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You are here: Home Newsletter Examiner #6 - October 1995 Back to Basics, or Starting from Home
Back to Basics, or Starting from Home
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #6 - October 1995
Written by Barry Winetrobe   

I chose the title deliberately to indicate that this is my first attempt, however minor, at baseball research, and that this is a look at an aspect of the possible origins of baseball in this country. It arose from Mike Ross' article in Examiner no.5, 1847 Sporting Life Articles Shed Light, and seeks to firm up some of the references cited in that article. As such, this piece can hardly be regarded as a piece of original work, but it might assist fellow SABRites in their work.

What intrigued me about Mike's article initially was the reference to an order of Parliament during the reign of Edward III banning the playing of "base" around the Palace of Westminster. I had just been working with the volumes of Parliamentary material of that period and was sure that they would contain the full, official version of the relevant order. The index to the Parliamentary Rolls records not one but 14 (!) different orders of this type during Edward III's reign. In these early days, Parliament did not meet on a regular 5-yearly cycle as we have nowadays. The King would summon a Parliament, which may have lasted only a number of days or weeks, as and when he needed money or other assistance from his subjects, so new Parliaments may have been summoned a number of times a year, and orders, such as the one in which we are interested, will have be issued anew each time.

As SABR is a research body, I will disturb the flow of my narrative to provide you with the full citation for those who may wish to look up these orders: Rotuli Parliamentorum pp64a (1331-2), 66a-b (1332), 68b (1332), 103a (1339), 107a (1339*), 112a (1340), 117b (1340), 126a (1341), 135a (1343), 146b (1344), 157a (1346), 164a (1347*), 235a (1350-1) and 236b (1351-2). All the orders are in Old French, which, with Latin, was the official language. The English translation of the order, taken from the first recorded instance in 1331-2, is as follows:

A bunch of naughty kids.

"Our Lord the King forbids on pain of imprisonment that any child or others should play in the area of the palace of Westminster, during the Parliament which is summoned there, at barrs or other games, nor at knocking people's hats off nor laying hands on them nor any other hindrance which would prevent each person from peacefully going about their business." All the orders cited use this phraseology, some with minor variations, except the two marked * above which do not have the "a bares" phrase in which we are interested. It is the "bares" which Mike's article cites as "base". The crucial question is: Does the Old French word "bare" either mean "base" in a baseball sense, or refer to some game which itself can be regarded as an ancestor of baseball?

The entry for "bares" in Robert Kelham's A Dictionary of the Norman or Old French language (1779; Tabard Press, 1978) is "at barrs, a game so called." Not very helpful beyond confirmation that it is a game. So, if in doubt, go to the obvious source, the Oxford English Dictionary. Under "bar", it has an entry for the plural "bars": "the game of 'prisoner's base' or 'chevy'. The players, after choosing sides, occupy two camps or enclosures, and any player leaving his enclosure is chased by one of the opposite side, and, if caught, made a prisoner. Still used in northern dialect." It cites several examples back to c1400.

Dr Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language has an entry for "base" in similar terms: "An old rustick play, written by Skinner, bays; and in some counties called prison bars; in which some are pursuers, and others are prisoners, one party being opposed to another in the trial of swiftness. It is yet in use." [Todd's ed., 1827]. Johnson also cites several uses of the word, including the quotation from Shakespeare's Cymbeline cited by Mike Ross in his article:

Posthumus: "He, with two striplings, lads more like to run The country base than to commit such slaughter, With faces fit for masks, or rather fairer Than those with preservation cas'd, or shame, Made good the passage; ..." [Act V scene ii lines 19-23; editions vary]

For our purposes, the most interesting citation is the OED's reference to Strutt's Sports and Pastimes, also cited in Mike's article. Joseph Strutt's The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1801) is a beautiful book with stunning illustrations, and it contains a lengthy description of "base" or "bars"' or "prisoner's bars" or, citing Johnson's Dictionary, "bays". Unfortunately, there were no illustrations of the game. As this book may not be easily accessible to all SABRites, I will quote at length from Strutt [pp61-3]:

"[Base] is a rustic game... and as the success of this pastime depends upon the agility of the candidates and their skill in running, I think it may properly enough be introduced here. It was much practised in former times, and some vestiges of the game are still remaining in many parts of the kingdom."

Strutt then says that the first mention he had found was the Parliamentary order in Edward III's time, and, as his text is virtually word for word that of the 1947 TSL article quoted by Mike, it is safe to assume that the TSL piece was based, at least in part, on Strutt's book. Strutt also quotes the lines from Cymbeline, again in the form cited in TSL rather than the version quoted above. Base was "most assuredly played by the men, and especially in Cheshire and other adjoining counties, where formerly it seems to have been in high repute."

Strutt then explained how the game was played.

"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 twenty or thirty 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; when any 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 he overtake him near enough to touch him, his party claims one towards their game."

Strutt here has a footnote: "It is to be observed, that every person on either side who touches another during the chase, claims one for his party, and when many are out, it frequently happens that many are touched"... "and both return home. They then run forth again and again in like manner, until the number is completed that decides the victory; this number is optional, and I am told rarely exceeds twenty."

He then recalled a game of base he saw "about thirty years back", ie c1770, "in the fields behind Montague House, ie the British Museum". This game was played by "12 gentlemen of Cheshire against 12 of Derbyshire, for a considerable sum of money, which afforded much entertainment to the spectators." Strutt described the Essex variation of base:

"... With the addition of two prisons, which are stakes driven into the ground, parallel with the home boundary, and about thirty yards from them; and every person who is touched on either side in the chase, is sent to one or other of these prisons, where he must remain till the conclusion of the game, if not delivered previously by one of his associates, and this can only be accomplished by touching him, which is a difficult task, requiring the performance of the most skilful players, because the prison belonging to either party is always much nearer to the base of their opponents than to their own; and if the person sent to relieve his confederate be touched by an antagonist before he reaches him, he also becomes a prisoner, and stands in equal need of deliverance."

He concluded his short piece by noting that "the addition of the prisons occasions a considerable degree of variety in the pastime, and is frequently productive of much pleasantry."

Now, it is all too tempting when doing any form of historical research, especially that which seeks the origin of something, to "make the history fit". We can see in the '"prisons" a form of dugout; the London game Strutt saw between representatives of two Northern English counties for "a considerable sum of money" may resemble a mixture of barnstorming and the early days of professional baseball in the USA, and so on.

Whatever the truth of these theories, it does seem that Mike's suggestion that "barrs", "base" or "prisoner's bar" may be part of the origin of the running game in baseball is very possible. Of course running and 'tag' games must be as old as humanity itself, and there are no doubt many variants in every country, and we cannot pounce too eagerly on anything which happens to contain the word 'base' or something similar to it. Look at any good dictionary and you will see the many derivations of the word, most of which have nothing to do with the origins of baseball. I had a brief moment of excitement on a recent visit to Hampton Court Palace, which has a courtyard area called 'Base Court'. Unfortunately it simply means that it is the lower, secondary courtyard.

The idea that baseball is an amalgam of several games, ie running games and ball-and-stick games, seems very plausible. If "barrs"/"base" is part of that origin, then at some point not only did the two aspects of running and ball-and-stick games combine, but so did the methods of scoring of each game. How these amalgamations took place, presumably a long slow process over centuries, may well be the answer to the question of the origins of baseball.