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Footprints in the Snow
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #8 - May 1997
Written by Martin Hoerchner   

There is nothing so elusive as time. There is nothing so irrevocably lost as that which is lost in time.

One day last winter we had a light snowfall. By the time I got home it was dark, so I switched on the outside light in the back of the house. The snow was fresh and untouched, except for a set of tracks across it. I could follow the route with my eye. It seems that one of the neighbourhood cats had jumped over the fence at a low point, had walked over to ponder one of the cement flower pots in the garden, then walked over to the clothes line, then walked back toward the fence, and jumped back over from whence it came.

I'm sure many neighbourhood cats have jumped into our garden, snooped around, and jumped out. Probably thousands of times a year. These are moments lost in time. But because of a fresh snowfall, one action was recorded. It was an incomplete record; only footprints. We don't know the colour of the animal. Or even if it was a cat; that was only an assumption. We don't know which way it was looking, or what moved it along that path. We only have the footprints.

Our search for the origins of baseball is like looking these footprints. We have evidence that this game, or a game with the same name, was played extensively in different parts of Britain in the 1700s - yet in that century exactly four references to baseball have been found. Footprints in the snow. A group of Wessex children, as likely to be girls than boys, meet for a match on a breezy spring day in 1738; one team triumphs, and the moment is lost. The game is called baseball, but there is no record. A moment lost in time.

In 1700 Reverend Samuel Wilson of Maidstone, Kent, wrote a letter decrying the playing of sports on Sunday, and wrote down the earliest reference to "base ball" we have. In 1744 was first published the Little Pretty Pocket Book with the first illustration of the game. In 1798 Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, and mentioned base ball in the first few pages.

Another footprint dates from 1748. That year Lady Hervey wrote: "The Prince's family is an example of innocent and cheerful amusements. All this summer they played abroad; and now, in the winter, in a large room, they divert themselves at base-ball, a play all who are, or have been, schoolboys, are well acquainted with. The ladies, as well as the gentlemen, join in this amusement." This Prince was none other than Frederick, Prince of Wales. He was one of the few heirs to the throne to predecease the monarch; he was the son of George II and father of George III. It says that "all who are, or have been, schoolboys, are well-acquainted" with baseball. But baseball in a large room? This was 217 years before the Astrodome. What kind of a sport was this? There are much more questions than answers.

I've always been intrigued about the origins and ancestry of the game we know as baseball. I call it the "Mists of Time" period of baseball history. Pitifully little currently exists on the subject. This makes it a bit hard to know where to start. We came to the conclusion that it would at least be interesting to look at some seminal texts, including the 18th century references, and see what they might offer to the researcher trying to trace the origins and ancestry of the game of baseball.

Living within shouting distance of London, I always assumed that the British Library would be ideal place to start in this search. Henderson may have had access to many texts, but he wasn't over here. But for some reason I had always assumed that the British Library was only open on weekdays. A turning point for my enthusiasm for breaking this mystery, was when I actually made a phone call and found out it was open on Saturday! I also found out that the Newspaper Library at Colindale was also open on Saturday! Boy did I feel stupid! That proves what they say about assuming things, that "ass out of you and me" joke.

One evening Mike Ross and I, fuelled by fine single malt whiskey and Havana cigars, came up with the idea of finally visiting the British Library, and, as a start, trying to find certain seminal texts oft quoted in baseball cosmogony. I didn't take us long to come up with a search list - the Little Pretty Pocket Book of 1744, the first illustration of the game of baseball. Joseph Strutt's 1801 Sports and Pastimes of the People of England. William Clarke's The Boy's Own Book of 1829, the first listing of the rules of rounders - the rules that were transported intact to the American 1836 volume Book of Sports, except that the name of the game was changed to baseball.

We made the visit on Pearl Harbor Day - I don't know if this was significant. I met Mike in the middle of Russell Square, not far from where a "grand match of base" was played in 1770 behind Montague House, between gentlemen of Cheshire and Derbyshire. I knew the area, having worked there years ago, and pointed out where the match would have been played. The game was recorded, and so we have more footprints in the snow. Both Strutt and Chadwick mention it. Mike had phoned in advanced to request our books, so it was all arranged in advance. We completed the applications and they issued a card good until 2001 - by that time Hal would supposedly be available to help us with our searches.

Then we passed through security and entered into the Main Reading Room. This was an awe-inspiring moment. This place is august, and no other word suffices. The huge circular room is surrounded by stacks going up towards the ceiling, rising to a dome. Hushed lighting, with reading stations fanning out from a central area, like petals on a daisy. The solemnity of the wisdom of the ages. This was where Karl Marx researched Das Kapital. It was published three years after the first codified rules of baseball, and it started revolutions, just like baseball. I'm not usually a traditionalist, but the new place won't be the same.

Then we found a place to sit, read, and take notes. I immediately spotted my favourite research tool - computers! At that point I knew I would be home free. While Mike went off to get the books he had ordered, I jumped on one of the computers, entered "baseball" into the search criteria, and off I went. I bombed around, going off on tangents and following threads, like a real net surfer. Unlike the net, though, you could only search titles, authors, and subjects, and not the texts. I dreamt of a time in the future when all the books in the library would be digitized, and searches could be done throughout all texts. You'd really need Hal for that. I uncovered all sorts of gems, with some tempting misses. An 1878 volume entitled Base-ball and Rounders by Captain Rawdon Crawley (pseud.) was "permanently mislayed". A book with the same title by Robert Henderson, published in 1939, was destroyed during the war. Most importantly, an 1838 version of Joseph Strutt's Sports of Pastimes of the People of England could not be found. I just kept filling out slip after slip - I was on a roll. Mike came back with the books, including a huge volume of the 1801 Strutt, and an old book in Russian. This wasn't evidence of the Russian claim to inventing beizbol, but merely an error by the librarian.

 

We had a few dead ends. We got an 1823 edition of Suffolk Words, which was supposed to mention regional usages of the word "baseball" in Britain. However, the book had more than 300 pages, no index, and just a passing reference to the word. We couldn't find it, and it would have taken all day to look. Another book, The Club: A Dialogue Between Father and Son by Puckle, written 1834, was supposed to be about baseball. We couldn't find any reference to baseball in it. We coined a word, "to be puckled", meaning "to get a bum steer". In fairness, the edition was a different one than the reference we were given, so maybe it changed.

 

 

We were faced with a multiplicity of volumes, more than we could ever digest in an afternoon. Then, to my joy, I found that you could photocopy these books! If the book wasn't too old or rare, you could do it yourself, and it wasn't exorbitant. So I tucked Strutt et al under my arm and went off to copy relevant pages. So I could digest these texts in unhurried peace, or on the tube during rush hour.

 

 

I have always been intrigued with the past. At the age of 16 I was going through charity shops looking for old 78 rpm records that people threw out. I'm not too sentimental, and I don't believe the past was necessarily better than the present. It's just unobtainable. It's the fourth dimension. You can go to Egypt, you can go to Spain, but you can never go to yesterday or tomorrow. By the time you get to tomorrow, it's today. I've never liked being told what I can and can't do. That which you can never have intrigues me. So I make it a goal to break open this mystery, dispersing the mists of time, and discovering how and where, and most importantly why, baseball succeeded or failed to flourish and grow, and the social, geographic, ethnic, and political factors that influenced it. It's a deep and intense story, and we've only just begun.

 

 

I write extensively about what we discovered and what we didn't elsewhere in this issue. I only want to end this article with a call to hit the stacks yourself. It was surprisingly easy, and these books are full of interesting reading. Even if you don't find references to baseball, this stuff is fascinating, like a time capsule dug from the earth after two centuries. The last time I was in California, I searched the 1931 Sacramento newspapers for my great-great-grandfather's obituary. I found it. On the same day there was an advertisement for the first public display of television in the city, though the ad admits it is "still in its infant stage". It's amazing stuff. And it's waiting for you.