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You are here: Home Newsletter Examiner #5 - January 1995 1847 Sporting Life Articles Shed Light
1847 Sporting Life Articles Shed Light
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #5 - January 1995
Written by Mike Ross   

Baseball did not appear as a result of spontaneous generation somewhere near Cooperstown, New York, as a purebred American thing. Such a myth surrounds the ubiquitous Abner Doubleday who was miles away from Cooperstown when he was supposed to have been there inventing the modern game. The yarn has been spun by AG Spalding and been supported by various commissions and societies hyping the American dream.

Being liberated from such notions, SABR (UK) has every reason to get down to the business of verifying the bone fide roots of baseball, with a variation on the theme of its derivation from rounders.

For a kickoff we can search for customs relating to old British children's games, and they lead to the fields, dales and wayward greens of rural England and the parks of London.

Really, with the talk of researching baseball's origins, and while forced to assume it sprang from British soil, SABR (UK) has a tough turkey to carve. After all, scant information has been set down. With the Doubleday myth, up until the publication of Ball, Bat and Bishop [Henderson] in 1947, no one really knew the story. While the Americans were shifting the goalposts from England to the USA, the British bothered not about staking a claim to a game they invented, and were indeed asleep at the wheel. In a way, the Britons' failure to lift a pen to prove what was theirs, is almost an insult to our beloved game. The Russians would have had their own Cooperstown by now.

At the British Library Newspaper Library in Colindale, London, while searching for clues to baseball's murky origins, an article emerged from among the first issues of a British periodical, The Sporting Life (TSL), dated 1847. The writer (no by-line) laments the demise of the old children's games, pretty much forbidden (already) on many greens. One such game was "base", mentioned in a couple of Shakespeare plays and quoted by the TSL writer from Shakespeare's Cymbeline: "He, with two striplings, lads more like to run the country base, then to commit such slaughter, made good the passage".

The country base? How be it? One supposes that the quote refers to boys playing games rather than running to war. The writer adds: "Drayton and Spenser, contemporary with Shakespeare, also allude to 'Prison Base'. It was a running game, and therefore we may presume chiefly a youth's amusement; yet it is also known to have been played by men in Cheshire and the counties adjoining, within the memory of the present generation."

Not much to go on, but if conjecture indeed be acceptable, let us then suggest that, when a batter gets on base, that we regard him as being a prisoner? Let's face it, when one is 'on base', if he (or she) possesses any degree of competitiveness, an inkling of team spirit would result in an innate longing to break out, to go home.

The baserunner, while safe, is unable to move forward toward his ultimate destination without help. So, while the base is a prison, it is also a refuge. And if he gets caught off base, he is out. Out of luck, out of the game, out of life. A player's position on base is a formality if he fails to make it home.

Just an idea. My favourite contention has been that baseball was unable to develop in England because of the power of the aristocracy and the remnants of feudal Britain. The game was forced to America, and there permitted to grow up. And akin to the Pilgrims, baseball can be regarded as an underlying cause of the American Revolution.

We are reminded of the original quote from John Tener, former president of the National League: "Britain is a democratic country, but lacks the finishing touch of baseball". Well, not so surprising when we consider the ponderous process required by baseball to win out.

Our TSL writer alludes to what might relate to baseball's origins, showing where the squeeze was on: "The rural games are nearly abolished, that many persons perhaps scarcely know any of them excepting by name. Some are entirely or all but entirely extinct and others are only kept up in out-of-the-way nooks of the country, where modern manners have been less successful in intruding..."

Modern manners? Or was it restrictions imposed by the upper classes perhaps as far back as the middle ages? What say to the notion that the origins of baseball go back that far? "It is mentioned so long ago as the reign of Edward III [1327-1377] when an order of Parliament forbade 'boys and others' to play at it ['base'] in the avenues of the Palace at Westminster, on account of the interruption which it gave the members passing to and fro as their business required'." Well, we wouldn't want those poor MPs to be disturbed by silly children's games, would we?

The New York Knickerbockers organized a game of baseball at Hoboken, New Jersey, and they are now officially recognized as the inventors of the modern game. Not Doubleday. Credit was given to them for pacing out the 90 feet (30 yards) between bases. Such a perfect distance! Practically mystical. Not to deprive Cartwright and company of glory - we need our benchmarks - but that 90-foot space has been around a long time. The 1847 TSL quotes a Mr Strutt writing in his Sports and Pastimes, about the games of Base or Prison Base: "The performance of this pastime requires two parties of equal numbers, each of them having a base or home, as it is usually called, to themselves at the distance of about twenty or thirty yards..."

Well, we know about the 30 yards, so the 20 yards was to accommodate the little leaguers from the Middle Ages. Softball also relates to Strutt's numbers. Remember, we speak of these as simply running games. Do we detect the beginnings of what in baseball is termed 'the running game'? Were some lads pre-empting Ty Cobb or Rickey Henderson and setting the pace? And one might suspect that, at some point, Base joined with the game of ball; hence "base ball".

The writer speaks of the concept of "going home", and of a player being tagged "out". First team to get a score of 20 would end a contest. Twenty-one was needed in Knickerbocker baseball. Another childlike variation was known as bars, "with stakes placed in the ground at 90 feet intervals", an innovation used in rounders. "... Bars - it is necessary to have on each side a row of stakes driven into the ground about thirty yards in advance of the home boundaries; this row of stakes is called the prison. Such was the arrangement adopted in Essex where the game was played by men since the beginning of the reign of George III [1760-1820]."

England is far behind several other European countries in adopting the game on a national scale. Yet English uncles, brothers and cousins played baseball in America and attempted to introduce it 'back home'. Despite the various baseball missions and the efforts of Spalding, the eager and wealthy John Moores, and Frances Ley of Derby who built "The Baseball Ground" there in 1890, which exists to this day, baseball utterly failed to succeed here.

We may acknowledge a lingering feudalism that has often caused the suppression of initiative in the British commoners. And suppose, their children's natural impulses were thwarted for the pleasure of the lords, most noticeable in London's parks and "commons". Not so strange that baseball failed to flourish. Just an idea.

Since the events surrounding Edward III in the 1300's, the notion of a free range would not materialize for the children. Described as a game of "unrestrained exercise", even in the mid-1800s they were "fast disappearing". So the culprit was not baseball in the eyes of the lords; it was the natural freewheeling and imaginative activity of "unrestricted" children's games.

From an issue of TSL of the same year, 1847, a further indictment: "A FEW MORE WORDS UPON HYDE PARK: [Hyde Park] is of a goodly extent... This park is a royal property, and is used now and then for (royal) reviews; but for nothing else; for as we stated in our last paper with reference to Regent's Park, "It is all for the eye" - children not even being allowed to play trap-ball [ie an early form of baseball] within its precincts. This monopoly of space on the part of the government is a great moral injustice if ever there was trusteeship on the part of the nation, it but ill becomes it to employ that prerogative to the very letter of the law that allows it. We have walked over Hyde Park dozens of times and could not help feeling surprised each time we did so, that so large a space of ground should be suffered to lay idle..."

As in Italy and Sweden particularly, baseball is a spectator sport. In Britain only about 1200 players from assorted leagues keep the flame alive. The governing federation is ill-equipped to deal with the opposition from above which also affected softball during its rise in Britain, from 1963. Then a few Hollywood moguls, filming in London, started a club in Hyde Park which evolved into HyPISCO (Hyde Park International Softball and Canoeing Organisation).

Now, that Palace of Westminster, mentioned above, where Edward III and the fellas made the rules, would have been in close proximity to what is now Hyde Park. There HyPISCO threw down the gauntlet and, against negative tradition, has succeeded in playing ball at their regular pitch for 31 years. But, more than once, modern-day edicts have banned them. Déja vu. In the last decade, a bowler-hatted stroller, attending a "royal review", stubbornly refused to recognise the game's boundaries. He inadvertently received a conk on his bowler, and wrote a letter to the authorities. As a result, police maintained restrictions for awhile. Some of the national press found the incident compelling.

And get this: At the same Regent's Park mentioned above, while cricket and soccer were permitted, softball and baseball (gaining increasing popularity) officially were banned in 1992 (the charge was for "digging up the grass"). That edict was overturned, for the numbers now playing organised softball in London are vast. That is not to say that in the future the Duke of Westminster or Lady Porter might again induce the House of Lords to end softball in 'their' royal parks.

The TSL from 1847 concludes: "(an act) which one might suspect emanated from the brain of some Old Bailey clause-picking lawyer, rather than from that quarter where the soul of honour is supposed, most essentially, to be a freehold resident. To take the fraternity of Brother Bobs [commoners, one supposes] as a class there does not exist a more inoffensive one to the rights of property in the whole of Her Majesty's dominions; and to make them suffer... is a despotic act not at all in keeping with the commonest notions of common justice. Representing as we do... the interests of this class, we are thus emboldened to speak out, and hoping that our first words may not pass unregarded, for the present we lay down our pen." And with that, so will we, leaving the issue open-ended, at least for the moment.