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Baseball before We Knew It

Baseball before We Knew It

4.7 4
by David Block
It may be America’s game, but no one seems to know how or when baseball really started. Theories abound, myths proliferate, but reliable information has been in short supply—until now, when Baseball before We Knew It brings fresh new evidence of baseball’s origins into play. David Block looks into the early history of the game and of the


It may be America’s game, but no one seems to know how or when baseball really started. Theories abound, myths proliferate, but reliable information has been in short supply—until now, when Baseball before We Knew It brings fresh new evidence of baseball’s origins into play. David Block looks into the early history of the game and of the 150-year-old debate about its beginnings. He tackles one stubborn misconception after another, debunking the enduring belief that baseball descended from the English game of rounders and revealing a surprising new explanation for the most notorious myth of all—the Abner Doubleday–Cooperstown story. Block’s book takes readers on an exhilarating journey through the centuries in search of clues to the evolution of our modern National Pastime. Among his startling discoveries is a set of long-forgotten baseball rules from the 1700s. Block evaluates the originality and historical significance of the Knickerbocker rules of 1845, revisits European studies on the ancestry of baseball which indicate that the game dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years, and assembles a detailed history of games and pastimes from the Middle Ages onward that contributed to baseball’s development. In its thoroughness and reach, and its extensive descriptive bibliography of early baseball sources, this book is a unique and invaluable resource—a comprehensive, reliable, and readable account of baseball before it was America’s game.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Baseball always attracts impassioned amateur writers pleading a cause. Here, baseball collector Block beats his way back through the mists of baseball time. He dismisses the English game of rounders as the primary foreign borrowing, arguing that baseball's origins lie in the many sports that have used a ball since the Middle Ages. This book is made memorable by the numerous quaint but fascinating illustrations of these early games, which Block uses to make his rather controversial point. For comprehensive collections. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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University of Nebraska Press
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Read an Excerpt


A Search for the Roots of the Game

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2005 David Block
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-1339-5

Chapter One


* * *

The age-old debate over baseball's ancestry has always been long on bluster and short on facts. Since the earliest days of the game's prominence in America, writers have been eager to expound upon its origins. That they generally had no clue of what they were talking about never seemed to slow them down. As early as 1856 the editors of Porter's Spirit of the Times, one of the earliest sporting journals to cover baseball, mused on the game's derivation:

Notwithstanding the antiquity of Cricket, which was introduced to the U.S. by Englishmen resident among us, we must confess that we feel a degree of old Knickerbockie [sic] pride, at the continued prevalence of Base Ball as the National game of the region of the Manhattanese of these diggings. We are not about to write a history of its rise and progress among the early settlers - those sturdy Dutch Burghers, who were in the olden time seen, playing at bowls on the Bowling Green - any more than we intend to enlighten the Cricketers on the first match - then we believe termed wickets - which is said by the old chroniclers, to have been invented by the Druids, and was first played at Stonehenge.

The editors' colorful prose appears to imply that the National Game originated with the Dutch founders of New York, rather than the later-arriving English. Continuing the theme, Porter's introduced its coverage of baseball's first convention in January 1857 with another burst of enthusiastic verbiage:

Now, for some time past, sensible men have attempted to rouse the attention of "Young New York ... to the development of their physique;" and yet, beyond the range of the "Cricket Clubs," but little was effected until the past year, when Base Ball started up like the ghost of Hendrik Hudson, who in the veritable history of this village, is represented as having played annually a game of ba'l amid the Kaatskill Mountains. Be that legend, however, fact or fiction, we have to deal with a veritable fact, that a convention of Young New York was held ... to discuss ... the best method of encouraging out-door sports, and Base Ball in particular.

But in contrast to the whimsical approach of Porter's editors, one of the publication's readers was giving the subject of baseball's beginnings a more literal appraisal. In a letter printed in the October 24, 1857, issue, the correspondent, identified only as "X," wrote: "We find that Cricket was played as early as, and perhaps before the sixteenth century.... Base ball cannot date so far back as that; but the game has, no doubt, been played in this country for at least one century." The anonymous writer also stated: "Although I am a resident of the State of New York, I hope I do her no wrong by thinking that the New England States were, and are, the ball grounds of this country," adding: "the boys of the various villages still play by the same rules as their fathers did before them." This measured commentary might have opened the door to an early rational discussion on the origins of baseball in America, but any hope for this was drowned in the tide of bombast that was to follow.

By 1858 other newspapers and magazines joined Porter's in offering casual opinions about baseball's heredity. An author writing in the Atlantic Monthly that year hailed "our indigenous American game of base-ball." The following year a second writer for the same publication referred to the "Old-Country games of cricket and base-ball." So who was right? Was the National Game a native of American soil or a product of English heritage? In 1859, the year that Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species, the game of baseball was spawning its own origins controversy.

While Porter's and the Atlantic may have been the first to enter the fray, Englishman Henry Chadwick soon turned the issue into his personal fiefdom. Chadwick was a rising sportswriter in New York City who eagerly embraced the young sport which some newspapers were already identifying as the National Pastime. His tireless promotion of the game would soon earn him the sobriquet the "father of baseball." In his introduction to the sport's first annual guide in 1860, Chadwick proclaimed that baseball was of "English origin" and "derived from the game of rounders." With these few simple words, Chadwick set a framework for the debate over baseball's ancestry that still prevails. Over the years the debate has occasionally risen to the forefront of national attention, while at other times, it has completely receded from view. The subject has inflamed passions and patriotism, and along the way engendered its own mythology. Now, more than 140 years since Chadwick raised it, the issue of baseball's provenance remains largely unresolved.

To understand why historians have failed to unlock the mystery of baseball's past, it is useful to study the twists and turns the debate has followed over the years. For a quarter century following Chadwick's anointment of rounders as baseball's predecessor, his theory encountered few challengers, undoubtedly due to the respect he commanded as the game's foremost booster. Most other baseball writers of the era, such as Charles Peverelly, whose 1866 book American Pastimes contained the first extensive historical coverage of the game, were content to echo the Chadwick orthodoxy.

One exception to this consensus appeared in the August 26, 1869, issue of The Nation. In an article extolling the National Pastime and comparing it to cricket, the author, A. H. Sedgwick, protested the suggestion that baseball was of foreign origin. Instead of challenging Chadwick's rounders theory, however, Sedgwick objected to the notion that baseball derived from cricket. He wrote: "It is a matter of common learning that [baseball] is of no foreign origin, but the lineal descent [sic] of that favorite of boyhood, 'Two-Old-Cat.' ... He would indeed be an unfaithful chronicler who should attempt to question the hoary antiquity of 'Two-Old-Cat,' or the parental relation in which it stands to base-ball." Although Sedgwick's viewpoint went largely unnoticed at the time, it is of some historical importance in that he was the first observer to suggest that baseball derived from the American "old-cat" games. In the following decades, some of the most prominent proponents of baseball's American birth would eagerly embrace Sedgwick's "old-cat" hypothesis.

In the 1880s the baseball journalist William M. Rankin became the first commentator to confront directly Henry Chadwick's assertion that baseball descended from rounders. In a newspaper article syndicated in 1886, Rankin laid out his argument:

[Baseball's] origin dates back many years, but as to what it sprung from is a matter of conjecture. Some writers advanced the theory that the origin of baseball was in the old game of rounders or town-ball, which was played in many sections of this country before the present game became so popular. As no one disputed this claim it has remained so, or at least it has been accepted by all baseball writers to the present day as a fact not to be disputed. On what basis the claim has been made has never been explained. Unless, however, it is that in each game bases, bats and a ball are required. Thus far and no farther can a comparison be made in the two games.

Rankin then described several ways in which he believed town-ball or rounders differed from baseball: the flat shape of the bat, the square configuration of the bases, the variable number of players involved in the game, and the practice of "plugging" a runner (putting him out by striking him with the ball). "There is nothing in the above description that in any way resembles the national game of baseball," he wrote, "either in its earliest days or in its present form." He went on to mention some basic features of modern baseball, including the diamond-shaped infield, nine men on a side, and three outs per inning. Rankin argued that the rules for the "former games" were "entirely different" from the rules for baseball that had been drafted by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1845. He concluded:

It can no more be claimed that the game of baseball had its origin in rounders or town-ball than billiards were the issue of pool, or the latter came from bagatelle. It is like Mr. Darwin's theory of the origin of man - it lacks the necessary connecting links to carry out the idea. The game of baseball seems to have sprung up, just as any game has. It has improved each year until it has reached its present state. A claim might just as well be made that rounders had its origin in cricket as that baseball sprung from rounders, and the claim would be just as good in the one case as in the other.

If Rankin held a serious theory for how baseball actually came about, it was obscured by his impassioned efforts to distance the National Pastime from town-ball and rounders. It seems that he was content to assert that baseball simply had "sprung up," for which he offered the faintest of evidence: "It is claimed by several gentlemen, now residing in New York, that they played baseball over fifty years ago. The game at that time had no regular set of rules, but the side getting the first twenty-one aces or runs was declared the victor. There is no doubt whatever but that the game was played in New York over fifty years ago; as it will be seen that the Knickerbockers had no trouble in finding a rival nine so far back as 1846."

In short, it appears that Rankin's theory was that baseball formed spontaneously in early New York sometime before the mid-1830s. His proof was that there were other teams available to compete with the Knickerbockers in the 1840s. His uncompromising opposition to Chadwick's rounders theory apparently precluded even token acknowledgment that baseball could have been influenced by earlier games. In Rankin's defense, however, it is probable that his widely circulated 1886 article represented a distorted version of his actual views. He revealed this in a published letter written more than twenty years afterward: "In the winter of 1885 and 1886 I wrote a brief history of the origin of the game ... to be syndicated. My version was so much at variance with the then accepted theory that it was 'doctored,' and while it did not say the game had sprung from rounders, it cut out that which I had said. I didn't see the story until after it appeared in print, or it never would have been broadcast over the country."

This alleged censorship could help explain why Rankin's article was so sharply critical of Chadwick's rounders theory, yet never mentioned the legendary baseball writer by name. In fact, if the "doctoring" assertion is true, the motivation of Rankin's editors was very likely their reluctance to print anything negative about Chadwick, who at that time was among the most respected figures in the world of baseball.

Rankin's article was the preliminary skirmish in what was to become a major assault on the rounders theory. The first big gun to join the fray was popular ballplayer and author John Montgomery Ward. Rankin later took credit for Ward's involvement, claiming in a 1905 letter to baseball magnate Albert Spalding: "It was from my article that John M. Ward obtained his ideas about the origin of baseball, and so expressed them in the book he issued in 1888." Whatever the actual catalyst, Ward took up the cause with vehemence. Unlike Rankin, who appeared to be motivated purely by the desire to defend baseball's originality, Ward was driven by extreme jingoism. He was so incensed by Chadwick's notion that baseball was of foreign derivation that in 1888 he devoted the first fifteen pages of his book Base-ball: How to Become a Player to "proving" that the sport was, in fact, of American birth. He asserted that those advocating rounders snobbishly believed that "everything good and beautiful in the world had to be of English origin" and that they had come to their conclusion based only upon superficial similarities between the two games. Ward contended that baseball had been played in the United States for at least a century, likely since colonial times, and had, in fact, actually predated the "old" English game of rounders.

After comparing all the features of the two games, Ward, who was also a lawyer, summarized his argument: "In view, then, of these facts, that the points of similarity are not distinctive, and that the points of difference are decidedly so, I can see no reason in analogy to say that one game is descended from the other, no matter which may be shown to be the older."

Having dismissed the rounders theory, Ward now turned to another annoying thorn, the evidence that a game called "base-ball" existed in eighteenth-century England. He maintained that this earlier pastime could not possibly have been an ancestor to American baseball because if it had been, the Anglophiles would have seized on it, not rounders, as the basis for their claim. Moreover, he sneered, this English baseball had been a game for women and girls, and therefore, by definition, could not have been a prelude to the "robust" American sport.

So where did Ward think baseball came from? In answer to this he delivered his famous punch line: "I believe it to be the fruit of the inventive genius of an American boy." He proclaimed baseball to be an American evolution "like our system of government." Ward said old-time players had told him baseball's roots could be traced to the early American game of "cat-ball" - "one-old-cat," "two-old-cat," and so on. While his subsequent descriptions of these games offered scant resemblance to the National Pastime, he nonetheless boldly proclaimed that "from one-old-cat to base-ball is a short step." In summary, Ward laid down the gauntlet: "In the field of out-door sports the American boy is easily capable of devising his own amusements, and until some proof is adduced that base-ball is not his invention I protest against this systematic effort to rob him of his dues."

Later that year, Ward added some fanciful embellishments to his "American boy" theory in an article he wrote for the October 1888 issue of The Cosmopolitan magazine:

Exercise Jack must, and this is what he did. Having cut an old rubber shoe into strips he wound these into the form of a small ball. Then he unraveled the leg of an old woolen stocking and wound the yarn around the rubber ball, until the whole was as big around as a good-sized apple. Over this his good mother sewed a petal-shaped leather cover, cut from the soft top of a worn-out boot.


Excerpted from Baseball BEFORE WE KNEW IT by DAVID BLOCK Copyright © 2005 by David Block. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David Block is a long-time collector of early baseball books and memorabilia, and is a passionate, lifelong fan of the game and its history.

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