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Baseball's First Reference
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #13 - Autumn 2003
Written by Martin Hoerchner   

Martin Hoerchner investigates the supposed earliest reference to baseball.

I’ve always thought that SABR members in the U.K. were uniquely placed to investigate the origins of the game we call baseball, because we live in the land that most probably nurtured the early games that gave birth to baseball. For instance, I’ve always been interested in Robert W. Henderson’s account of the earliest known baseball reference.


Robert W. Henderson is the Father of Baseball Genealogy. In his seminal 1947 book, Ball, Bat and Bishop: The Origin of Ball Games, he writes:

The earliest mention of a game called baseball so far located was made by the Reverend Thomas Wilson, a Puritan divine at Maidstone, England. He wrote reminiscently in the year 1700, describing events that had taken place before that time, perhaps during his former years as a minister. ‘I have seen’, he records with disapproval, ‘Morris-dancing, cudgel-playing, baseball and cricketts, and many other sports on the Lord’s Day.’

This reference has been accepted and repeated many times over. But to me, something never seemed quite right about it, for a few reasons:

1. I have never seen the word ‘divine’ used as a noun.

2. I know there is a 1 in 100 chance that an event will take place in a year ending in 00, but it just seemed to me to be an estimate, a ‘circa’ date.

3. I wouldn’t expect such an early reference to use the term baseball. I would expect either base ball or base-ball.

4. There is no hint regarding the source of the quote, whether a book, personal letter, etc. Unfortunately this is a general failing of Henderson’s usually impeccable research.

5. According to my knowledge of British history, the Puritans were a spent force after the Restoration (1661), after twelve years of the theocracy of Cromwell and the Roundheads. I can’t imagine someone claiming to be a Puritan in 1700, at least openly.

A further clue was discovered when I was researching stoolball, and was going through the papers of Major Grantham, stoolball’s twentieth-century re-inventor, in Lewes in Sussex. I came across a copy of the Sussex County Magazine for July 1928, which contained the article Stoolball in Sussex by M.S. Russell-Goggs. It contains a series of early references to stoolball, including this one:

About 1630 a Puritan records that ‘Maidstone was formerly a very profane town, where stool-ball and other games were practised on the Lord’s Day’.

This really got my interest, because it seemed very similar to the Thomas Wilson comment, quoted by Henderson. But it gives a much earlier date than Henderson, and baseball is not one of the games mentioned. Still, 1630 is a much more reasonable date for a Puritan minister; in fact, that was the year the Puritans founded the American city of Boston.

So I was more puzzled than ever, but I didn’t know exactly where to start to track down the exact quote. So I let it simmer for years, but then, last week, in a sudden burst of inspiration, I vowed to try to solve the mystery. After all, Maidstone isn’t far from me, about 20 minutes by car. I pictured myself discovering the quote on a yellowed letter in a dark cobwebbed corner of the Kent County Historical Society Headquarters.

Maidstone, in fact, is the County Town of Kent (where I live), so it’s equivalent to a U.S. state capital. It’s a busy town of 140,000 people, about 20 miles southwest of London. At least I think it’s a town. In Britain cities and towns are official designations; for instance, a city has to have a cathedral to be a city. Cityships are of high status and are handed out like prizes on the Queen’s Jubilee years. Maidstone sits on the River Medway, which snakes right through the centre of town. Despite its proximity, I haven’t spent much time there, probably due the lack of parking spaces. It’s got a jumble of bridges and roundabouts in the middle of town, with a hundred signs whizzing around; the kind of traffic maze where you have to know what lane you want to be in about six turns in advance. My fondest memory of Maidstone is driving through it once during a summer festival, which I later found out was an annual event called the River Festival. The streets were full of people, the river was full of brightly-decorated party boats, makeshift barbecues served food all over, and the sound of music was everywhere. And yes, it was on a Sunday.

I was at a loss as to where to start to find the quote, because Henderson didn’t give a clue to the source of the quote. So to start, I entered "Thomas Wilson" and Maidstone in Google, and to my surprise got quite a few hits! I felt guilty doing research by Internet, but salved my consciousness by telling myself it was only a pointer to finding the original document, and seeing for myself the wording.

The first reference that caught my attention was from the Canterbury Christ Church University College Bookshop. To my great joy I found a write-up of a book that they carried, written by Jacqueline Eales, a Reader in early modern history at the University. The book was entitled Community and Disunity - Kent and the English Civil Wars, 1640-1649. It was a collection of four different lectures, number three of which was entitled Thomas Wilson and the ‘Prophane Town’ of Maidstone. So there was a whole chapter based on the quote! And my suspicion was reinforced of an earlier date. I phoned the bookshop immediately to see if they had the book in stock so I could drive to Canterbury to pick it up that day (I love visiting Canterbury, if you can overcome - yes - the lack of parking spaces). But it was a Bank Holiday, and the shop was closed. So I contacted them the next day and ordered the book, which was not in stock, and I eagerly await its arrival.

Back to the Internet, the second reference that grabbed me was on a website about the 1911 Encyclopaedia, which was a really excellent reference site and taken verbatim from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. The listing was for ‘Cricket’ and it ran into screenfuls, very exhaustive and complete. The section of interest was at the beginning, where, like the stoolball article, they ran a catalogue of early references to the sport. One of the earlier references was this:

In The Life of Thomas Wilson, Minister of Maidstone, published anonymously in I672, Wilson. having been born in 1601 and dying in or about 1653, occurs the following passage (p. 40): "Maidstone was formerly a very profane town, in as much as I have seen morrice-dancing, cudgel-playing, stool-ball, crickets, and many other sports openly and publicly indulged in on the Lord’s Day."

That was really a Eureka moment! This reference gave the source I’d always wanted. If it was Henderson’s baseball quote, it would set the date of the earliest baseball reference back at least 28 years, and maybe even 47 years, and maybe even more. The quote was taken from a book about Thomas Wilson, published in 1672. I was thrilled to discover it was in a book, because I could possibly see it in the British Library. Now I even knew on which page the quote was.

So I immediately went to the British Library website - sorry, doing research on the web again. You can search their catalogue, and I hoped against hope, and bingo! It was there. The title of the book was given as The life and death of Mr. Tho. Wilson, Minister of Maidstone, etc. It was indeed dated 1672, and ran 99 pages. The book had no author but there was a comment that the preface is signed G.S., i.e. George Swinnock. I immediately ordered the book for my perusal in two days’ time.

From the moment I first got the idea to check the Internet for the quote till I found the British Library catalogue listing for the book, took about a half-hour.

So I had two days to mull things over. One of the first things that came to me was that the 1911 cricket quote didn’t mention baseball either. It was stool-ball where Henderson had baseball. This tallied with the stoolball article, which mentioned stoolball “and other sports”. I was at odds as to how to reconcile these discrepancies. Unless - there are SABR UK members, sometimes including me, who believe, in one form or another, that there has been a certain level of suppression of baseball in this country, including suppression of baseball’s importance in the history of sport, because they wanted to diminish its importance to give precedence to British sports. It smacks a bit of paranoia, conspiracy theories, etc, but I honestly thought that it was the most likely explanation for the difference in the quotes. Seeing the source will reveal all.

I had this fantasy of coming across the baseball reference on page 40, and running my fingers over the word, and proving all the conspiracy theories. I would feel like Howard Carter opening Tutanhamen’s tomb - I would be the first person in history ever to specifically search for an original baseball reference and find it in a source that can be definitely dated to a year in the 1600’s.

When I got to the library, they handed me the book, which was very small - it was 3" x 5 ½ " - and fit in the palm of my hand. I hurried to my desk and hurried to page 40, and this is how it read (preserving the original spelling):


The Reformation which was wrought by his means and Ministry in Maidstone.

Maidstone was formerly a very prophane Town, insomuch that I have seen Morrice dancing, Cudgel playing, Stool-ball, Crickets, and many other sports openly and publickly on the Lords Day; I have heard them jeer, and deride and mock at those who professed Godliness and went to hear a Sermon on the Lords Day abroad, when they had none at home.

It mentioned stoolball, not baseball. King Tut’s tomb collapsed around me, and my chance at baseball history immortality vanished in a puff of dust. Sic transit gloria mundi, as I always say (actually, I’ve never said it). After the realisation that life doesn’t always meet your expectations sank in, I started to look deeper into the book.

It is a short book, more like a hardcover booklet. It tells Rev. Wilson’s life story, and the unnamed writer of the book is full of praise of the late Reverend. He must have been a remarkable character, because the book was published about 19 years after his death! Thomas Wilson was born in Cumberland, and after he started his ministry was transferred a few times, finally coming to Maidstone. The book isn’t strong on exact dates.

There is a handwritten note on the inside cover, "by George Swinnock". I don’t know whether this applied to the whole book or only to the preface (as the British Library public catalogue listing stated). George Swinnock certainly is a likely candidate to be the author of the book. His name appears in the text of the biography, mentioned as Rev. Wilson’s patron. I looked his name up - yes, on the Internet - and came up with many references, including a five-volume set of his writings currently in print! The publisher of the set said that Swinnock was among the most readable of the Puritan writers.

An interesting point is that the "prophane Town" quote is not presented as a quote from Rev. Wilson. The book glided along from the start in the third person talking about Rev. Wilson, and at the beginning of Chapter 18, it switches to the first person in enunciation of the former sins of profane Maidstone. It looks very much like these were the observations of the author, not Rev. Wilson’s. Most likely they are George Swinnock’s. The thrust of that chapter was that Rev. Wilson made Maidstone a less profane place because of his ministry, so Swinnock sets the scene by telling how worldly Maidstone was before Rev. Wilson’s arrival.

As for the sports mentioned, I can’t explain what cudgel playing is. It must be some sort of mock fight, because a cudgel is a weapon. For anyone living outside these fair isles, an explanation of Morris dancing would be in order. It still exists and is quite popular in some rural places. It is a form of ancient folk dance, done in a group of dancers with very traditional outfits, to me a bit reminiscent of Bavarians and Tyroleans with their lederhosen, and with a string of small bells around their ankles. It’s the kind of hobby that comedians find tremendously humorous (read: geek factor), but others are generally fascinated and appreciative with the link to a much simpler past. When I’ve ever come across Morris dancers, I always stop and watch for as long as I can.

I needed to address the bottom line, why is the Henderson quote different from the Wilson book? Why does Henderson say baseball when the book says stoolball?

What is really puzzling is that the Henderson section is wrong on almost every level. The original mentions stoolball, not baseball, The date is 1672, not 1700. It is not Rev. Wilson’s memoirs, it is his posthumous biography. And the quote about Maidstone was not Rev. Wilson’s, but by the author of the biography.

How could this happen? I can come up with three possibilities:

1. Maybe the book exists in another edition, dated 1700, which mentions baseball instead of stoolball.

2. Maybe there is another similar quote either by Thomas Wilson or George Swinnock which mentions baseball instead of stoolball.

3. Henderson got the quote second or even third hand. I have in mind an American academic, coming across the stoolball reference, and saying to him/her-self, "Stoolball" - that’s what they called baseball in 17th century Britain, isn’t it?” I’d like to trace Henderson’s original source for the quote.

The third option certainly seems the most plausible, but we may never know. I still have a few more paths to tread in my search to clear up this mystery. I’ll see what Jacqueline Eales’ chapter on "the profane town of Maidstone" will bring. I’ll write her to see if she knows anything more. If I have to, I’ll buy the five-volume Swinnock set to see if I can find a variation of the Maidstone quote, maybe one mentioning baseball.

I’d like to find an answer. I don’t like being puzzled.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 April 2009 22:07