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Chadwick Explains Baseball's Roots
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #7 - May 1996
Written by Martin Hoerchner   

I wish I could tell you that I discovered this article in the dusty basement of some obscure library, after pouring for hours over wizened tomes. It sounds good, but I cannot tell a lie. I found this article in a recent compilation of baseball articles that I purchased at Sportspages. It is entitled Early Innings, and it is published by the University of Nebraska Press. It includes first-hand source material from baseball's early days, from 1825-1908.

Henry Chadwick.

The article that really caught my eye was entitled "The Ancient History of Base Ball", written by Henry Chadwick in 1867. For those of you not acquainted with Henry Chadwick, he is the closest person we have to the Father of Baseball Writing, the Father of Baseball History, and the Father of Baseball Scoring. He was born in England, emigrated to America, and started out as a cricket devoté. But he very soon embraced the new American sport of baseball, and became its biggest supporter in the press during baseball's early years. Being British, he was aware of the origins and ancestry of the sport, and tried to refute the Al Spalding-inspired jingoistic "Abner Doubleday" myth. To no avail, at least at the time. The young country was just asserting itself, and it didn't want to acknowledge any foreign influence. Well, we're older and wiser now, and we finally can acknowledge it. The roots of baseball are old, probably older than any other sport played today, and we can't pretend it started in Cooperstown.

What really impressed me about this article was that Chadwick confirms a lot of the findings that the British Baseball History Committee has made in the last few years. Not only the research, but even some of the hypotheses. Seeing that, I will quote extensively from Chadwick. He often wrote of the "ancient game of base ball", and in this article, he explains just how ancient it is.

"In the old days of the gallant Edward the Third, in the first half of the 14th century, there came into fashion, among the youths and children of England, a game called barres, or bars, which consisted in running from one bar or barrier to another. It grew to be so popular that it at last became a nuisance, so that the barons of England, as they went to the Parliament House, were annoyed by the bands of children engaged in playing it. They were at last obliged to pass an act of Parliament which declared, in the quaint Norman French of the period, that 'nul enfaunt ne autres ne jue a barres' in the avenues which led to Westminster Palace."

This medieval history was covered by us in Examiner no.5, in Mike Ross's article 1847 Sporting Life Articles Shed Light and subsequently enlarged upon by Barry Winetrobe in his article in no.6, Starting from Home. Chadwick continues:

"The name of this game was subsequently corrupted to 'base'; and two hundred years after Edward's day, Spenser, in his 'Faerie Queen', alluded to it as follows: 'So ran they all as they had been at bace, They being chased that did others chace'."

Now this was new to me, but the next reference I was familiar with, thanks to Ross's article in Examiner no.5: and Shakespeare, in his Cymbeline, shows that he was familiar with its character, for he makes one of his characters say: "He with two stripling lads more like to run The country base, than to omit such slaughter." Even now men frequently indulge in this pastime, and so late as 1770 there was a celebrated game of "bars" or "base" played in London, in the field behind Montague House, which has since been transformed into the British Museum. It was played between a select party of persons from Derbyshire and another from Cheshire, and was witnessed by all London. Derbyshire won, and a great quantity of money changed hands on the occasion. In the process of time, from a peculiarity in the method of playing it, and to distinguish it from other games which had sprung out of it, it was called "prisoner's base", and as such still affords amusement to the children of England and America.

This game was mentioned in Barry Winetrobe's article in Examiner no.6, where he quoted Joseph Strutt's book The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. The games mentioned were primarily running games, without a ball. As for baseball as "prisoner's base", Mike Ross has a theory - as yet unsupported - that an early name for base ball, goal ball, is a corruption of "gaol ball", ie "jail ball". He also had a theory that the game of base ball came about when the game of base met the game of ball. Chadwick continues:

"The skill in this game consisted simply in running with agility and swiftness, in such a way as not to be caught by the opposing party, from one 'bar' or 'base' to another. After a while somebody thought of uniting with it the game of ball, and thus formed the game of rounders, 'round ball', or 'base ball'. 'Rounders' took its name from the fact that the players were obliged to run round a sort of circle of bases."

He then goes on to a detailed explanation of the rules of rounders:

"This game of rounders first began to be played in England in the 17th century, and was the favorite ball game in the provinces until it was generally superseded by cricket at the close of the last century. It is still, however, occasionally practiced in remote localities. It was brought to our country by the early emigrants, and was called here 'base ball' or 'round ball'. Sometimes the name of 'town ball' was given to it, because matches were often played by parties representing different towns.

"But, so far as we know, the old English title of 'rounders' was never used in America. The reason of this is that so many of our old New England settlers came from the eastern counties of England, where the term 'rounders' appears never to have been used. In Moor's 'Suffolk Words' he mentions among the ball games 'base ball'; while in the dialect glossaries of the northern and western counties no such word is to be found. English 'base ball' or 'rounders', was a mild and simple amusement compared with the American sport which has grown out of it. Even the hardy girls and women of England sometimes played it. Blaine, an English writer, says, 'There are few of us, of either sex, but have engaged in base ball since our majority.' Think of American ladies playing base ball!

"Yet the English 'rounders' contained all the elements of our National game. All that it needed was systematizing and an authoritative code of rules. This it did not obtain until after 1840-and not completely until 1845. Previous to that date base ball was played with great differences in various parts of the country. Sometimes as many as six or seven bases were used; and very frequently lengthy disputes arose among the players as to the right method of conducting the game. It is a little noticeable that in laying down rules for base ball there is not one technical term that has been borrowed from cricket - a game long since reduced to a science.

"Of course the two sports, being both games of ball, necessarily have many terms in common, but there is not a base ball phrase which can be recognized as originating among cricketers. On the other hand, it is quite probable that cricket owed many of its peculiar words, such as 'field', 'fieldsman', 'run', and 'bat', to the older 'rounders'. In relation to the word 'base', we may say that, in addition to the origin which we have given-namely, that it comes from a corruption of 'bars' in the game styled 'prison bars', or 'prisoner's bar' - there is another somewhat plausible derivation. It has been suggested that as the object of each side in the game of "bars" was to keep the other party at bay, the places where they were so kept, that is the 'bases', were styled 'bays', of which 'base' is a corruption."

The idea of baseball being as at least as old as rounders and both developing side-by-side was covered, with great wit, by Patrick Carroll, in his article in Examiner no.5 entitled The Chicken or the Egg?.

Thus in his article, Henry Chadwick sheds more light on the origins of baseball, while letting the British Baseball History Committee know that they are on the right track. But the job is by no means finished, and his last line sounds like a clarion call for more research:

"But this whole subject needs elucidation, and a careful study of the rural sports of the mother country would undoubtedly throw much light upon the history of base ball."