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You are here: Home Newsletter Examiner #8 - May 1997 Dispersing the Mists of Time
Dispersing the Mists of Time
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #8 - May 1997
Written by Martin Hoerchner   

We didn't have a detailed plan of action when we went to the British Museum. It's hard to, when researching the origins and ancestry of baseball - the "prehistory" of baseball in Britain. You just don't know where to start. I did, however, have the name of a few early references to either baseball or related games. The first illustration of a game named "base ball" occurred in the Little Pretty Pocket Book, first published in 1744. The volume we found was from 1770. A key volume was the encyclopedic listing of games of the era, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England by Joseph Strutt, published in 1801. There was The Boy's Own Book by William Clarke, first published in 1828. The first reference to rounders was the 1829 edition; we had the 1849 edition. It was this book that, when transported across the Atlantic, printed the same rules for "baseball" as it did for "rounders". We had some other references, but they all came to nought.


This search was not as straightforward as you might think. For instance, while the Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744), a small children's book, had a text and illustration of baseball, Strutt's book (1801), a scholarly compendium of the games and other pastimes engaged in by the people of England, mentions neither baseball or rounders. And it was Strutt's book that most interested me. It was the one of the three that was written for adults, and it listed more games than the others. I decided, to look for, not only references to rounders or baseball, but also elements of baseball in the other games that were listed. In this I was not disappointed.

Having lived in Britain for more than a decade, I have become aware of an angle that can (and must) be read into works such as Strutt's, an angle that might get past even a solid researcher as Robert Henderson, because he had never lived here. And that is the pervasive effects of the British class system on every aspect of life. Even writing from 1997, I find it stifling. I can't imagine what it was like two centuries ago. It has been said that the Americans are taught to do the best they can, while the British are taught to follow the rules. Whether this is true or not in that exact wording, the principle becomes a key factor in the success or failure among particular sports, and more importantly, the success or failure among which classes.

There is another effect the class system would have on the development of a sport. That is how the rules develop under an authoritarian system, where playing by the rules is all-important, in comparison to how they develop under a competitive system where each team member is encouraged to do their best to win the game. The examples are multitude of 19th-century baseball players trying to break or bend the rules to get an advantage; in fact that is the story of the development of baseball. Players and later managers such as John McGraw would stay up late reading the rulebook, finding loopholes. Some of these loopholes were soon closed up, such as King Kelly's jumping into a game to catch a fly ball. But some of them permanently changed the game, such as the stolen base.

Christy Mathewson 

In the 1850s a runner caused amusement when he ran from first to second base between pitches. When challenged by the umpire, he correctly pointed out that there was no rule against it. And there still isn't. This type of behaviour would be seriously frowned upon over here. Christy Mathewson, in a gently mocking tone, writes in his book, Pitching in a Pinch (which has a whole chapter on cheating), "'You have such jolly funny morals in this country', declared an Englishman I once met. 'You steal and rob in baseball and yet you call it fair. Now in cricket we give our opponents every advantage, don't cher know, and after the game we are all jolly good fellows at tea together'".

Overt references to class in Strutt are constant. Under "running", he writes, "In the middle ages, foot-racing was considered as an essential part of a young man's education, especially if he was the son of a man of rank". Later he writes, "Two centuries back running was thought to be an exercise by no means derogatory to the rank of nobility". Under wrestling, he writes, "The art of wrestling, which in the present day is chiefly confined to the lower classes of people, was however highly esteemed by the ancients". Yet, under tennis, he writes, "We have undoubted authority to prove that Henry the Seventh was a tennis-player", surely the highest stamp of approval you can give to a sport, and mentions his son, the future Henry VIII, who was "much attracted to this diversion". Under "hurling", he writes, "The matches are usually made by gentlemen".

The game of "foot-ball" receives short shrift. "It was formerly much in vogue among the common people of England, though of late years it seems to have fallen into disrepute, and is but little practiced." Obviously that trend did not last. Later on he writes of the possible origins of football violence, saying, "The abilities of the performers are best displayed in attacking and defending the goals: when the exercise becomes exceeding violent, the players kick each other's shins without the least ceremony, and some of them are overthrown at the hazard of their limbs." Strutt names golf as the oldest of all bat and ball games. About it he says, "It should seem that golf was a fashionable game among the nobility at the commencement of the 17th century, and it was one of the exercises which prince Henry, eldest son to James the Fifth, occasionally amused himself".

Of pall-mall, he writes, "The game of mall was a fashionable amusement in the reign of King Charles the Second, and the walk in Saint James's Park, now called the Mall, received its name from having been appropriated to the purpose of playing at mall, where Charles himself and his courtiers frequently exercised themselves in the practice of this pastime." But throughout this period, the quintessential British game was cricket, another bat and ball game which is obviously but distantly related to baseball. Strutt writes: "Cricket of late years is become exceedingly fashionable, being much countenanced by the nobility and gentlemen of fortune."

An early painting of trapball.

Even my understanding of Strutt changed from reading to reading. For instance, he uses the term "rustic" often. Viewed from American eyes, the word denotes a countrified, pastoral environment. Yet I wonder whether the word has more of a "peasant" connotation in Strutt's time. Backward, in a word. I would be very surprised if it didn't. Among the games listed as "rustic" are foot-ball. Strutt writes "The rustic boys made use of a blown bladder without the covering of leather by way of foot-ball." About trap ball, which shares many elements of baseball, is written: "Trap-ball, when compared with cricket, is but a childish pastime; but I have seen it played by the rustics in Essex". And essentially, the game of "base" is a "rustic" game. "There is a rustic game called base or bars, and in some places prisoner's bars".

Strutt fascinated me, yet there are more questions. I would like to know why he didn't mention baseball or rounders. Maybe the 1838 edition does, but we haven't been able to locate it. He mentions so many obscure games of the time, why not baseball or rounders? But he does mention the game of base, which is often quoted as a precursor to baseball, or even the same game. It is listed, not under ball games, but under running games. He states that it was "much practiced in former times", and notes the references to base in Shakespeare and in the Edward III edict. He explains the rules this way: "The performance of this pastime requires two parties of equal number, each of them having a base or home, as it is usually called, to themselves, at the distance of about 20 or 30 yards. The players then on either side taking hold of hands, extend themselves in length, and opposite to each other, as far as they conveniently can, always remembering that one of them must touch the base". If you can picture the opening position, there are two bases, one for each team. The team members join hands and stretch out in parallel lines to full length, with each team member facing his opposite, and the one at the end touching the base.

Strutt continues: "When any one of them quits the hand of his fellow and runs into the field, which is called giving the chase, he is immediately followed by one of his opponents; he again is followed by a second from the former side, and he by a second opponent; and so on alternately, until as many are out as choose to run, every one pursuing the man he first followed, and no other; and if her overtake him near enough to touch him, his party claims one toward their game, and both return home."

Now this doesn't sound like baseball; it sounds more like an extended game of tag. I'm not sure if its connection to baseball is at most an unlucky coincidence of name. Yet many writers talk of base as if it is baseball. Harold Seymour, in his epochal volume Baseball: The Early Years writes: "Possibly the first record of an American baseball game is that recorded in the journal of George Ewing, a Revolutionary soldier, who tells of playing a game of 'base,' April 7, 1778, at Valley Forge." He might have been following Robert Henderson, who in his even more epochal Bat, Ball and Bishop: A History of Ball Games writes: "What may be the first game of an actual game of baseball played in America, and so called, is related in the Journal of a Revolutionary War soldier, George Ewing who at Valley Forge on April 7, 1778 'Exercisd in the afternoon in the intervals playd at base'." In both cases base is taken as baseball. More ironically, Henderson adds "and so called" after calling the Valley Forge account the first record of a baseball game. Yet the name wasn't at all the same. It's like confusing York with New York.

In Strutt's account, just before he lists the rules, he writes of the "grand match of base played in the fields behind Montague House", just behind the present British Museum. The game was generally played by adult men, rather than children. In 1801 Strutt says the Montague game was "about 30 years back", bringing it perilously close to the date of the Valley Forge game. Whether the same game could have been played in London and in America by Britons a generation or two removed must be considered. Whether the Valley Forge game was more base than baseball should not be pre-judged. And the question whether base could be an ancestor or other relation to baseball needs more research. Strutt writes than in Essex there was a variation of the game which added two prisons "in parallel to the home boundaries, and about thirty yards from them" thus making a rudimentary diamond. Yet the players didn't "run the bases", ie run in circuit from the first to the second and thereon, and any link is still tenuous. This needs more research.

In the same vein I am trying to understand the game in the Little Pretty Pocket Book, a London publication dating from 1744, and later reprinted in America. At least this game was named "base-ball". Yet the differences with the modern game of baseball are numerous. First of all, there are posts instead of bases. That is not a problem; rounders uses posts instead of bases. And there is no bat. The "pitcher" stands by what we would know as second base, ready to throw the ball to someone ready to hit it with an open palm. But many of the rules of the early games mention using a "bat or hand" to hit the ball after it had been thrown. And only three bases are visible, but that could be because of the perspective. And early bat, ball and base games showed a varying number of bases, so that is not a problem. In fact, this lovely engraving with its teams of men in three-cornered hats, is about 80% of the game we know today.

I find the differences fascinating rather than troubling. The fact that a game named base-ball could have had posts instead of bases, an open palm instead of a bat, and maybe more or less than four bases, is intriguing. Monte Ward points out in his Ward's Baseball Book: How to Become a Player that during his tour of Britain in 1888-89 that the British constantly remarked that Ward's game was "rounders with the rounder taken out". He logically asks that, if baseball was an old British game, didn't they make that comparison. Perhaps by that late time, the game known as baseball in Britain had long ago transformed itself into rounders. Or even disappeared completely. What actually did happen to baseball in Britain after the Little Pretty Pocket Book, 144 years before the World Tour? And a more tantalising question: which really is older, baseball or rounders? I'm sure there are references out there to be found which would clear up the questions.

The Little Pretty Pocket Book also shows games such as trap-ball, stool-ball, and tip-cat, in addition to base-ball. It is in these three games that I find the most resemblance to the baseball we know. But before I go into detail about these similarities, there are a few odds and ends that struck me from this research.

First, despite the fact that is it obvious that Henderson relied heavily on Strutt's work, there is one disagreement I found immediately. It concerns a game called "club ball". In chapter 19, the chapter about cricket, Henderson writes as club ball as the immediate ancestor of cricket: "First, if we understand by 'club ball' not the name of a specific game, but a generic term for ball games played with some form of club." Yet Strutt writes that "Club-ball is a pastime clearly distinguished from cambuc or golf, in the edict above mentioned [i.e. Edward III's]". He also presents two drawings taken from earlier illustrations from games he claimed were club-ball. He then names club-ball as the origin of cricket. So Henderson counters with: "Strutt invented this term in 1808 [ed: the book was published in 1801], and his use of it has misguided historians into the belief that at one time there was an English ball game called 'club ball'. So far there is no evidence that there was such a nomenclature in English for a ball game." But Monte Ward writes: "The first straight bats were used in the old English game called club ball". So who is right? Without more research it's anybody's guess.

But there was one aspect of Henderson that was well supported by Strutt, and that is Henderson's connection of medieval ball games with Easter ceremonies, and their connection with the Church, as everything was in that time. Strutt writes that "hand-ball was formerly a favourite pastime among the young persons of both sexes, and in many parts of the kingdom it was customary for them to play at this game during the Easter holidays for tansy cakes". Later he quotes a Chester antiquary who said it had been the custom from "time out of mind" for the shoemakers to yearly deliver a ball of leather, called a foot-ball, on Shrove Tuesday, the day that begins the period of Lent that ends on Easter Sunday.>

There is one last point that also struck me. That is that the Boy's Own Book copies Strutt word for word in many places. For instance, about stool ball, the Boy's Own Book writes: "In some parts of the country, a certain number of stools are set up in a circular form, at a distance from each other, and every one of them is occupied by a single player; when the ball is struck, which is done as before, with the hand, they are every one of them obliged to alter his situation, running in succession from stool to stool". Strutt writes about the same sport: "Again, in other parts of the country a certain number of stools are set up in a circular form, and at a distance from each other, and every one of them is occupied by a single player; when the ball is struck, which is done as before with the hand, they are every one of the obliged to alter his situation, running in succession from stool to stool."

As for foot-ball, the Boy's Own Book writes that "Foot-ball was formerly much in vogue in England, though, of late years, it seems to have fallen into disrepute, and is but little practised." Strutt writes: "It was formerly much in vogue among the common people of England, though of late years it sees to have fallen into disrepute, and is but little practised." The fact that a child's manual of the rules of commonly-known games could have borrowed wholesale from a scholarly work is an interesting twist in this search.

But while the Boy's Own Book mentions rounders, Strutt's book mentions neither rounders or baseball. So in a search for the origins of baseball, I looked for elements of baseball in the games that were listed. As I wrote before, these are many.

One of the games that Henderson names as a direct ancestor of baseball is stool ball. Of this game Strutt writes "I have been informed that a pastime called stool-ball is practised to this day in the northern parts of England, which consists in simply setting a stool upon the ground, and one of the players takes his place before it, while his antagonist, standing at a distance, tosses a ball with the intention of striking the stool; and this it is the business of the former to prevent by beating it away with the hand... If, on the contrary, it should be missed by the hand and touch the stool, the players change places: the conqueror at this game is he who strikes the ball most times before it touches the stool." This resembles cricket if you substitute the wicket for the stool. If the ball passes the batsmen and knocks the bail off the stump, the batsman is out. Also note that the "batter" actually beats the ball away with his hand, like the Little Pretty Pocket Book illustration of baseball. Note also, that there is no mention of bases or the "batter" running a circuit.

Stool ball, as described in the Little Pretty Pocket Book (1770)

However, Strutt goes on: "In other parts of the country a certain number of stools are set up in a circular form, and at a distance from each other, and every one of them is occupied by a single player; when the ball is struck, which is done as before with the hand, they are every one of the them obliged to alter his situation, running in succession from stool to stool, and if he who threw the ball can regain it in time to strike any one of the players, before he reaches the stool to which he is running, he takes his place, and the person touched must throw the ball, until he can in like manner return to the circle."

Now we're getting closer! Here we have a circuit of bases, each one occupied by a runner (who evidently doesn't have to hit safely to reach base). We also see the beginnings of baseball's "force play", where each runner is forced to move up a base when a runner is behind him. And interestingly, the runners are put out by being struck with the ball - "soaking", in other words. This was a feature of early versions of baseball (like town ball) that was finally abolished with the Knickerbocker rules of 1845. It is interesting to note that the "bases" version of stool ball was just a variation of the game. Like regional accents, it is obvious that different regions played different versions of games. And this is what makes research both more difficult and more interesting.

Henderson says stool ball is the parent of cricket, while Strutt disagrees, saying that cricket descended from club ball. This is the game that Henderson says is a generic and not specific tag. Strutt's description is largely based on two illustrations. He does not date the drawings, but he does connect club ball with Edward III's 14th-century ban. And the dress in the drawings is clearly medieval. Strutt writes: "The first exhibits a female figure in the action of throwing a ball to a man who elevates his bat to strike it; behind the woman at a little distance appear in the original delineation several other figures of both sexes, waiting attentively to catch or stop the ball when returned by the batsman." Unlike stool ball, club ball uses a bat; in fact, that is how it gets its name. But there is no mention of the batter running after hitting the ball. An interesting point is the mixed-sex nature of the game; which has not been uncommon with ball games from then till now.

Strutt continues: "The second specimen of club-ball, which indeed is taken from a drawing more ancient than the former, present to us two players only, and he who is possessed of the bat holds the ball also, which he either threw into the air and struck with his bat as it descended, or cast forcibly upon the ground, and beat it away when it rebounded; the attention of his antagonist to catch the ball need not to be remarked." This description is reminiscent of hitting fungoes. In school we did a similar exercise as a warmup before a baseball game. But the batter could either toss the ball in the air and hit it, or bounce it hard on the ground and hit it after the bounce. Surely an early version of the Baltimore chop! This hints that the ball was softer and more rubbery than a baseball.

The description of these two illustrations is all that Strutt writes about club ball. The pictures, obviously copies from the originals, are neither identified or dated. Henderson's scepticism regarding club ball might well be justified. with this lack of supporting information. Again, this is a story waiting to be written.

We now come to the grand English game of this time, if not all time: cricket. Cricket was so dominating that the Boy's Own Book, in its chapter on ball games, has one section on cricket and one section on "other games". Strutt writes: "From the club-ball originated, I doubt not, that pleasant and many exercise, distinguished in modern times by the name of cricket." The differences and similarities between cricket and baseball are too familiar to list here. But less familiar is his description of variations of cricket: "This game, which is played with the bat and the ball, consists of single and double wicket."

Double wicket is similar to the current game, and the single wicket version is described this way: "At the single wicket the striker with his bat is the protector of the wicket, the opponent party stand in the field to catch or stop the ball, and the bowler, who is one of them, takes his place by the side of a small batton or stump set up for that purpose two and twenty yards from the wicket, and thence delivers the ball with the intention of beating it down. If ... the ball is struck by the bat and driven into the field beyond the reach of those who stand out to stop it, the striker runs to the stump at the bowler's station, which he touches with his bat and then returns to his wicket. If this be performed before the ball is thrown back, it is called a run." Like many sports of the period, cricket had a varying number of "bases", a bit like the versions of the old US game of cat, like "one old cat", "two old cat", etc. Has cricket ever been played with four wickets?

The Boy's Own Book says about trap-ball "This game is, by many, considered to rank next to cricket." Strutt only says is "anterior [i.e. older] to cricket". That this was a popular game of the time is evident when "The Boy's Own Book" says "With the form of the trap our young readers are of course acquainted". The trap was actually a small catapult that would hold the ball. The striker would spring the trap with his foot and strike with the ball with a small bat that resembled a large wooden spoon. Strutt writes "It is usual, in the present modification of the game, to place two boundaries at a given distance from the trap, between which it is necessary for the ball to pass when it is struck by the batsman, for if it falls without side of either, he gives up his bat and is out." This is an early reference to the foul rule. This is important because the existence of foul territory is one of the main things that distinguishes baseball from cricket.

The Boy's Own Book illustrates trapball.

Strutt continues: "He is also out if he strikes the ball into the air and it is caught by one of the his adversaries before it grounds." This is the fly rule, a feature of both baseball and cricket. "And again, if the ball when returned by the opponent party touches the trap, or rests within one bat's length of it." This is similar to the put out. And the "Boy's Own Book" says "It is not necessary to make the game in one inning". The inning is a hallmark both of baseball and cricket, but note t he usage in the singular, like the American game!

Strutt lists a variation of the game played in Essex: "for instead of a broad bat with a flatted face, they used a round cudgel about an inch and a half in diameter and three feet in length, and those who had acquired the habit of striking the ball this instrument rarely miss their blow, but frequently drive it to an astonishing distance." The first reference to power hitting! But still, unlike stool ball and cricket, trap ball is purely a hitting and catching game, with no running element.

"Tip-cat, or perhaps more properly, the game of cat, is a rustic pastime well known in many parts of the kingdom. Its denomination is derived from a piece of wood called a cat, about six inches in length and an inch and a half or two inches in diameter. The player with its cudgel strikes it smartly, in the same manner as he would a ball". Strutt then says, unsurprisingly, that there are many variations, and lists two of them. One of them has the batter standing in the middle of a large circle drawn on the ground, and trying to hit the cat outside of the circle.

More importantly: "The second method is to make four, six, or eight holes in the ground in a circular direction, and as nearly as possible at equal distances from each other, and at every hole is placed a player with his bludgeon; one of the opposite part who stand in the field, tosses the cat to the batsman who is nearest him, and every time the cat is struck the players are obliged to change their situations, and run once from one hole to another in succession; if the cat be driven to any great distance they continue to run in the same order, and claim a score towards their game every time they quit one hole and run to another; but if the cat be stopped by their opponents and thrown across between any two of the holes before the player who has quitted one of them can reach the other, he is out."

This version gets closer to baseball. It has a bat (cudgel or bludgeon), unlike stoolball. It has bases, like cricket and stoolball. It has runners who run the bases in succession, like cricket and stoolball. Like cricket and unlike baseball, it has a striker at each base. A unique aspect of the game is its use of an irregular piece of wood instead of a ball, which would give it an irregular path, and thus be harder to catch, especially on the bounce. A bit like a rugby ball or American football. I have heard of a US game, in living memory, that used as a ball a bit of wood with a nail driven it in, to give it an untrue bounce. Has anyone ever heard of this game? Another question is about the connection between the English game of tip-cat and the US pre-baseball game of "one old cat" and "two old cat". Irving Leitner, in Baseball: Diamond in the Rough, says "it has been suggested that the familiar game one o' cat ... originally was known as 'one hole cat'. Such a description would be in perfect harmony with Strutt's description of tip-cat, in which 'every time the cat is struck' players 'quit one hole and run to another'."

Lastly we come to rounders. Of rounders, The Boy's Own Book says it is "a favourite game with bat and ball, especially in the west of England", which is Jane Austen country. This game is, of course, the closest to baseball yet seen. It would be easier to list the differences. Most importantly, the runner is put out by being struck by the ball, and not tagged or forced out. The feeder (or pitcher) is allowed to fake a throw, violating baseball's balk rule. There are no strikes, balls, or fouls. And rounders has the "rounder", in which one of the last two players may opt to be given two tries to circle the bases before the ball is returned. If he makes it, the whole side gets to bat again; if not, the inning is over.

The subject of the relationship between baseball and rounders has filled volumes. It is a game that is commonly known as the English parent of baseball, though that has never been proven. It may be more correctly a cousin, a maybe even a younger cousin, to baseball. Suffice it to say at this time that references to the word baseball go farther back than rounders. What exactly is the relation between these two similar sports? We need to dig deeper.

All this is of course only skimming the surface. There are so many questions to be answered: I hope we've asked some of them here. The study of the ancestry and origins of baseball is a wide-open field, because so little has already been written. It can be a difficult and frustrating path; the references that interest us are frustratingly rare. I know there must be more than four references to baseball in the 1700's. It was described as well-known and commonly played. The first reference dates from exactly 1700. Imagine if someone could find a reference from the 1600s! And of the four, only the Little Pretty Pocket Book gives a hint of the rules. Can more information on this be discovered? And of course, the relationship to rounders always bedevils us. Is the child father to the man? Can we find more early references to rounders, and especially those that use it in the same breath as baseball? Do you think any newspaper articles about the 1874 tour, or even the 1888 tour, describe baseball in comparison with any British games?

This is virgin territory, and one could make important discoveries with very little effort. So give it a go - great things await!

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 June 2009 15:37