarked, “I shall be under the necessity of notifying that I don’t take Spanish quarters.”  The Secretary read over the names of the clubs, the money was forthcoming, and the Convention adjourned at 9 1/2 o’clock until the third Wednesday in February.

Base ball is about becoming a great national institution.  The gentlemen assembled last evening at Smith’s Hotel were engaged in a work not of that trifling importance which a casual observer might suppose.  Mens sana in corpore sano is a maxim worthy of notice in this age, when young men are forsaking the fields and out door exercise for the fumes of cellars and the dissipation of the gaming table. Let us have base ball clubs organized by the spring all over the country, rivalling in their beneficent effects the games of Roman and Grecian republics.  Schoolmasters and clergymen, lend a helping hand.

*Mr. Armfield and the Convention seems to us to labor under a mistake; the Commissioners recommend that a space be set apart for “a Cricket Ground, for the encouragement of, and indulgence in, athletic and manly sports.”  This, we should suppose, would include Base Ball, Quoits, &c., &c.–Editor “Spirit.”

Bruegel and Me

Bruegel's The Harvesters, detail

Bruegel, The Harvesters, 1565; detail

From my column “Play’s the Thing,” Woodstock Times, December 28, 2006: Walking through the European Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week with my son Mark, returned from college for the holidays, we glided from gallery to gallery at a leisurely pace. He had seen many of these glorious paintings before, but only as color plates in an art history textbook. I had visited them at the Met before, but never with him; our earlier visits, when he and his older brothers were still living at home, had tended not to stray far from the mummies, the hieroglyphs, and the Temple of Dendur, unless it was to check out the medieval armor and, as a sop to me, the American Wing.

Now we were two adults, with his interest in Northern Renaissance and Flemish painting far exceeding mine. His newfound passion would determine our path, as it had the very idea of a full-day ascent of this cultural Matterhorn. We were still father and son, I was still the guide and he the willing initiate, but the gap had narrowed. We were near, if not at, the point at which my relationship had twisted and turned with his brothers, from parent to grownup friend and, enduringly, to peer.

Our mission was to gawk until we dropped. By our second hour of strolling through Constable and Gainsborough and Rembrandt and Goya I was beginning to get hungry. Maybe we should go to one of the cafes now, I suggested, as there might be a line and I didn’t wish to be starving when I faced a pre-made sandwich in cellophane. But he had come especially to revel in Van Eyck, Vermeer, and Bruegel, and we happened to be standing in a gallery that marked a neat end to our morning circuit.

We had paused right in front of Bruegel the Elder’s “Corn Harvest” (1565), one of the world’s great paintings of everyday life. Bruegel is a marvel not only for his craft but also for his bottom-up approach to story that tells us more about the human condition than paintings of battle and royalty; his dedication to landscape tells us more about heaven than dreamy depictions of anthropomorphic deities and silly putti. Mark and I resolved to place hunger on hold and take our time in this last room of the section. (Why, you may ask, is “Corn Harvest” called by that name when the crop is obviously wheat? Because a generic name for grain in German is Korn, and it labeled this painting in English early on.)

Bruegel, Corn Harvest

Bruegel, Corn Harvest (a.k.a. The Harvesters), 1565; Metropolitan Museum of Art

Turning 90 degrees to the wall, my eye fell upon a tiny tableau at the left-center of the painting in which young men appeared to be playing a game of bat and ball in a meadow distant from the scything and stacking and dining and drinking that make up the foreground. Mark agreed: there appeared to be a man with a bat, a fielder at a base, a runner, and spectators as well as participants in waiting. The strange device opposite the batsman’s position might have been a catapult. As I was later to learn with hurried research, this detail is unnoted in the art-history studies.

Now, it could be argued that as a historian of early sport, particularly games of bat and ball, I may tend to see instances of my specialty popping up everywhere, like hobgoblins. Or I may just be lucky; you may judge.

It might be argued as well that the title of this column is misleading as it is less about Bruegel than it is about me. But I would rejoin that is about both of us, and all three of my children, and you and yours too.Batting Game Bruegel Harvesters Closeup_crop

Christmas vacation is a great time to reconnect with your kids, whether they live at home, are away at college, or are grown and live at great distance. It’s also a way to connect with how children everywhere view the world — not as a series of milestones to be marked, honors to be won, and rewards to be earned … but as an arena for new experience. And in the end, it’s a great way to connect with your own childhood and thus who you are and always have been. A recurring theme of [my Woodstock Times column] “Play’s the Thing,” of which this piece is the last of a third year in this space, has been that play is serious business, broadly revealing of who we are and yearn to be. Getting older is an opportunity to revisit one’s happy childhood or to set one’s unhappy childhood right, if only through one’s own children.

Bruegel, children's games, 1560

Bruegel, Children’s Games, 1560

Seeing this mysterious game of ball depicted in Bruegel’s “Corn Harvest” recalled for me another of the master’s great works, his “Children’s Games” of 1560. Although not yet 500 years old, this painting is nearly as mysterious as the hieroglyphs of the pyramids and requires no less a Rosetta Stone. Although some 80 different sports and games are depicted, scholars have only been able to identify 32 with certainty. A few of these will be familiar to 21st-century readers: Blind Man’s Buff, Bowls, Crack the Whip, Follow the Leader, Hoops, King of the Hill, Leap Frog, Marbles, Mumblety-Peg, Tug of War. As to the rest, an interactive key to “Children’s Games” (a floating cursor prompts a detail of Bruegel’s painting and a description of the game) may be located at the wonderful interactive website of the Elliott Avedon Museum & Archive of Games at Waterloo University in Ontario, Canada: http://goo.gl/SuCX8T.

When I unearthed the now celebrated bylaw of 1791 which prohibited the play of baseball within 80 yards of a soon-to-be built meeting house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, I noted that baseball was but one of the banned games: “wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball.” For reporters covering the press conference in which the find was announced in May 2004, I felt obliged to explain what these games were, as no one any longer plays wicket or batball or cat (one-, two-, three-, or four-hole varieties), and on this side of the Atlantic few would know that fives was handball. A century earlier, the Mills Commission investigating the origins of baseball had declared that Abner Doubleday was its inventor and Cooperstown its Garden of Eden. That was history from the top down. The Pittsfield prohibition, seeking only to preserve the glass windows of a new structure, opened a new (if broken) window onto what children actually played and thus what really happened. That is history from the bottom up, a la Bruegel.

Pittsfield "Broken Window" Prohibition, 1791

Pittsfield “Broken Window” Prohibition, 1791

We play fewer games today than a century ago, and fewer still than in 16th-century Europe, just as the evolution of species has produced the dubious triumph of fewer and not necessarily superior survivors. Because increasingly our children exercise their minds and thumbs in play but not their limbs, young men and women must build suppleness and mass through the simulated play of fitness routines that translate, upon reflection, to just another form of work. We are overstimulated mentally, underutilized physically and, bombarded with media messages, discontented with our daily lives more than ever before.

Or at least that is what has often been reported, and not only in these days of virtual reality. The New York Times of December 30, 1883 published a story headed “Boyhood’s Merry Games; Some of the Sports in Which Our Fathers Indulged; The Healthful Games of a Generation Ago of Which the Boy of Today Knows Little or Nothing.” The anonymous author was stunned to learn that the only game his 10-year-old son played was marbles. “Now, marbles is all right,” he wrote, “but I don’t like the idea of a steady diet in that line. It isn’t broadening. It’s a sort of one-sided development. Boys are dying out in this country, or at least the boy I’m bringing up is of a different species from what I used to know.”

How we play is ever changing. Play is a constant. Today we still have a few things to teach our children, and a lot to learn from them.


Cuba, the U.S., and Baseball: A Long If Interrupted Romance

Minnie Miñoso

Minnie Minoso

Before there was a United States, beginning in 1776, there was baseball. And before there was a Cuban Republic, beginning in 1868, there was baseball. Today, even after decades of diplomatic hostility—never shared by the two peoples—the game older than either nation continues to be the tie that binds.

Until the Revolution of 1959, Cuba sent the most players to the Major Leagues and the Negro Leagues. Its tournaments attracted players from both the U.S. and the Caribbean Basin. Four Cuban-born players are in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown (Martín Dihigo, José Mendez, Tony Pérez, and Cristóbal Torriente); others are stars of the first magnitude today; and then there is Minnie Miñoso, about whom this entire essay might be written.

Many of the modern tales of Cuban-American baseball relations have been accompanied by misery—defection, human trafficking, fractured families, broken bonds with a national heritage. This is a story amply documented in today’s news outlets, so there is little point in my summarizing it here. Instead, let’s look back to how baseball began in this island nation, the role that the U.S. has played, and some alternative views of Cuba’s baseball paternity.

Esteban Bellán at Fordham

Esteban Bellan at Fordham

Friendliness between the nations began with the sugar business and the counting houses that lined Manhattan’s waterfront, mercantile establishments that typically had offices in Havana and Matanzas. The counting houses forged links between Cuba and New York that went beyond the realm of commerce, facilitating not only the exchange of goods and money, but also of people and culture.

By the mid-nineteenth century, boys and young men from wealthy Cuban families were sent to New York for an education or for work experience, and the counting houses had a direct role in bringing them from Cuba. As Lisandro Pérez notes, “The New York merchants would make arrangements for the sons of their Cuban clients to be enrolled in boarding schools in the New York area, meeting them at the dock, buying their winter clothing and other necessities, paying for tuition and board, and even disbursing periodic allowances.”

This rite of passage was common practice among middle-class Cuban families at the time not only because of vital trading relations but also because the Cuban independence movement had prompted a violent crackdown by Spanish authorities, making Cuba a dangerous place for the impressionable young. Esteban Bellán was one such Cuban boy sent from Havana to New York at age thirteen with his brother Domingo to be educated at the preparatory school of St. John’s College (today’s Fordham University). There he played ball for the Rose Hill club, and upon his graduation in 1868 went on to play for the powerful Union of Morrisania club; for nearly 150 years thereafter, he would be regarded as the first Cuban-born player to perform at the top level of the game, the National Association of Base Ball Players.

Bellán (1849-1932) went on to play in baseball’s first professional league, with the Troy Haymakers and the New York Mutuals in 1871-1873. In the winter of the latter year he returned to Cuba and started up the Club Habana baseball team. He played in the first organized baseball game ever played in Cuba, on December 27, 1874, at Palmar del Junco Field. Club Habana beat Club Matanzas by 51-9. For this reason he is regarded in the U.S. as the “Father of Cuban Baseball.”

Nemesio Guillo

Nemesio Guillo

Cubans, however, might put forward another candidate. Also playing for Club Habana in the aforementioned game are two other early giants of Cuban baseball: the patriot Emilio Sabourín and the little-known (in the U.S.) Ernesto Guilló. Sabourin was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1941; Guillo’s brother Nemesio in 1948; and Bellán not until 1984, in a ceremony held in Miami.

Nemesio Guilló Romaguera (1847-1931) was sent to the U.S., like Bellán, by a father who was in the sugar trade. Along with his brother and Enrique Porto, he was sent to Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama—a private, Roman Catholic school founded in 1830—in 1858. Many other Cuban boys joined them there over the next two years. From the newspaper Diario de la Marina in 1924:

In 1864, seven years later, they returned to Cuba on a ship as grown men with strong necks, broad chests, athletic and ready to support in any way the rights of men, so unknown to the colony of those days. One of the three lads had in his trunk a bat and ball, completely unknown objects in Cuba, scarcely known in the United States itself, where “town ball,” which later would be called baseball, was in its beginnings. Nemesio, the younger of the two Guilló brothers, brought the precious gadgets. Having spent the day in La Machina, the three boys were already playing with the bat and the ball in El Vedado.

Spring Hill College 1858; engraving by J. T. Hammond.

Spring Hill College 1858; engraving by J. T. Hammond.

What was likely the first ballgame in Cuba with local participation occurred in June 1866, when sailors of a U.S. ship taking on sugar invited Cuban longshoremen to play. While Ernesto did not continue as a player, Nemesio did, playing with Havana in 1879-1880 and in 1882-1883 with the Ultimatum club, for whom he served as “right shortstop,” a position between first and second base. Following the suggestion of Henry Chadwick, rejected in the U.S., Cuban baseball in this period was played with ten men to the side.

Rua among non-graduates at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1868

Rua among non-graduates at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1868

In recent years I discovered, ith help from Peter Morris and César González, another candidate for a “father of baseball” that might be celebrated in both Cuba and the U.S: the previously unnoted Rafael Julian de la Rúa of Matanzas (see: http://goo.gl/wgsnkR). In 1860, at the age of twelve, he is listed in the U.S. census, living in Newton, Massachusetts, a student at R.B. Blaisdell’s school in Newton. A classmate of Bellán’s at Fordham from 1864-1867 (it is unclear whether he played ball with the Rose Hills), he transferred to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for 1868, and in that year joined the Troy Haymakers, a first-class National Association club, pitching in twelve games. A lefthander with a peculiar screwball pitch, Rúa was so effective against the New York Mutuals on August 4 that the Troy Times observed, “Rúa’s pitching was the acme of perfection—not too swift to be unreliable, and with just enough of the ‘twist’ to prevent the Mutuals from making their heaviest batting.”

Because Rúa played in National Association games before Bellán left Fordham to join the Unions of Morrisania, it may be said that he and not Bellán was the first Cuban national to play high-level ball in the States.

Rúa did not graduate from RPI, nor did he continue to play ball after 1868. He was naturalized as an American citizen in 1874, while living in New York City. He traveled to Cuba on separate trips in 1874 and 1875, but there his trail goes cold.

Looking back at the stories of Bellán, Guilló, and Rúa, it becomes evident that American colleges were the most important agents in the proliferation of the game in Latin America, even more than the military and its multiple occupations, as we had long supposed.

By 1879 American players from the National League were playing winter ball in Cuba. By 1886, El Sport, a Havana weekly, declared: “Baseball is today, without distinction of classes, age and sex, the preferred diversion of all [Cubans].”

And so has it ever been.






The Origins of the Designated Hitter

The Temple Cup Two-Step March

The Temple Cup Two-Step March

When rumors swirled a few weeks back about the imminent addition of the Designated Hitter to the National League rules, a reader suggested that I supply a little historical background to this innovation, which of course was proposed long before the American League implemented it on experimental basis in 1973. After trials in spring training and in some minor circuits, the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg became MLB’s first DH, nipping Boston’s Orlando Cepeda for the distinction.

“I know that this is more recent history and not from 150 years ago, ” reader Butch England wrote, “but there’s a reason why the AL added it in 1973 and a good story behind it. Although my team is in the AL, I’m against it.”

One often reads that Connie Mack thought up the idea, or John Heydler, or John McGraw. All three advocated or opined about it, with McGraw warning that its implementation would lead inevitably to two-platoon baseball: one team for offense, one for defense. But the brainstorm belonged to one of the more important if largely forgotten figures of nineteenth-century baseball: William Chase Temple, owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and provider of the Temple Cup to the winner of a postseason championship series in 1894 through 1897, when the National League’s first-place club squared off against the second-place finisher.

William Chase Temple

William Chase Temple

In the wake of the player revolt of 1890, Temple would become an NL owner and a lifelong ally of Albert Goodwill Spalding, with whose mistress and later wife, Elizabeth Churchill Mayer, he was already friendly through their devotions to the Theosophical Society branch in New York City. A sportsman and statistics enthusiast, Temple was the first to come up with the idea of the designated hitter, back in 1891. His idea was for the DH to replace the pitcher in the batting order throughout the game, i.e., the current method.

James W. Spalding, Albert’s brother, alternatively suggested that the pitcher’s spot in the order be skipped, so that only eight men would bat in rotation. The debate between W.C. Temple and J.W. Spalding had commenced after the 1891 season. There had been a widespread concern among baseball men with the game’s declining offense: in 1890 the Players’ League, in its lone season of operation, had moved the pitching distance back by 18 inches, presaging the move to 60’6″ and the exchange of a pitcher’s box for a slab.

The distance to home plate had been measured from the front of the box; beginning in 1893, it would be reckoned from the front of the slab, with which a pitcher’s back foot had to remain in contact at the point of delivery. But this is to launch into a series of exceedingly fine points about perceived pitching speed, for which I might better direct you here: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2015/02/27/a-brief-history-of-the-pitching-distance/.

Elizabeth Churchill Mayer Spalding and husband A.G. Spalding, ca. 1901

Elizabeth Churchill Mayer Spalding and husband A.G. Spalding, ca. 1901

On December 19, 1891, Sporting Life offered the following:


Messrs. Temple and Spalding; Agree that the Pitcher Should Be Exempt from Batting.

In a recent conversation with J. Walter Spalding, of the New York Club, President Temple, of the Pittsburgs, brought up the question as to what disposition should be made of the pitcher in the batting order. President Temple favored the substitution of another man to take the pitcher’s place at the bat when it came his turn to go there. Mr. Spalding advocated a change in the present system and suggested that the pitcher be eliminated entirely from the batting order and that only the other eight men of the opposing clubs be allowed to go to bat. Both gentlemen saw the necessity of some change, and Mr. Spalding intimated that his idea should prevail. The matter will in all likelihood be brought to the attention of the committee on rules, and either a substitute player take the pitcher’s place at bat or the pitcher be relieved from the necessity of going to bat at all.

Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

New York Giants scorecard, 1892

New York Giants scorecard, 1892

There the matter lay until the preseason meetings of the National League, enlarged for the 1892 campaign from eight teams to twelve by absorbing four clubs from its dissolved rival, the American Association. Speaking to his local papers in Pittsburgh upon his return from these meetings, Temple revealed:

“We came very near making it a rule to exempt the pitcher from batting in a game, under a resolution which permitted such exemption, when the captain of the team notified the umpire of such desire prior to the beginning of a game. The vote stood 7 to 5 for. I looked for it to be the reverse, but Von der Ahe, whom I depended on, voted otherwise.”

Q.E.D. William Chase Temple is the originator of the designated hitter concept, still in the news not from 150 years ago, as reader Butch England suggested, but a perhaps surprisingly distant 124 years later.



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