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A Brief History of Baseball Prehistory
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #8 - May 1997
Written by Martin Hoerchner   

Baseball grew to maturity unself-consciously in New York City in the 1840s. The city gentlemen who came together to play on weekends were not overly concerned with the origins of the game that they so enthusiastically embraced. It was only a variation of a family of games that all had known since childhood. A bit of baseball history ends, not begins, with the Knickerbockers. Before baseball became a codified game, it existed in numerous variations under a myriad of names, with only passing mentions by writers of the age. Indeed, in this prehistoric era, the references to baseball and rounders and town ball and one old cat and many other related games are extremely rare. So we peer into the past "through a glass darkly".

Baseball grew from the Knickerbockers at an amazing rate. True, in the beginning it was largely regional, being popular in the Northeast. But the Northeast was also the most populous, important, and advanced region of the country, and everything that originated there was bound to spread. Just as baseball spread from New York City to the rest of the Northeast, it spread from the Northeast to the rest of the country. Events such as the Civil War and the California Gold Rush hastened the inevitable.

This was an aggressive, optimistic, and forward-looking young country, and retrospection was not the rule of the day. Bright minds were more concerned with "what can we do with this game?" rather than "where did this game come from?".

Along with the rapid growth in baseball came the beginnings of baseball writing. It seemed that people couldn't get enough of baseball; when the game was over, they wanted to read about it later. Henry Chadwick soon emerged as the premier sports writer. Arriving in this country in 1850 at the age of 13, he started out as a cricket fanatic. But in 1856 he witnessed a game of baseball at Elysian Fields, and was so moved that he adopted the new country's new sport and became its prime champion in the press. He was influential for a half century. He invented the box score and most of baseball's statistics, and was known during his lifetime as "The Father of the Game". More accurately, I would call him the "Father of Baseball Writing and Statistics".

Henry Chadwick was born in Britain. He immediately recognised the similarities between baseball and rounders, a game that he played as a child. He mentioned it in his writings, often commenting on the "ancient game" of baseball, and discussing its English roots. Here was the most respected baseball writer of all time, telling them they were playing game of British origin! This did not set well with many people.

Including one John Montgomery Ward. Most of us remember Monte Ward as the founder of the first baseball players' union and the first player to fight against the reserve clause. In 1888 he wrote a book called Baseball - How to Become a Player. In his "Introduction: Origin and History", he writes about the history of ball games, leading up to the codification of baseball in 1845. He sketches the history of games from ancient Greece to Old England, quoting scholars such as Joseph Strutt. He then shows his pique with those that claimed baseball is descended from rounders. He wrote: "There were ... persons who believed that everything good and beautiful in the world must be of English origin." His ire evident, he then specifies Chadwick in all but name as "the main proponent of the rounders theory", and says other writers were parroting his words without making an investigation.

Ward supports his theory that baseball is not descended from rounders by mentioning 18th-century English references to baseball, including Jane Austen, and said there were no references to rounders anywhere near as old. [Patrick Carroll made this same point in Examiner no.5]. But then he paints himself into a corner. So as not to give credit to the English for baseball itself, he also said that this game must have been quite different from baseball as we know it. He then mentions old American ball games that could have developed into baseball, especially one old cat. But his credibility suffers when he declares the origin of baseball is "the fruit of the inventive genius of the American boy". Well-researched as it is, Ward's account fails to bridge all the gaps, and it reads as if written by someone who had made his mind up before thoroughly examining the facts.

I have no doubt that most of the American jingoistic attitudes about the origins of baseball were a reaction to Chadwick's frequent mention of baseball as a derivation of rounders.

In 1888 Monte Ward went with Albert Spalding and a group of ballplayers representing two Major League teams, and took a round-the-world tour to bring baseball (and presumably Spalding's sporting goods) to the unconverted nations of the world. When they played a game by the Pyramids, one of the players wrote about the locals "They took more interest in the game than the average Englishman, and did not once refer to it as 'the old game of Rounders, you know'". And they hadn't even been to England yet! Evidently the attitude that so annoyed this player was fostered by the English people he had met in America.

When the tour finally returned to New York there was a grand formal banquet served at Delmonico's, attended by dignitaries such as Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the former National League president, Abraham Mills. Mills addressed the group, and said that "patriotism and research" [in that order, presumably - ed.] had shown that baseball was a purely American invention. Guests and players alike pounded the table and chanted "No rounders! No rounders!". If Henry Chadwick had been present, he must have run for cover.

In 1905 Al Spalding decided to put the last nail in the rounders coffin by commissioning a group to finally discover the origins of baseball. How much research they actually did is questionable, but their partiality was unquestionable: they were there to prove baseball American. They could not, however, unearth solid facts, and were near their deadline with just the insistence that baseball was an American invention. Then, like a gift from God, came a letter from Abner Graves, an elderly resident of Cooperstown, New York. He wrote of playing baseball with Abner Doubleday in 1839, and how Doubleday made improvements to town ball and turned it into baseball. Doubleday was a general in the Civil War and a real American hero.

This was what they'd been waiting for. The Spalding Commission took this as gospel without investigation, even though the account was full of holes. As if this wasn't enough, they added embellishments such as Doubleday's eliminating soaking, and his sketching the diagram of the field on a piece of paper. Henry Chadwick, ever more venerable by now, was allowed to add his dissenting opinion to the end of the report, restating his claim that baseball was a descendant of rounders. But it didn't do any good. The patriots had the certification they had always wanted.

And thus was sunk the ship of baseball prehistory. The last bit of it disappeared under the waters, and the waves closed over it. Within minutes it was never apparent that there was ever anything there.

The sea remained sealed over it for thirty years. Doubleday was Baseball's Founder, and that was that. 1939 was seen as the centennial of baseball, and as the year approached, Baseball made preparations to erect a shrine to itself in Cooperstown.

The man who finally debunked the Doubleday myth was Robert W Henderson. He was Head Librarian at the New York Racket Club, but his main area of interest was baseball. He proved baseball was once the same game as rounders by showing two texts side by side, one in 1829 in England describing rounders (The Boy's Own Book), and another a few years later in America describing baseball (The Book of Sports). The rules are exactly the same. He also showed the utter implausibility of the Cooperstown myth by showing the contradictions of the Graves story. His argument was so compelling that even the traditionalists begin to see the truth of it. By this time, a half-century after Ward, it is possible that America was starting to feel a bit more secure about itself, and could accept foreign influence in its national pastime.

His book, Baseball and Rounders, was published in 1939, the year the Hall of Fame opened in Cooperstown. It must have rained heavily on their parade. Henderson kept up his research and in 1947 published Bat, Ball and Bishop - A History of Ball Games. It is a sweeping genealogy of ball games, starting with ancient Egypt, where they were connected with religious ceremonies. They were picked up by the Muslims after they conquered that land, and then entered Europe through Moorish Spain. From there the games moved into France, and were particularly connected with church rites during the Easter season (hence the "Bishop" part of the book's title). From there they moved into Britain. He describes the medieval French game of la soule, and the British game of stoolball, first mentioned in 1330, which sprang from la soule and which he says is the parent of both cricket and baseball. Like Ward, he quotes Joseph Strutt, but comes up with a different conclusion.

This book is the seminal work in the prehistory and origins of baseball; it is also currently out of print. Today the name Henderson is fairly obscure. But he is the father of baseball prehistory. We really haven't uncovered much beyond Henderson. Later scholarly works such as Seymour's The Early Years only paraphrased him.

We of SABR UK are in a unique position. We're close to the source of baseball parentage, unlike our American cohorts. And we care to know, because we're baseball fanatics, unlike our British neighbours. We are sitting in the catbird seat, with the opportunities to make some real discoveries. And that's an exciting prospect.