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You are here: Home Newsletter Examiner #9 - October 1997 The 19th Century Debate: Spalding vs Chadwick
The 19th Century Debate: Spalding vs Chadwick
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #9 - October 1997
Written by Martin Hoerchner   

In the last Examiner I wrote an article called A Brief History of Baseball Prehistory. I feel now that the issue is a bit more polarised than had originally occurred to me. In the 19th century, if you were interested in the origins of the game of baseball, you either had to believe Henry Chadwick, or you had to believe Albert Spalding.

Soon after baseball began in the US as an organised sport, the first baseball writer commented on the origins of baseball. He was Henry Chadwick, and he was born in England. He emigrated when he was 13 years old, so he remembered his childhood games. In 1856, when he was 19 years old, he wholeheartedly embraced the new American game of baseball.

Chadwick also recognised similarities between baseball and a sport he played as a schoolboy, namely rounders. In Britain, rounders is a game played mainly by children, boy and girls, with a bat like a policeman's night stick and a ball more the size of a tennis ball than a baseball. But it also has bases (actually posts, like in the Pretty Little Pocket Book), and batters hit the ball and then run the bases. Because baseball resembles rounders, Chadwick immediately drew the conclusion that baseball was descended from rounders. Chadwick was soon the most popular and respected baseball writer of the nineteenth century. So in his writings he often mentioned "the ancient history of baseball", and he promulgated extensively the baseball-from-rounders theory.

I'm not sure what research Chadwick really did, aside from noting the similarities between rounders and baseball. He quoted from Joseph Strutt's Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, from 1801. This book mentions base, but neither baseball or rounders.

I can't help thinking about another analogy. There is a British sport called netball. It is played by schoolgirls, ie from 12-16 years old. It is very similar to the US sport of basketball, with these exceptions: the ball is smaller, there is no dribbling, only passing, there is no backboard, the net is lower and smaller. It is obviously a more basic game than basketball.

Well, Britain has more history than America, and netball is a more primitive game than basketball, and netball is a girls' game and US basketball is an adult professional sport, so US basketball is descended from UK netball, right? Well, not really. Netball is derived from basketball. Basketball was an invented sport whose origins can be traced specifically to Dr James Naismith, a Canadian working at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. He invented basketball in 1891 in response to the need for a game involving more skill than strength, and one that could be played indoors in a small space. The first game was played with a soccer ball and two peach baskets. If only the beginnings of baseball could be traced so exactly! But baseball wasn't invented; it developed. Slowly and over decades, if not centuries.

Chadwick immediately saw the similarities between rounders and baseball, just like he would have seen the similarities between netball and basketball. He assumed that the American game was descended from the British game because of those similarities. But he was never able to prove it.

This of course did not sit well with the American press and public; evidently Chadwick never let the matter lie dormant. The American backlash was strong, led by Albert Spalding (the first baseball magnate) at first, and later supported by other lights such as John Montgomery Ward. Ward sounds a bit silly when he writes that baseball "just growed". But is it really that far off the mark?

The 19th century debate about the origins of baseball boiled down to Chadwick vs Spalding. AG Spalding had the final say for thirty years. He got AG Mills, the President of the National League, to chair a commission to support his viewpoint, and the "Mills Commission Report" was accepted as gospel until Robert W Henderson.

While Henderson's scholarship is nearly immaculate, his conclusions sometime require a leap of faith. He is extremely successful in debunking the Mills Report, the Doubleday story. It was fairly easy to do, because the evidence is so flimsy, but no one had ever thought of it before. It seems to me that, once he knocked down Spalding, all Henderson had left was Chadwick. He was caught in the 19th century debate instead of starting his own. He must have figured that because Spalding was so far wrong, Chadwick must be right. When Henderson discredited Spalding, he basically adopted the Chadwick's "baseball as rounders" story. He also felt the need to put Alexander Cartwright in Abner Doubleday's place as baseball's founder, even though he admits it is arbitary.

Henderson will always be remembered for debunking Spalding, but he muddied the waters by swallowing Chadwick hook, line, and sinker. Chadwick had a lot of insight and information, but I've never seen how he supported his "baseball from rounders" theory. He may have noted similarities, but does that mean one is descended from the other? Henderson found the Pretty Little Pocket Book picture, and also the almost exact match between the English Boy's Own Book (1829) description of rounders and the American Book of Sports (1837) description of base-ball. The leap of faith consists of accepting this as evidence that baseball descended from rounders.

And while Alexander Cartwright is probably baseball's first organiser, his part in the formulation of baseball's rules is questionable at best. Is there something about the psyche, or maybe the American psyche, that needs an Abner Doubleday, an Alexander Cartwright, instead of accepting that baseball "just growed"?

I have said before that Henderson is the father of baseball prehistory. But we need to move on. If we see anything more clearly in the intervening years, is that it's not as simple as Spalding vs Chadwick, or Doubleday vs Cartwright. Just as we needed to break the shackles of Spalding, we need to break the shackles of Henderson. We need to look at the origins and ancestry of baseball from an unprejudiced viewpoint, search for hard facts and not draw conclusions without them.