Long before baseball became America’s national pastime, English citizens of all ages, genders, and classes of society were playing a game called baseball. It had the same basic elements as modern American baseball, such as pitching and striking the ball, running bases, and fielding, but was played with a soft ball on a smaller playing field and, instead of a bat, the ball was typically struck by the palm of the hand. There is no doubt, however, that this simpler English version of baseball was the original form of the pastime and was the immediate forerunner of its better-known American offspring. Strictly a social game, English baseball was played for nearly two hundred years before fading away at the beginning of the twentieth century. Despite its longevity and its important role in baseball’s evolution, however, today it has been completely forgotten.
In Pastime Lost David Block unearths baseball’s buried history and brings it back to life, illustrating how English baseball was embraced by all sectors of English society and exploring some of the personalities, such as Jane Austen and King George III, who played the game in their childhoods. While rigorously documenting his sources, Block also brings a light touch to his story, inviting us to follow him on some of the adventures that led to his most important discoveries.
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A Little Pretty Debut
This book is about English baseball. I realize that many of you have never heard of this game, and in that you're not alone. To most people, the terms baseball and English are an odd pairing, an oxymoron. You may be forgiven for thinking that somehow I've got it all backward, that Americans are the ones who practice baseball while the English are attached to their own traditional sports of cricket and rounders. This is true, of course, but once upon a time the English enjoyed playing baseball as well, albeit their own version of the game. In fact, theirs was the earliest form of baseball, the ancestor to both American baseball and rounders. For some strange reason, however, England's memory of its baseball experience has faded over the years to the point where knowledge of the game has now disappeared. Fear not. You're in the hands of the world's foremost expert on English baseball. I hope you're no less impressed when I acknowledge that I am also the world's only expert on English baseball; indeed, I am among a scant few who know anything about the game at all. What follows is the never-before-told history of this forgotten pastime. Any omissions or shortcomings you may come across while reading it, I regret to say, were unavoidable. They're the inevitable by-product of deciding that after fifteen years of research it was high time to put what I've learned into writing, well aware that unknowns about the game still abound. Nevertheless, English baseball has been crying out to have its story told, and this book should provide you with a good sense of what this lost pastime was all about.
In telling the story of English baseball it seems fitting to start at the beginning. My problem is that I don't know when that beginning actually began. I can't even narrow it to a range of several decades. Absent this, I have become accustomed to offering a hazy response to the question of when baseball began, usually accompanied by equally ambiguous answers to the questions of how and where this germination took place. English baseball evolved — or so I've said — from earlier games of ball, a process that played out somewhere in the south of England, sometime in the early eighteenth century or perhaps the late seventeenth. My theory has been that youthful ballplayers were forever tinkering with their games, trying to improve them, and at some unknown time, probably in the early 1700s, some small number of them settled on a method of play that became the ancestor of all baseball-like activity to follow. The fundamentals of this new entity, such as pitching, striking the ball, fielding, and baserunning, were borrowed willy-nilly from other games that were familiar to them at the time, or so I've always believed and advocated. At some point in this process they assigned the name baseball to the new pastime.
To me, this is all very plausible, but in all candidness, it is educated guesswork. I don't have any actual proof that the elements of baseball were adapted from earlier games. And I am only estimating when I say that the pastime originated in the early eighteenth century; for all I know it could have been a century earlier than that. My naming of southern England as baseball's home territory is also an assumption, based solely on where the earliest known signs of the game emerged. Who knows? Maybe baseball evolved somewhere else entirely, such as France or Germany, and then journeyed to England so stealthily that it went unnoticed by history. Coming right down to it, I have no real evidence that baseball evolved at all. Who's to say it wasn't invented? Sure, Abner Doubleday lived a century too late and was otherwise incapable of having done it. But why couldn't some clever English youngster have been the one to conceive and sketch out a plan for baseball? Improbable, perhaps, but we really have no way of proving it didn't happen that way.
Apart from all this guessing and second-guessing, we do know one thing for certain: a game called baseball existed in England in the middle of the eighteenth century. For this we have solid proof. My conjectural theories of what came before — of how, where, and when the game first evolved — are extrapolated from this evidence, which consists of scattered mentions of a game identified as baseball that appear in English written sources of the 1740s, 1750s, and 1760s. The original media for these references are varied: handwritten documents, a novel, a children's book, a dictionary, and a newspaper squib. They all emerged from the south of England and reveal that, in those early years, adults and children, male and female, were playing the game. The diversity of these references suggests to me that English baseball at the midpoint of the eighteenth century had not just freshly arrived. My estimation of an earlier origin, sometime around the start of the 1700s, rests on the notion that it would have taken several decades for a new game to achieve even the modest level of acceptance it appears to have gained by midcentury. It's possible, of course, that I'm wrong about that. Baseball could have started up suddenly around 1740 and become an instant sensation. Then again, its origin may go back decades or centuries earlier than any of us have imagined but left no evidence behind to clue us in.
My assumption that baseball took shape over time through young English experimenters mixing and matching elements of earlier games is a reasonable one and certainly more likely than the alternative — that baseball was the inspired invention of some unknown genius. I never considered the latter possibility while writing Baseball before We Knew It, probably because I was occupied with rooting out American baseball's stubborn and numerous origins myths, including loose ends of the Doubleday story. In the book I thumbed through a roster of possible predecessor games to baseball, highlighting some of their individual features that might have contributed to its evolution. I observed that some forms of a popular early British pastime named stool-ball involved base running around a circuit. I also noted that players of another widely played game called trap-ball utilized a bat similar to American baseball's. Of all the possible ancestors, I speculated that a little-known pastime called tut-ball may have been the most influential. As for cricket, its resemblance to baseball leads to the obvious assumption that the two occupy proximate branches on the same family tree, although neither then nor since have I found any direct evidence that either sport influenced the development of the other. Now, fourteen years since my first book was published, and notwithstanding the several new discoveries of English baseball in the eighteenth century I've made in the interim, my basic guesstimate — that English baseball came into being through trial and error — has advanced very little. It will continue to remain an unproven hypothesis until I, or someone else, can produce solid, contemporary evidence showing that such a process actually transpired.
While we're at it, I should address another unproven hypothesis about English baseball, albeit one so robustly self-evident that I doubt anyone would challenge it barring the emergence of some stunning new proof. By this I am referring to the presumption that English baseball is, if not the immediate ancestor, then certainly a direct ancestor of American baseball. It is obvious and natural to assume a familial connection between the two, notwithstanding the lack of direct documentary evidence to support such a link. There are no records from 250 years ago that attribute the emergence of baseball in America to a like-named English game. There are no diary entries, memoirs, or letters from British colonists in the New World describing how they brought the pastime from the mother country and introduced it to their new neighbors. Any evidence in that vein would be sensational, and the thrill of making a discovery of such magnitude remains in the fantasies of those few of us who research in the realm of baseball's origins, but thus far it eludes us.
What we have instead is a powerful circumstantial case. This starts with the name itself: baseball. While it is within reason to imagine that the identical name could pop up independently on two continents, it is also unlikely. Even more doubtful are the chances that two namesake games could just happen to share similar features yet be unrelated. Both versions adhere to a common formula of pitching, striking, fielding, and baserunning. Taking these similarities into account, even lacking the types of direct evidence I discussed above, the case becomes very solid. Indeed, if English baseball wasn't a forerunner of America's pastime, what would be the alternative? That American baseball was the older of the two, and somehow, through reverse migration, it spawned the English game? All the evidence we have denies this and dates English baseball at least several decades earlier than its American namesake. What about the possibility that indigenous peoples in North America devised the game originally, and then when English settlers arrived, the newcomers appropriated it and labeled it as baseball? Not too likely. My extensive review of sources describing the many ball games played by the original occupants of the Americas convinces me that none of their pastimes resembled baseball. Ultimately, there can really be no debate. While technically unproven by anything other than circumstantial factors, the hypothesis that English baseball is the genetic forebear — and likely the immediate direct ancestor — of America's National Pastime must be viewed as a near certainty.
Because I am unable to pin down English baseball's definite beginnings, my story, by necessity, must start where it can, with those first detectable signs of the game in the mid-1700s. For giving us the earliest of these, and for offering up the first hints of what baseball was all about, we must credit the pioneering English publisher John Newbery and his iconic 1744 children's work, A Little Pretty Pocket-book. Both Newbery and Pocket-book are, of course, well known. He is considered the first publisher to bring respectability to the juvenile literature genre, and his contributions are memorialized in North America through the Newbery Medal, which since 1922 has honored the best children's book of the year. Pocket-book itself is often hailed as "the first true children's book" or "the first book intended primarily for children's enjoyment." These claims overstate the case, as several other entertaining children's works preceded Newbery's effort. Nevertheless, A Little Pretty Pocket-book remains enduringly charming and, for its time, highly innovative.
John Newbery was born in 1713 on a farm in the county of Berkshire. Lacking a formal education, but motivated by curiosity and ambition, he left home at the age of sixteen to become apprenticed to a printer in the town 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 late 1730s he was publishing a newspaper in Reading and beginning to produce occasional books for an adult readership. This is when 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 the newly patented Dr. James's Fever Powder, a concoction of questionable, and possibly toxic, ingredients that was to become widely popular in Britain. It continued to generate sales well into the twentieth century. Meanwhile, Newbery had come to realize that his expanding enterprises were outgrowing the limited market opportunities available in Reading, and in the late summer of 1743 he began shifting 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 that were founded on the radical 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 naughtiness. Newbery was always on the lookout for a 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.
As many times as I've looked at his baseball page in Pocket-book, it never ceases to amaze me. The young publisher could not have imagined what a precious gem he was leaving behind for future baseball researchers to marvel over. The first such marveler was the New York librarian and sports historian Robert W. Henderson, who in 1937 brought the contents of A Little Pretty Pocket-book to the attention of the baseball-reading public in his essay "How Baseball Began." Two years later, Henderson published a follow-up piece entitled "Baseball and Rounders" that completed his demolition of the Doubleday myth. In making his case he cited Pocket-book as proof of baseball's presence in 1744 England, a century prior to Doubleday's supposed invention of the game in Cooperstown, New York.
Why am I so gaga about Newbery's baseball page? Not only does it contain the first known mention of the word baseball (spelled as base-ball), but the publisher masterly captured the essence of the game through his now-familiar four-line verse:
The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin'd Post,
And then Home with Joy.
This simple but vivid rhyme tells it all: a boy strikes a ball, flies to the "next destined post," and then returns to "home." Here, in its 1744 debut appearance, baseball was already recognizable. On the same page as the poem, Newbery printed an image of three boys — a striker, a pitcher, and a fielder — standing amid three posts or bases. You'll note that no bat is shown. While this could have been an oversight of the engraver, I believe it more likely was an early clue that use of a bat was not a requirement of English baseball. The Newbery image remains one of only two illustrations of English baseball I've ever been able to locate. The other is an 1854 painting about which I'll have more to say in chapter 16.
To the kiddies of mid-eighteenth-century England, 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. Everything was there, thirty-two games and activities in all: from kite flying to hopscotch, from leapfrog to blindman's buff. And besides baseball itself, the book devoted separate pages to the related games of cricket, stool-ball, trap-ball, and tip-cat. To top everything off, Newbery's promotion of the book promised special rewards to the children who purchased it. His newspaper ads informed readers that not only was A Little Pretty Pocket-book "intended for the Instruction and Amusement of little Master Tommy and pretty Miss Polly," but that it included "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." The catch in this was that these "letters" to Tommy and Polly provided instructions for how boys and girls were to use the ball and pincushion, although to follow these instructions Newbery obliged the children's parents to purchase the toys at an additional cost. This speaks to his skill as a marketer, and his revolutionary tactic of attaching a toy anticipates by 250 years the Klutz Book series of recent times.
Scholars who have written about Newbery's work have assumed the ball and pincushion were 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 ball that allowed for the insertion of pins. The "letters" from Jack the Giant-Killer published in Pocket-book and addressed to Tommy and Polly prescribed a common purpose for the ball/pincushion whether its recipient was a boy or girl. The child was directed to hang the toy up by an attached string. Then, putting to use ten 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 action. If the child managed to accumulate all ten pins in the red side, Jack the Giant-Killer pledged, ostensibly, to send the child a penny. Conversely, ten pins in the black side would result in Jack sending a rod with which the child was to be "whipt." The publishers of Klutz Books had the good sense not to adopt this darker aspect of Newbery's innovation.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Pastime Lost"
Copyright © 2019 David Block.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Preface Acknowledgments Introduction 1. A Little Pretty Debut 2. The Sporting Prince 3. Two Weeks, Two Discoveries 4. Word Perfect 5. Wild Geese and Red Herrings 6. Ball, Bat, and Beyond 7. Austen’s Aura 8. Science and Letters 9. Ladies First 10. The Numbers Game 11. A Class Act 12. Literary Allusions 13. Glorified Rounders of Antiquity 14. Summertime Treat 15. People’s Pastime 16. Rules Don’t Apply 17. The Old Ba’ Game 18. Strange Diversions 19. The Third Baseball 20. Mottos Are Made to Be Broken 21. When Games Collide 22. Pastime Lost Notes Bibliography Index