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This SABR'd Isle
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #5 - January 1995
Written by Martin Hoerchner   

This is not an article about baseball. It is about days of old when knights were bold.

I have been turning issues relating to the genealogy of baseball over in my mind, and I offer some unsolicited opinions. It seems to me that the question of whether baseball is descended from rounders or vice versa is a confusion, just like the early 20th-century controversy about evolution. Darwin did not say humans were descended from the apes; he said they were cousins, not father and child. Baseball and rounders are both are a member of a distinct family of games which flourished England and America from at least the 18th century, and whose origins stretched back much further than that, really to time immemorial. This family includes cricket, rounders, and baseball; it also includes extinct games like Massachusetts ball, town ball, goal ball, stool ball, one old cat, two old cat, plus more modern variations like softball and stick ball.

When I was a child growing up in California in the early 1960s, we played a game at school called kickball. This was obviously a variation of baseball, played on the playground tarmac. We used a big red-brown inflatable rubber ball, about a foot and a half in diameter. The l ayout of the defense was exactly like it is in baseball, albeit on a smaller scale, with bases and infielders and outfielders. The ball was delivered by a "pitcher", and the kicked with all the "striker"'s might. He/she would run the bases as in baseball; the rules for scoring a run or being put out were the same. A wrinkle was that the kicker could call for their type of "pitch" - either fast or slow, rolling or bouncing. A bit like baseball rules before 1887, when the batter could call for a high or low pitch.

I was a "power kicker" and would always call for "fast bouncies" (as opposed to "slow rollies", which were for wimps). When the ball came bouncing towards me, I would time my motion to meet the ball at the height of its bounce, and then with all my might slam it with my foot and take it as far as I could, hopefully over the heads of the outfielders. Even today I can remember what it was like to get hold of one. It was a good playground game, not needing the space, the grass, or having the worry about broken windows that baseball carries. Has anyone else ever heard of or played this game?

Jane Austen writes of "Base Ball" circa 1800 in the West Country of England. Was it the baseball we know? Did they have the three-strike rule or the infield fly rule? Was the distance from pitcher to batter 60 feet six inches, and was the distance between the bases 90 feet? I'd be surprised. This game is another member of the family. For the heterodox, the real birthday of baseball as we know it was September 23, 1845, when Alexander Cartwright proposed his 20 rules to his Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. These were pretty much the same rules we know, except for the pitching distance and the winning score of 21 instead of nine innings. Before then we have a tangled web of relations, like a mystery novel. But this is where it gets interesting. This is where we really have to get our Sherlock Holmes magnifying glasses out. And this is also the point where hard facts become scarce, and supposition and interpretation take over.

In his article, Mike writes of the "joys of research". I must confess my baseball research has been mainly done in either bookshops or my own library. But I do have a good research story, and frankly, it was a very moving experience, even though it has nothing to do with baseball. It was soon after I moved to London, and I was interested in writing a screenplay about the princesshood of Queen Elizabeth I. Her elder sister, Mary, ascended the throne in 1553, and the next year a rebellion broke out against the Catholic monarch in favour of her more Protestant sister. Mary didn't know if Elizabeth was a co-conspirator (history has said she was not), but she had to protect herself and ordered Elizabeth to the Tower of London (where Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, had been beheaded only 18 years before).

The boats came to the Palace of Westminster (where ball games had been forbidden since the 14th century!). Elizabeth, ever fast-thinking, asked to be able to write a plea to her sister the Queen. She was allowed, and she purposely took her time in writing the letter, so that by the time the letter was finished, the tide had shifted, and it was no longer possible to take her by boat from Westminster to the Tower. It was called the "Tide Letter". I read this letter was at the Public Record Office, off Chancery Lane. So I went there to see it. I first had to apply for a User's Card; they asked the reason for my interest, and I said I was writing a screenplay. That's all they needed; nothing had to be proved and no delays were met. They pointed me towards the public room, which was fairly large and mostly empty and had a retrieval desk and rows of chairs and counters. I filled out a card requesting the letter - I already had a reference number.

So it was brought to me, just stuck in a cardboard folder. They just handed it to me and walked away. I could have made a paper airplane out of it. This was probably the most important letter this great monarch had ever written in her life. She was writing it to save her life; at that time people rarely left the Tower alive. There was a debate about whether her handwriting shows a panicked state of mind, or whether it shows someone who was either confident of eventual vindication or had the courage and presence of mind to bury her fears.

I had seen her handwriting from the same time period, written under fairly banal circumstances, in a document in the British Museum. I could compare them. They handed me the letter, and I couldn't believe it. I ran my fingers over the writing, and especially her signature. The second and last page, after the text was finished, she finished the page off by scrawling it with diagonal lines so no one could add anything afterwards. I was entranced; I spent a long time just running my eyes over the words, trying to study the mind that wrote them.

The letter didn't save her from the Tower. She was taken down river the next day, with the tide. But no evidence was ever found against her, and she was released after three months. Mary died after a reign of only six years, and Elizabeth became Queen at 25. Oh, and about the handwriting - yes, it certainly wasn't as neat as the British Library letter - I was imagining her writing it with armed guards standing over her - but it shows none of the panic that I read about, and the presence of one of the keenest minds of that time, if not any time. That I held it in my hands, I shall never forget.

I think this is my fascination with research, that of a solid, tangible link with the past. It doesn't have to be your past - I have no English blood - but life as we know it was influenced by the happenings of so long ago, in countries sometimes far away - whether a princess fighting for her life, or children fighting to play a game they loved. Artifacts from those days are nothing but benchmarks in the march of time.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 17 June 2009 18:32