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You are here: Home Newsletter Examiner #13 - Autumn 2003 The Dinosaur Hunters II: Trapball Found Alive!
The Dinosaur Hunters II: Trapball Found Alive!
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #13 - Autumn 2003
Written by Martin Hoerchner   

I’ve written previously about how a coincidence helped me discover an ancient bat and ball game previously thought extinct. This story can be seen as an adjunct to the stoolball story, but it has enough interest to stand on its own.

The stoolball story started when I received a letter from a SABR member in Japan, asking if stoolball was still being played in England. I was ready to send back a negative answer. By coincidence I was working on a meeting report for the latest AGM, and came to Allen Synge’s report, where he stated that stoolball definitely was being played, particularly in Sussex. This led to a trail of exploration through the south of England, in search of information on stoolball as it is currently played. Eventually my story was printed in The National Pastime.

If the first story started with a coincidence, then the second story must too. Four years ago my wife and me were blessed with our first child, a son. After that life became too busy, and SABR seemed a bit irrelevant. But time passes and Jack has become very independent and life doesn’t 100% revolve around him like it used to. It’s more like only 85%, but that’s a big difference. So lately I’ve been thinking about how to expand my horizons, and a few weeks ago my wife is at work on Sunday, so I’m driving around with my son, and only a few miles from my home I see a sign "Bat and Trap fun day - Halstead".

Bat and trap is the modern name for trapball, a very old game played in England since the Middle Ages. It is definitely older than cricket, and probably older than stoolball. The Canterbury & District League traced trapball back to a monastery in Canterbury in the 1300’s; currently occupying the grounds is Ye Olde Beverlie pub, which became one of the founding members of the league. It is in the Little Pretty Pocket Book of 1767 (and probably earlier editions), right next to the first illustration of a game called base ball. By the time The Boy’s Own Book was published in 1828, it was considered to rank next to cricket in popularity.

I’ve seen bat and trap being played before, along with Mike Ross and Allen Synge, at the Black Lion pub in Gillingham before my life got so complicated. Allen provided the lead that the game was still being played, just like he’d put us onto the stoolball matches.

We learned that bat and trap was a Kent game, and uniquely a pub game, played in the beer garden just behind the pub. The month was May and the match started at 8 p.m., so we watched them play in declining sunlight, until the 2 100-watt lamps mounted in the conifers kicked in. We mused about how trap ball and stoolball might be linked to cricket and baseball in the grand scheme of things, but more about that later.

For the longest time none of this was important, but this sign I saw a few miles from my home drew me in. I knew Bat and Trap was a Kent game, but what was it doing on my doorstep? Of course I had to rush home and get my camera and rush back to Halstead.

Being a small village, there was no parking, and I had to park miles away. The event was held on a school playing field, across from a pub where no doubt bat and trap is played. I was with Jack, and he was fascinated by the crowds and mix of sights, sounds, and smells.

  

The first thing I saw was a huge bouncy castle, for the kids. There was an information desk on bat and trap. There were a line of stands where you could purchase snacks, hot sandwiches, or the occasional beer. But on the far field, in a line stretching 100-200 yards, was a series of bat and trap pitches set up, one next to the other, and all frantic with activity and the whizzing of balls right and left. Behind the pitches was a row of seating for the players, and behind that was a large open area to mill about and watch the action.

I was fascinated, like a kid who had only read about baseball coming across all seven games of the World Series happening at once, foul-line to foul-line. I frantically took pictures while trying to keep my third eye on Jack. I bought him an ice cream. At one point I couldn’t find him and panicked, until I found him chatting up a girl 6 months younger than him.

 
 

I left after I found that they had run out of hot dogs, but my appetite had been whetted. I felt I had to complete my trapball story before the end of season, and it was approaching fast. So I hit the internet, and found a number of trapball websites - just enter "bat and trap" in any search engine. I contacted the Canterbury & District Bat & Trap league, and I was put in touch with Peter Guise, the Press Officer for the League. He informed me that the season was pretty much over, but that there was a makeup game due to take place in Whitstable in a few days. Great, I said, we’ll be there.

I arranged a journalistic expedition with Chapter Chairman Mike Ross. We set off from my home at 4.00 to avoid the rush, and it took about an hour to get there, down the M2 through numerous roadworks that have been going on since 1066.

 
 

Whitstable is a charming seaside town which I’ve managed to miss in my seventeen years in Britain. Driving into the town you come down from a hill and hit a spectacular panorama with the town in the foreground and the sea consuming the background. We found a car park right next to the shingle beach. A long line of land hung on the horizon. I took my wife there the next weekend and she said, "Is that France?" - to which I replied "No, it’s Essex". (Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.) I’m not sure if it’s the Thames Estuary or the North Sea, but it was pleasant and calming watching the boats on a sunny day.

We were early, so we were hungry, and Mike was out for the famous Whitstable oysters. We sauntered down numerous alleys in search of the perfect meal. Many of the white wooden houses seemed distinctly New England to me. Our only problem was that it was 5 minutes past high season, and it was 5.30 which is on the cusp between lunch and dinner. You may use different terms for the noon and the evening meals, but all the restaurants we came across were closed for the next hour. The only place we could find that actually served food was a pub not far from the harbour. Mike sampled the fish and chips, and me being an unrepentant Californian I had probably the only tacos available in Whitstable. Not completely accurate, but tasty nonetheless.

Thus refreshed, we set out for the pub, which was named the Four Horseshoes. It was easily found, and I squeezed the car into a tight parking space next to the pub. As we parked Mike said, "Let’s be low-key about this; I don’t want to attract too much attention", but the minute we got inside the pub, he started telling everyone that we had just flown in from the States to watch this game! I was confused. Then I tried to pass myself off as a "Kentish Man", but I’d only lived in Kent for 8 years, and part of the "London Borough of Bromley" at that. But I tried.

But after that shaky start, we quickly engaged the locals in conversation, and it turned out most of them were there to play bat and trap. The first thing we found out about Whitstable was that Peter Cushing lived there before he met his fate in the Death Star.

But the Force was with us, and we soon had a player volunteer to explain the game to us. His name was Kevin, and he took us to an adjoining room overlooking the game pitch. Bat and trap is played on a rectangular pitch, long and narrow, measuring 63 feet by 13 1/2 feet. What makes Bat and Trap unique is of course the trap, which is a wood and metal device. The batsman hits the trap with his bat and the ball pops up, fungo-style, and the batsman hits the ball towards the narrow end of the pitch. If the ball goes right or left before then, the batsman is out. On the far end of the pitch, the eight members of the opposing team stand, ready to field the ball. If the ball is caught on the fly the batsman is out. Besides that, how they field the ball really doesn’t matter. What matters is how the bowler returns the ball. The person that catches the ball isn’t neccesarily the one that returns the ball. Each team member becomes the bowler, who rolls the ball towards the trap and tries to hit it. If he hits the trap, the front part of the trap (a 5 inch square) falls down so everyone can see the out is registered.

The term bowler is used differently from cricket. In cricket the bowler is the one who delivers the ball to the batsman, the equivalent of the baseball pitcher. But in bat and trap, the bowler is the one who rolls the ball towards the batsman, and tries to get an out by hitting a tiny target.

Kevin explained the format of the match. Each team was on offence and defence 3 times each. I expected them to be called "innings" (like in cricket and stoolball), but instead they were called legs. In fact, they were different games. The team that won 2 out of 3 legs was the winner, independent of the scores of the individual legs. If leg one was 32-0, and leg two is 4-5, the overall score is still 1-1. "A bit like the 1960 World Series", I said, but no-one paid attention.

We mused over the implications of the game. The key skill of the game seemed to be rolling the ball along a long pitch, trying to hit a the trap, a very small target. A bit like lawn bowling. Except that the pitch was not as finely groomed, meaning that the bowler should know the hills and dales as well as a PGA golfer. Mike deduced that home field advantage would be very great, because the local team would know their own pitch much more than the visitors.

The game was played by both men and women, but never women-only, unlike stoolball. It was organised into leagues within districts, and uniquely in the county of Kent.

We asked Peter if there was any connections with teams in other countries, and he said they sometime played international matches. We started to get interested, and then he explained it was between English vs. the Welsh or the Scots living in the Whitstable area. In other words, in the opening ceremonies of the international matches, there was no dispute on which anthem to play.

The game was played by a wide range of people, from their 20’s to their 70’s, sharing only two things - love of bat and trap and love of beer. This being a pub sport, everyone had a pint in their hand, including the players. But it wasn’t drunk too much to excess, because the players still had to roll a ball to hit a tiny target 21 yards away.

Peter joined us after batting, and explaine that a batsman can only lose, and a bowler can only gain. We understood. The chore of the batsman (i.e. to hit a ball straight ahead without too much deviation, without defensive intervention) was so easy that it was taken as a given; whereas the chore of the bowler (i.e. to roll a ball to hit a tiny target 12 leagues away) was so unlikely it was considered a fluke when it happened. An interesting split of responsibilites. But because they rotated, each player would get his hand at both roles.

I supposed we could add to that the role of the fielder, which is nothing. All the person that retrieves the ball does is pass it to the bowler whose turn it is. Whether he catches it in an Ozzie Smith-style catch, or dropped it six times before shovelling it up, it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect the scoring.

A lot of the players actually fielded the ball with their feet. They would kick it to a stop before picking it up. Mike theorised that it was because they were used to football as the dominant sport, and I suggested it was because they didn’t want to spill their beer. Both valid viewpoints.

Of course, this mirrors the long association between baseball and beer. A new league was formed in 1882 when the National League banned beer in ballparks. Breweries have a long history of owning ballclubs, and a hot dog and beer is what really tops off the baseball experience. In fact, when San Francisco starting serving wine, it just didn’t seem right. What year is the best vintage? 1985? No, they lost 100 games that year.

Being a pub game, it was amicably low-key, with no high-fives and no-one doing the Dirty Bird in the end zone. Comraderie was more important than victory. But Peter assured me that in the first division, games get very serious and very competitive.

It got late and we had a long drive home, so after the first leg Mike and I politely excused ourselves. We bounced ideas back and forth as I drove.

For instance, which was older, stoolball or bat and trap? Stoolball goes farther back in the historical record, but it would be difficult to pinpoint which features of which game were derived from which features of the other game. An interesting point, though, is that bat and trap has the concept of foul territory and foul lines, which is only shared with baseball.

We discussed the skill level needed to play the game. Being a pub game, comeraderie is obviously more important than winning (except in the higher echelons as Peter explained). Or to paraphrase him, batting is easy and bowling is hard. I suspect bowling is very hard. It combines a steady hand and an eagle eye with the ability to read the hills and dales of a hundred or so yards of possibly unfamiliar turf.

We talked about comparisons with stoolball. Stoolball recruits children, is taught in schools in Sussex and maybe surrounding areas. Bat and trap is a pub game, and thus has a completely different player base. Yet, as we observed the age range, there is little danger of the game dying out because of lack of interest.

Maybe the most important point we discussed was the possibilities that could have sprung from such as game as bat and trap. Admittedly it is a very simple game.

We especially found more room for the development in the role of the fielder. Balls were hardly ever hit on the fly, and besides that, it is the role of the fielder only to retrieve the ball and give it to the bowler. Maybe they could make scoring dependent on whether he fields the ball cleanly, or something like that. We didn’t like the fact that the position had become totally relegated. Also, there was no running element. No one ever had to move faster than a slow saunter. The batsman stood his ground until put out, and that was it.

We wondered why the game didn’t evolve. But then again, maybe it did evolve. Maybe it became cricket.

But then what struck us was the fact that a simple game made us ponder who to make the game more interesting. This is the same process used by children throughout the ages to make things more interesting as they grew older. Not just with their games, but with their lives. Children would get bored and start changing the game. Why wouldn’t adults? I guess it’s because children are moved keyed to growth and having a constantly-changing world. Bat and trap has been played for so long, the rules seem to be set in stone. The fact is, the minute you codify a game, you start to stifle it.

It may sound corny, but the growth in bat and ball games from informal and/or amateur games to finely codified professional sports mirrors the human growth from childhood to adulthood.

Perhaps we were over-analysing. Besides, the night air was clear and the night blossoms were fragrant.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 April 2009 22:01