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The Chicken or the Egg?
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #5 - January 1995
Written by Patrick Carroll   

Undoubtedly the most tedious experience for the baseball enthusiast in Britain is the almost-unfailing repetition of the phrase, "Oh, you mean rounders," mouthed by the average Brit whenever the subject of baseball comes up. Apart from the universal human instinct to patronise that about which one is ignorant, it is difficult to understand the monotonous predictability with which this phrase is trotted out. It's boring. It isn't original. It isn't witty. And, more to my immediate point, there is considerable doubt as to whether it's even true.


Having been continuously peppered with this cliché for the nearly 30 years I've spent in Perfidious Albion, I decided recently to try to begin justifying my august office within this organisation by undertaking an innocent, disinterested enquiry into the whole "Oh, you mean rounders" business.

I took as a starting point John Montgomery Ward's Base-ball: How to Become a Player - with the Origin, History and Explanation of the Game. This excellent booklet was originally published in 1888 and has been lovingly reproduced in a SABR edition, with a forward by Mark Alvarez, and given free for our delectation to us lucky members. In his "Introduction: An Enquiry into the Origin of Baseball, with a Brief Sketch of its History", Ward argues eloquently against the theory that baseball is a development or deviation from the game of rounders.

The crux of Ward's argument is that despite being invariably referred to as "the old English game of rounders" those propounding the rounders-as-chicken-baseball-as-egg theory have never been able to adduce any historical evidence whatsoever of rounders' antiquity as a game in its own right. Unfortunately for his complete credibility, Ward's argument was, as Alvarez points out in his forward, "flawed by [his] chauvinistic insistence that our game was a purely American sport, not descended from or related to English ball and bat games". And, as I have said elsewhere, it is not really convincing to suppose that baseball "just growed" from the native ingenuity of the American Boy. I am aware that there have been studies made of this subject but I have not as yet had an opportunity to read any of them. In order to fill in until such a chance arises I betook myself to the local library and pulled down a hefty tome entitled The Oxford Companion To Sport and Games, edited by the late and much lamented John Arlott, the Red Barber of cricket.

Turning the entry for baseball I find, after an exegesis of the rules and so forth of the game, this statement: "Baseball, long regarded as the American national game, evolved directly [my italics] from the old [again, my emphasis] English game of rounders". Pretty authoritative and positive, what? The entry goes on to say, "The myth that baseball was spontaneously invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839 at Cooperstown has no basis in fact." Well, no, it never did. Even in Ward's day that piece of American counter-propaganda katzenjammer had been thoroughly debunked. But check out the end of the paragraph which, referring to rounders, says, "The game was played in a simple form under the name 'base ball' in England and America as early as the 18th century."

Hmm, do you, as I do, get the feeling that there is a screw loose in the logic of this historical analysis? The feeling is not assuaged by turning to the entry for rounders and finding there the statement: "The earliest known literary reference to rounders was in 1744 when A Little Pretty Pocket Book included a woodcut of the game and a verse under it under the name of (wait for it) 'Base Ball'." The Oxford Companion goes on to cite RW Henderson's book Ball, Bat and Bishop: The Origin of Ball Games in which the author maintains that baseball stems from the English game. Not having been able to get hold of Henderson's book, I am unable to comment on the basis of his argument, but whatever it is it doesn't seem to have lessened the confusion of those responsible for the relevant companion entries. The problem is becoming one of semantics and may be stated thus: baseball evolved from rounders, only rounders, at the time when baseball was evolving from it, wasn't called rounders, it was called baseball. Got it? Good.

In justice (or injustice) to the compilers of the Oxford Companion I must observe that they manage to get their boxer-shorts in a similar tangle over cricket. In the book's lengthy cricket entry there is a section dealing with the origins of the game which gives a wonderfully English Heritage account of how it arose out of the Saxon mists, played (this is all quite specific) by shepherds - particularly in Kent and Sussex where the terrain favoured its development - using hurdle gates as wickets, their crooks as bats and bundles of wool as balls. Very picturesque indeed.

Unfortunately for the coherence of this fairy story, in other entries it is suggested that cricket came about through the marriage of two other games, club ball and stool ball, both of which, in historical reference, post-date those cunning shepherds batting the wool around the gate with their crooks. I give you this from the entry on stool ball: "It was one of the two older pastimes from which the modern game of cricket probably sprang, ...the idea of bowling at a wicket, an essential feature in the development of cricket, was borrowed from stool ball where, as the name suggests, the wicket was a stool." Compare this with the following: "Club ball was an ancient pastime played with a stick and ball and ... [a] 'rude and unadulterated simplicity'. It is important because it introduced the straight (as opposed to curved) bat and, it seems, the placing of fielders to catch the ball." This, combined with the use of the stool as wicket in stool ball, apparently equals the recognisable ancestor of modern cricket. Poor old John Arlott, chewing over all this in the great Long Room in the sky, might well be tempted to call for another bottle of claret.

So, our earliest references to baseball (so called) are early-to-mid 18th century. Rounders - which as it is now played, has always seemed to me to be a rather stilted and artificial game; one that gives the feeling of having been codified by PE teachers rather than naturally evolved by players - gets no historical reference that I know about prior to 1827. Before that, every (English) commentator assumes it is an old English game but all his historical sources refer to it as "base ball". The Knickerbockers drew up their rules in 1845. The first governing body for rounders did not come into being until 1889.

My researches in the Oxford Companion also led me to the entry for Welsh baseball (of which we have read previously in this newsletter). It says, in part, "Supporters of this form of the sport claim that the American game grew from Welsh baseball. The ancient [that word again] game of rounders flourished in the west of England and almost certainly led to this refinement building up in south Wales. It spread to isolated pockets of England, notably around Liverpool." Internal migration of the Welsh to Liverpool, of which there was a great deal, would, of course, easily explain this, but why should the mere process of crossing the Bristol Channel change the name of the game from rounders to baseball?

Then there is Irish rounders. I've seen this game played. It is also called base rounders, as it uses bases rather than posts, and it is described in the Oxford Companion as being "... very similar to the softball version of baseball." This is accurate enough not to warrant any quibbling from me. And, it may be Irish chauvinism on my part but I find it a much more attractive game than the English version.

Then we have Pesapallo: Finnish baseball. Also known as "nest ball" and "burn ball". (Surely Nolan Ryan didn't come from Helsinki?) It is said to be based on modern baseball and certain traditional Finnish games such as kuningaspallo, pitkapallo and (wouldn't you know it) rounders, called, in Finnish, the "four goals" and, in Swedish, brannboll.

The last entry in the Oxford Companion to which I will refer is for the certifiably ancient game of trap ball. This game is recorded as being played at least as long ago as the 14th century, being especially associated with Shrove Tuesday festivities. The game is essentially the same as baseball or rounders but for the fact that the ball instead of being thrown was projected toward the hitter by means of a miniature version of the type of catapult used at that period to hurl cauldrons of molten lead at one's military adversaries. This medieval pitching machine consisted of a spoon suspended between two uprights; the thin, or handle, end of the spoon being struck downwards thus slinging the ball at the batter. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

There are no entries in the Oxford Companion for town ball, or for one- or two-old-cat, that "favorite of boyhood" which Ward maintained was the one true lineal ancestor of baseball. Perhaps the omissions occur because these games are thought to be too strictly American and 'unorganized'. However, there are references in the trap ball entry to games with such suggestive names as tribet, tip cat, kit-kat and others using various combinations of stick, ball, and hole culminating in Knurr and Spell, a game widely played in Yorkshire and appearing to be one of a number of games developed from a variety of primitive Scandanavian golf.

Having had some fun with inconsistencies of the Oxford Companion compilers, I feel that it is only fair to leave the last word with them. In the cricket entry, after all that flapdoodle about Kentish shepherds, there is this wisely modest observation: "The basic pattern of one person casting a ball at a target - hurdle, gate, stool or stone - defended by another who tries to hit the ball away with a stick is so simple that it may well have separate origins in different communities..." In my present state of benign and ignorant agnosticism, I'll go with that for now.

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 June 2009 18:38