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Stoolball is Alive and Well in Sussex
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #11 - July 1999
Written by Martin Hoerchner   

It amazes me sometimes how life dishes up treats and surprises, how things unexpectedly fall into place, how coincidences solve riddles, and how, as Ray Kinsella quotes Terence Mann "There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place, and the universe opens itself up." So it happened last June when I received a letter from Japan. I don't know anyone in Japan, but it was from a SABR member named Kazuo Sayama, saying he was researching the origins of baseball. He asked if the games of rounders and stoolball were still played in Britain. It struck a special chord with me, because I've always considered the genealogy of baseball to be my speciality. So I composed a letter on my computer and stated that rounders was very common all over this island, but that stoolball, first mentioned in the middle ages, has been long extinct.

Both sports have a long history in Britain. Rounders is the sport that Robert W Henderson, the prime genealogist of baseball, points to as the direct precedent of baseball, in his 1947 book Bat, Ball, and Bishop: A History of Ball Games. Henderson compares the The Boy's Own Book by William Clarke, published in London in 1829, with The Book of Sports by Robin Carver, published in Boston in 1834, where the rules of an English game called "rounders" and an American game called "base ball" are almost exactly the same. I've always questioned Henderson's conclusion that it means baseball was descended from rounders; to me it only proves that rounders and baseball were once different names for the same sport. That's a very big distinction.

Rounders is still a very popular game in Britain. In fact, if anything has dampened British enthusiasm towards baseball, it's that a similar but lightweight game exists over here. Mention baseball to a native and they say "it's just a girl's game", or a "it's just a school game". I presume none of them has ever faced Randy Johnson in the batter's box.

As for stoolball, it's the game that Henderson defines as the common ancestor to both baseball and cricket. The common lore is that milk maids used their milking stools as both wicket (ie a target to throw at) and bat (with the legs removed). The first reference to the game by name is in 1450, but Henderson thinks it could date from at least 1330. There's a page for "stool-ball" in the Little Pretty Pocket Book from 1744, a few pages over from the first illustration of a game named base-ball. In its earliest incarnation, the game was played by two people; one would throw a ball at a stool and the other would stand in front of it and try to hit the ball away from it with their open palm. The winner would be the one that hit the stool the most times.

Modifications like using a piece of wood to hit the ball, running between two stools, and having fielders to retrieve the batted ball, came later. It was the first game recorded as being played in the English colonies in America, in Massachusetts in 1621. And finally, in 1801, Joseph Strutt in his Games and Pastimes of the People of England, writes of a variation where runners, after they have hit the ball, race around a course of stools set out in a circle. It is not difficult to see that the two-stool variety could be the progenitor of cricket while the multi-stool variety could be the ancestor of baseball.

Yet as far as I knew, stoolball was dead as the proverbial dodo. So I had my mouse pointer hovering over the "print" button on my letter to Mr. Sayama. But I had other chores to deal with. I'm the editor the SABR UK Examiner, the research journal of the Bobby Thomson Chapter, the UK branch of SABR. I was working on the AGM report for the Examiner, and I had videotaped the meeting, and was going over the tape for my meeting report for the Examiner. This was an excellent meeting, including Allen Synge, a cricket writer and member of the Marylebone Cricket Club (the governing body of cricket), who presented an excellent piece entitled Cricket and Baseball - Cross-Currents. We all know about the proselytizing missions that Albert Spalding sent to England in 1874 and via the world in 1888/1889, but Allen spoke about cricket tours aimed at the American market in 1859 and 1872. As an aside he said: "And then there's stoolball. You should watch it, if only for the comely maidens who play it".

My mouth dropped open. Allen was talking about stoolball in the present tense, without use of a time machine. So I was on the phone to him immediately, first to ask if I could publish his piece in the Examiner, to which he agreed, but then to ask him about this stoolball remark. "Oh yes", he said, "it's still being played. I know of a few matches coming up in Wisborough Green, in Sussex." He said he would check and come back to me with some dates.

I was dumbfounded. I asked my wife, who is from Yorkshire, if she ever heard of a game called stoolball. She said she hadn't. I was very perplexed. Allen got back to me with a few game dates, and July 1 seemed ideal. So we organized a road trip with Allen, me, and Mike Ross, the Chairman of SABR UK and the one who'd originally commissioned Allen to do the piece. Allen gave me the number of the head of the Wisborough Green Stoolball Club, Mrs Denman. I phoned her and told her of our mission, and she was very helpful and gracious. She said the match started at 7.00 and we were more than welcome to attend.

In the meantime I thought I'd hit the internet and see if I could find any stoolball. I did - there's lots of it! All of it seemed to be in Sussex, except a reference in Alresford, Hampshire, from Mrs. Stanbrook. It turns out she was originally from Sussex and imported the game. The web site also offered a booklet, published by the National Stoolball Association, containing the rules and history of stoolball. I contacted her, and eagerly awaited my booklet.

We set out from my home in Kent about an hour before the match started at 7.00. The weather was fine, and it was a lovely summer's evening as we drove through the Sussex countryside. This year had a generally rainy summer, and we'd lucked out today.

When we got to Wisborough Green the match had started. It was a lovely setting, a huge open town green surrounded by brick houses of varying age and design, most with gardens bursting with summer flowers. The obligatory pub was set off on one corner of the green, and the town church rose up on a hill just behind the green. A cricket sight screen was pushed off to the side of the green, and right behind it was a flag pole where the Union Jack fluttered proudly. Towards the edge of the green was a club house; obviously it was the headquarters for the local cricket club. It had a bar on the ground floor, and above it was a balcony where the score (runs, overs, and wickets) was displayed.

We parked and made our way towards the clubhouse. As we walked, our attention focused on the game. The two teams were indeed, as Allen mentioned, all female, although Mrs. Denman told us that mixed teams also exist. The home team was dressed in yellow and green, like the Oakland A's of the 70s, with a yellow top and green skirt. The away team from Steadham was dressed in maroon, like that other Philadelphia team of the late 70s and early 80s. The basic uniform consisted of a pullover shirt with a few buttons at the top, and a pleated skirt, which was fairly short, over shorts, like ladies tennis players. Some team members, more sensitive to the cold, wore a sweatshirt and/or sweat pants in the same color scheme, over or instead of the basic uniform.

The main action of the game was in the middle of a large circle drawn near the perimeter of a green, which I later learned was 90 yards feet in diameter. Stoolball has no foul territory. In the middle of the circle were set up two wickets, though not wickets in the cricket sense. They were wooden targets, about a foot square, set on a wooden pole about the height of the players' heads, supported on the ground by four short legs. It was a bit like a stop sign, only square and wooden. There were two of them, 16 yards apart. There were two batters, though they are called batsmen in stoolball, even though most of them are female. The stoolball bat bore no resemblance to a baseball bat, or even a cricket bat. It was more like an outsized ping pong paddle, though reinforced and with a lot more whack, as we later found out.

The pitcher, as we would call her, or the bowler (as called in stoolball and cricket) would throw the ball underarm from a distance of 10 yards, towards the wicket about head-high to the batsman. The batsman would try to hit the ball, and if she made contact, would run towards the other wicket. In the meantime the batsman at the other wicket would run towards her wicket. They would run back and forth as many times as possible before the ball was fielded and returned to the running crease, which is a line drawn from either side of the wicket. I immediately recognized it as a very similar game to cricket. The primary difference was that instead of bouncing the ball off the ground try to hit a wicket about 2 feet tall, as in cricket, the bowler threw the ball towards a wicket placed on a pole at about the same height as the batsman's head. Indeed, articles I later read called stoolball "cricket in the air".

We located Mrs Denman, and she made us feel welcome while she explained the game to us. First she showed us the game equipment. The bat was a lot more substantial than a ping pong paddle; it was made of willow (the same wood as cricket bats are made) and very hefty. It was completely flat on one side (the hitting side) and rounded on the other (like a cricket bat). And it was heavy; you could really pack a wallop with this thing! The handle was wedged in the middle with a soft wood, for extra spring. But it was the ball that really delighted us. It was like a tiny baseball, white leather with red cross-stitching, but only about 2¹ inches in diameter. By contrast, a cricket ball is red with two hemispheres joined by stitching around the equator. This simple connection to baseball, the similarity of the game balls, really intrigued us.

Mrs Denman then explain to us the rules of the game, which are very similar to cricket. There are eleven players on a team. It is organized into overs, which are six legitimate bowled balls in cricket and eight in stoolball. The number of overs is flexible and agreed before the match, usually from 15 to 20. There were many ways to score. If the batsman hits a ball that isn't fielded immediately, they have the option of running back and forth from wicket to wicket, scoring a run for each time they make the traverse. A hit ball that rolls over the boundary on the ground scores four runs, and one hit in the air that clears it scores six runs.

There are four ways for the batsman to be out: 1) "caught", ie flied out; 2) "run out", having the ball get to the wicket the runner is heading towards before she reaches it, a bit like the force play; 3) "bowled out", in which the bowlers strikes the wicket with the ball, throwing it past the batsman untouched, and 4) "body before wicket (BBW)", similar to cricket's "leg before wicket", and which the umpire decides that the batsman would have been bowled out if she had not been standing directly in front of the wicket and deflected the ball. There are no free bases for HBP's in stoolball.

As we watched the game, Mrs Denman explained how flexible the game is. The number of overs can be varied, or the width of the boundary can be changed, depending on the time and space available for a game. We noted how the players came in all ages, all shapes and sizes, all ages, and with varying athleticism. There seemed to be something in stoolball for everyone.

In studying the genealogy of ball games, one quickly learns that it is easy to find similarities, e.g. stoolball with cricket, or baseball with rounders, but proving ancestry is completely different. Stoolball has a lot of rules in common with cricket, for instance the 4-run and 6-run rules. But whether cricket got them from stoolball or stoolball got them from cricket is open to debate. It was my feeling on first viewing the game, but I can't yet prove this, that there was a lot of back-influence from cricket to the game of stoolball. In other words, cricket may have, and probably did, spring from stoolball, but cricket was codified much earlier, while stoolball remained a pastoral pastime with rules that varied from county to county, indeed village to village. When it was time to set down the official rules of stoolball, which I later learned was 1881, I have no doubt that gaps or inconsistencies in the stoolball rules were filled in by cricket rules. A subject for further research.

We watched the game from a long while, taking photographs and video, and then the clouds moved in, and the late evening sun moved towards evening twilight. Soon night would fall, and we felt it was the time to move on. But we had one more errand to run. Allen asked if we could stop by the church on the hill that overlooked the town green. It turned out his parents were buried there; evidently Allen's roots in this area were deeper than I thought.

I gave him his privacy at his parent's resting places; my attention had been captured by a duck pond just below the church. There was a mother duck with a long string of baby ducks, paddling around the pond. As I watched them I reflected upon the great circle of life and death, with a group of baby ducks below and a churchyard above, and an ancient game with ancestors very much alive, still being played in the Sussex countryside.

Of course I excitedly reported all this back to Japan, to Mr Sayama. We immediately wrote back and said he would be visiting England to watch this ancient game! He also sent me his resume. He had written numerous books and articles on both Japanese and American baseball, as well as Japanese translations of books such as The Boys of Summer and Satchel Paige's Maybe I'll Pitch Forever. It seems that he has been interested in stoolball for many years, because he also sent me a copy of a photograph of him playing stoolball at Plimouth Plantation. Plimouth Plantation is a recreation of the original English colonial settlement of Plymouth, Massachusetts, complete with actors in period costume. The photo shows Kazuo bowling toward a batsman stationed in front of a stool, with everyone but him dressed as the original Pilgrim settlers. Stoolball was played by the Massachusetts colonists at least from 1621, about the time of the first Thanksgiving.

About that time the National Stoolball Association booklet arrived. The rules were pretty much what I had learned so far, in addition to such facts as the names of the fielding positions, eg the bowler, wicket keeper, mid wicket on, slip on, slip off, mid wicket off, deep mid wicket off, deep over off, deep mid on/off, deep mid cover on/square leg area, and deep mid wicket on. The booklet advised "The bowler should try several different deliveries to unsettle the batsman". I read about a certain delivery called the "donkey drop", which is a high and slow ball that drops just on or behind the wicket. The book says "This delivery fools many batsmen and they have difficulty making a stroke".

The booklet also contained a copy of a fascinating article from the Sussex County Magazine from July, 1928. It gave an account of the history of the game. The seminal character in twentieth-century stoolball history was Major WW Grantham of Balneath Manor, Sussex, who was responsible for the stoolball revival in 1917. The article waggishly asks the question "Did Major Grantham revive the Sussex round frock, or smock, as a suitable garment in which to disport himself at stoolball, or did he revive stoolball in order to show off his fine smock?" The article then gives a few references to stoolball going back to 1450, in which the game was forbidden to be played in churchyards.

One reference that particularly interested me was "About 1630 a Puritan records that 'Maidstone was formerly a very profane town, where stoolball and other games were practised on the Lord's Day'". The first reference to baseball yet uncovered has been dated 1700 by Robert W. Henderson, and that date has been repeated ever since. It was written by the Reverend Thomas Wilson of Maidstone, Kent, who wrote in dismay "I have seen Morris-dancing, cudgel-playing, baseball and cricketts, and many other sports on the Lord's Day." If this is the same reference, maybe a much earlier date is possible. A subject for further research. The article goes on to say that Major Grantham was convinced that "stoolball in some form or other was the progenitor of cricket, rounders, and baseball". This was long before Henderson wrote his words in agreement.

Stoolball never completely died out. Indeed, Major Grantham played the game as a youth. There exists a beautiful illustration of a stoolball match in Horsham Park in Sussex, between Horsham Park and the Foresters, two female teams, in 1878. This match was played by cricket rules, except that the batsman had to tap the wicket after every ball, and was out if the wicket keeper touched the face of the wicket with the ball first. It was noted that "the match was spoiled by one incident. Miss Florrie Lucas, of Horsham Park, managed to edge the ball so that it curled round and lodged in her hair, of which she had quite a lot. She asked the wicket keeper to take it out, which was done, but the Rev C Hodgson, one of the umpires, gave her out 'caught', without having been appealed to. This broke their hearts and led to 'remarks', which nearly ended in play being stopped for good."

Major Grantham revived the sport in July 1917. At the time the First World War was raging, and Major Grantham was serving on the Military Tribunal. His eldest son had been badly wounded in France, and the Major was moved to provide some sport for the "battered heroes of the war in our military hospitals". Cricket and tennis were deemed to strenuous for those who had lost limbs or otherwise handicapped; stoolball seemed to be the ideal game. A seminal match was played that year on the Sussex County Cricket Ground, between soldiers from the Pavilion Hospital "damaged by wounds" and a team of ancient lawyers, including Major Grantham, "damaged by age". The soldiers won.

Major Grantham, besides being a tireless champion of stoolball, was also an excellent chronicler of the sport. He wrote two books on the sport and his copious scrapbooks, notes, and artefacts still reside in the Sussex County Archives in Lewes. The game grew and thrived, and started being played in Japan, France, Canada, Africa, Australia, and other countries. The 1917 revival led to the institution, in 1923, of the Stoolball Association for Great Britain.

The Stoolball Association ceased to exist in 1946, after the Second World War and the death of Major Grantham dampened enthusiasm. But the game still continued to be played, and in 1979 the present National Stoolball Association was formed, and has been going strong ever since.

One question I had that the booklet didn't answer was when was the wicket changed from a stool to a square on a post? Henderson says "In 1916 an attempt was made to revive the old game, although in revised form, using a small square target raised on a stump instead of a stool." This is incorrect. First of all, the year was 1917, but more importantly, there exists a photograph dated 1861 which has the words "Ready for Stoolball" scrawled on the bottom, which shows a team of heavily-dressed Victorian ladies in dark colors, with a tall stoolball wicket teetering dangerously in the long exposures needed at that time to take a photograph. The drawing of the Horsham Park game in 1878 also shows the tall wickets. The Pretty Little Pocket Book, even in a later (1770) edition, shows a stool as the wicket, so the change would have to be between that date and 1861.

The NSA booklet had a note: "For further information contact: Mrs KR Price, Secretary". I was interested in finding out how widely played the game was, so I gave her a call. She was a gold mine of information. Stoolball is very popular not only in Sussex, but also in nearby counties. For instance, Surrey has 25 teams in a league and Kent has 12-15 teams. Sussex, however, has 60 teams that are part of a league. In the Eastbourne area alone are 10 leagues. Plus there are lots of non-league teams. In Sussex every village has a team.

I talked for quite a while to Kay and her husband John, the Vice-President of the NSA They were both very aware of stoolball's long history, and very keen to make sure that the history would continue. John mentioned to me some upcoming tournaments, including the Sussex County Championship in Seaford on August 9, which pitted the top five teams from each league against each other. The "Rest of League Tournament" was the weekend after in Plumpton Green, in which the next five teams from each league would square off against each other. In addition, there would be the "Day of Stoolball", at Wivelsfield Green on September 9, an informal event where stoollballers from all over would meet, be arranged in pickup teams, and play their sport all day long.

August 9 dawned semi-overcast. I wasn't committed to driving to Seaford, since I had already seen stoolball being played. Still, my wife and I didn't have a load of chores to do so we mapped our course to the coast. As we got nearer to the English Channel, the clouds broke and it turned into a gloriously sunny Sunday.

The quaint antique-print scene in Wisborough Green did nothing to prepare me for the spectacle at Seaford. The playing field was monstrous, and it seemed like multitudes of stoolballers stretched to the horizon. At Wisborough Green I saw two teams; here were 25 teams, and this was only the cream of the crop. I finally started to get an inkling of the game's popularity. I stood, open-mouthed, at the perimeter for a few moments, and then we made our way toward the action. There was a total of four stoolball pitches (playing circles) laid out in close proximity, staggered like the Olympic rings, with four concurrent matches taking place. In addition there were throngs of relatives, friends and interested parties watching the play from the edges.

We approached the small clubhouse and my wife said, "Martin, I'm going to the bathroom." Almost immediately a genial-looking man in his 60s walked up and said to me "Are you Martin Hoerchner?", even pronouncing my surname correctly, which you normally wouldn't do from the spelling. I was flummoxed; had my fame preceded me? It turned out to be John Price of the NSA. He welcomed us heartily and introduced us to his wife Kay, who I spoke to by phone earlier.

John was acting as officiator of the tournament - I don't know his exact title, but he basically ran it. He had a desk set up where the scores were kept and results tabulated, and the area around him was a beehive of activity. Players would come up to him at regular intervals reported scores - Burwash beat Graffham 119-79; Ringmer beat Maresfield 100-64. He would mark them on a chart and the winner would proceed to the next round. He would get on the PA and summon Geebro and Adastra to pitch three in five minutes. Kay seemed to be disappearing and reappearing with lightning speed, going here and there on varying errands. They worked together like a well-oiled machine.

Despite his duties John was very gracious and helpful in supplying stoolball knowledge. He explained the layout of the tournament, and pointed out some of the teams. They seemed to be generally not from larger towns, but from small villages with exotic names like Sidley, Ditching, Mountfield, Newick, and Angmering. He also explained how the rules varied from regular stoolball, in that there were only eight players on a team instead of eleven and the number of overs is reduced. He said tournament stoolball is a lot faster than town stoolball, and many runs are scored. In fact, he offered so much information I couldn't keep up with him, being without notebook or tape recorder.

Duty called him back to the desk, so we took off and walked around the pitches, taking photos and shooting video. Here a tall blonde in blue and yellow bowls a wicked underarm ball to a cowering girl in green and white. There a confident batsman holds her place as the ball comes in, waiting a final moment, and giving the ball an affirmative whack! On a far pitch fielders scramble after a ball hit far, retrieving it just before it reaches the perimeter and returning it as runners chase each other back and forth from wicket to wicket. It was like a three-ring circus, only there were four rings. It was an incredible spectacle, under a very uncharacteristic English bright sunny summer's day. And in the background, if you walked to the far end of the playing field, rose huge chalk cliffs, which the south coast of England is famous for. Picture postcard stuff.

The spectators clustered around the edges of the four circular pitches. Some had lawn chairs, some had deck chairs, some were spread out on blankets, and many brought ice chests full of food and drinks for picnicking. Some were engaged in mortal combat with beach umbrellas in the wind. I saw a small boy swinging a cricket bat on the sidelines as his father bowled him a ball. He hit it with authority and it went rolling down the well-manicured lawn. The father shouted "That's a real daisy cutter!". I was amazed to hear that term, which describes a fast ground ball, because the only time I had ever came across it was in an explanation of baseball terms from the 1880s. What goes around comes around, as they say. The great circle once again.

We walked the whole circuit of the playing field and came back to John and Kay. Noting the incredibly fine weather, I asked him if the tournament had ever been cancelled due to poor weather. He said no; in 27 years, it had always been completed. He said once in a while it had started in a drizzle, and with the enthusiasm of the players been completed in a driving rain, but had never been cancelled.

John then gave me the chance to hit a stoolball ball with a stoolball bat. He went into a duffle bag and dug out a few stoolball bats, of varying weights. I chose one of the heavier ones, and my wife pitched the ball, and I whacked it with the bat, which now felt a lot more substantial than a ping pong paddle, and the ball soared into the air. I not only felt the thrill of Barry Bonds hitting one over the fences, I also felt the thrill of a 15th century milk maid hitting one into the next cow pasture! He gave me a stoolball ball, which I'd come to admire as a miniature baseball.

John also gave me a ball used in indoor stoolball, a derivation of the game invented for those long rainy English winters. It's also white with red stitches. This ball was actually an official rounders ball; it's about halfway the size between a stoolball ball and a baseball. From stoolball to rounders to baseball, the ball grows larger as the game progresses. Though I would say that the rounders ball seemed to be the softest, with the stoolball next and the baseball the hardest.

In talking to John and Kay, it turned out that they had a keen knowledge and appreciation of the long history of stoolball, which I found gratifying. I asked if they had ever held a match in old style costumes, and John said they had, in 1997, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the first Sussex vs Kent match, on Rusthall Common. In fact, the National Stoolball Association is planning to recreate the 1878 Horsham Park match previously described for the Millenium celebrations, in the original location and in full costume. John and Kay are actually from Horsham, and they said the setting exists pretty much as it did in the illustration.

John and Kay were once more called to duty, and we thanked them and moved on, as we had a long drive home to make. Before we left we took a short stroll along the shingle beach, and I walked along the pebbles still in awe of the scale of the support for stoolball in Sussex.

Of course I reported all this back to Mr Sayama. He wrote back that he was coming over to England with his wife, but couldn't make it until September. He was concerned about coming too late for the stoolball season, but he was in luck. September 9 would be the "Day of Stoolball", an informal tournament which originally celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Queen's accession, which would be held at Wivelsfield Green in Sussex. So we made plans to meet there.

In the flurry of letters exchanged between Japan and England, Mr Sayama once enclosed a photocopy from a book entitled The Man Who Invented Baseball by Harold Petersen. It mentioned the ancient game of trap ball, stating "Trap ball is still played, usually by men and particularly in Kent". I live in Kent and Mr Sayama wondered if I knew anything about trap ball being played currently. To make a long story short, it was John Price who discovered the game had been played as a pub game in the south of England fairly recently, and discovered at least one pub (in Gillingham, Kent) where the game is still being played. The season starts on May 18 this year and they play on Wednesday nights, on the lawn behind the pub. Someday soon I expect to report on a live brontosaurus lumbering around the southern English countryside.

In the meantime John Price sent me a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and articles about stoolball. I devoured this information. Again I was gratified that stoolball had such a respect for its own past. There were all sorts of tidbits, such as a quote from a publication from the National Stoolball Association entitled "A Brief History of Stoolball", which stated "An unconfirmed report which was published at the beginning of the century quoting one Joseph Iscanus of Exeter, as having referred to stoolball in 1189, but no satisfactory evidence that this quotation was genuine could be obtained." Major WW Grantham, in his Stoolball and How to Play It (2nd edition, 1931), quotes Reverend Wilson from Maidstone as saying "I have seen stoolball and many other sports on the Lord's Day." This quote is dated 1670, and is more similar to the baseball quote that Henderson dates to 1700, than the 1630 reference mentioned earlier.

An interesting article was "Cricket's Village Ancestor" by RF Johnson in Country Life, August 25, 1955. As for stoolball being an ancestor of cricket, he wrote "'Cricket' and 'stool' until the 17th century, were interchangeable words." This tallies with an edition of the Little Pretty Pocket Book which has a drawing of a stool, with the words "A cricket" underneath. This comes from a page in the NSA Brief History of Stoolball" publication; on the same page is shown an East Anglian milking stool, complete with handle. The stool bears an uncanny resemblance to a stoolball bat. But as for stoolball being the ancestor of cricket, a 1978 article in the collection stated "The MCC [Marylebone Cricket Club, the governing body]do not go along with the idea that cricket derived directly from stoolball; it is more likely that they grew up together." It reminded a bit of 19th century baseball denying the rounders connection.

September 9, the Day of Stoolball, dawned wet and blustery. The Seaford weather couldn't be duplicated. I took off in a driving rain, and once it became so intense I had to pull over while it abated. It stopped raining by the time I got to Wivelsfield Green, but the sky was still angry and the wind was still strong.

The signs lead me to town, but before I got there this playing field appeared. This must be the place! It was just on the outskirts. I pulled into the parking lot on the edge of the field; just to the left were some brick buildings, including a meeting hall and a small club house. The scene before me was very different from either Wisborough Green or Seaford. There were three pitches. And the atmosphere was very subdued, most likely due to the perilous nature of the weather. The stoolballers were not dressed in uniform, like I'd seen before.

I'd come on my own, so I parked the car and set out to find Mr Sayama, John and Kay Price, Mike Ross, Allen Synge, or any combination of the above. When I made it to the club house I came across both Prices and Mr Sayama. It turned out that he had made contract with the Prices on his arrival in Britain; they were already on a first-name basis. Mr Sayama, I learned, was referred to as "Kaz", and his wife Sedtz was referred to as "Setts". We exchanged hearty greetings after having had such a lively correspondence.

Almost as soon as we made contact, Mike and Allen showed up, and we soon were engaged in lively conversation. Kaz, who is in his 60s, talked about watching Satchel Paige pitch in San Francisco. He told how he would load the bases and then strike out the side, confirming a story that had been only legend to me. I asked Kaz if Satchel would also call in the outfield and then either strike out the side or make them ground out, and he said he saw that too. It was baseball history coming alive to me.

I had my own bombshell that set the baseball people buzzing. I checked the internet that morning, which was September 9, and the previous night in the States, which would have been early morning UK time, Mark McGwire hit his 62rd home run of the season, breaking one of baseball's most cherished records. Kaz was dumbfounded, and drew a circle in the air. We all knew what he meant. It was the great circle again. On a day that we viewed a game at least half a millennium old, a milestone was reached in a game that was the child, or grandchild, or great-grandchild of that same game. The past and present came together in one moment. It was an auspicious day indeed to watch stoolball.

The tournament consisted of stoolballers organized into six pickup teams. In previous years they were given the letters "A" through "F", but this year they thought to make things a bit more human by giving the teams names, conveniently starting with the letters from A to F - the Amazons, Braves, Cobras, Dragons, Elks and Falcons. John made me laugh when he said the "E" was at first going to be the Elephants, but then someone mentioned the fact that very few woman would want to be known as an "elephant". Good point, but I can't image many women wanting to be a dragon, either. They would play a knockout tournament and the final two teams would play for the championship.

Soon after we arrived there was a break for lunch. The players and friends retired to the meeting hall, where a light meal was presented. John Price made a brief speech, where he described the meaning of the "Day of Stoolball". Besides the official reason, he said that this day was one where stoolballers from all over could play and meet each other, and come in contact with stoolball legends as Barbie Jenner or Barbie Weir. The stoolball community seems to be very tight knit, and successful players over the years attain legendary status without recourse to mass media, but only through their reputations spread by word of mouth.

John then introduced us, Kaz and Allen and Mike and myself, as the "International Sporting Press". Kaz spoke and told us that after the war had ended in 1945 - he was 9 - that three things came together: peace, democracy, and baseball, and he would always associate those them together. Baseball had been popular in Japan since 1874, but had been suppressed during World War II as a foreign influence. But after the war baseball was allowed to blossom again, and Japan soon became only the second country to support professional baseball.

Chapter Chairman Mike Ross then spoke a few words of greeting, and posed two research questions to the crowd: has anyone heard of the game of trap ball being played in recent memory, and has anyone heard of "tansy cakes"? Tansy cakes were mentioned by Joseph Strutt and later Robert Henderson as being the prize offering to victorious ball teams in Easter festivities, and traced back to Biblical times. This question later brought forth a response - a recipe in an old English book The Compleat Housewife (or Accomplished Gentlewomen's Companion) by Eliza Smith, first published in 1758. He also asked "Has anyone heard of 'trap ball' still being played?" After Mike's speech Setts Sayama was presented with a lovely basket of flowers, and Kaz was presented with, as if bringing "coals to Newcastle", John Price said, a bottle of sake. Both gifts were heartily appreciated.

Afterwards the food was served and the cooks were thanked with a round of applause. Play resumed after the meal; unfortunately the weather hadn't improved in the least. At one point players and spectators were scattered by a particularly fierce shower, but it was short and the stoolballers were back to their game in no time. As we watched the game, John had time to explain to me some of the finer points of the game. Earlier he showed me coloured practice cones that were used to help batsmen place their hits between fielders. He pointed out that bowling is always underarm, with no allowed wrist snap, but it still can get very fast. The game has the fly rule, and balls have to be caught on the fly for the batsman/runner to be out. In fact batsmen are encouraged to hit the ball down, so it won't be caught and they at least have a chance of making it to the other wicket. As in all bat and ball games, the fielders get to know the batters and where they hit and position themselves accordingly. Also, the bowlers know how the batsman hits and they try to cross them up.

We watched one woman who had a very unorthodox stroke - she hit the ball directly behind her! John said such a tactic would be very effective, usually making a definite four runs, until the fielders got wind of it, and positioned themselves correspondingly. He used two terms that had always confused me in cricket, hitting toward the "on" or the "off". I asked and the answer was simple - the "on" was what in baseball would be called "pull hitting", and the "off" would be called "hitting to the opposite side". Actually, the cricket/stoolball terms seemed to make more sense! That explains terms like "mid-off", but I'll never understand why cricket has a fielding position called "silly mid-off".

Later on I saw an example of a runner being "run out". The fielders were hurrying a ball towards a wicket to get there in front of a runner; it was a close contest. They threw the ball at the wicket, the square wooden bit, before the runner touched her bat to it, and she was out. I asked why the fielder didn't hold the ball in her hand when she touched and wicket, and John said it was for two reasons: 1), if the fingers got between the bat and the wicket it could get quite painful, and 2), if the fielder was holding the ball you couldn't tell if the ball had actually touched the wicket ahead of the bat. Fair enough, I thought, if it was crucial that the ball and not just the hand holding the ball touches the wicket first.

The final match was played between the Elks and the Falcons. The sun broke through as they took the field, and that lovely late afternoon light broke through the clouds to bathe the players. In the end the Elks triumphed, and almost immediately followed a presentation, in which the victorious stoolballers queued up while John Price presented them with prizes. The queue stretched as the other players joined in, and it seemed that everyone got something. This event was about fellowship, not competition. Towards the end of the presentations I moved further back to take in the scene of lines of stoolballers queuing up to received recognition for their efforts in keeping an ancient ball game alive. I finally realized I was watching the last hurrah of maybe the 549th season that stoolball has been played in England. The National League at 123 years is a mere child in comparison.

I finally found myself at the edge of the parking lot, and thought I'd make a discreet exit. But before I got into my car, I turned around once more to take in the scene. The dark clouds were turning day into dusk as the stoolball crowd started breaking up; the great circle was once again in force. I turned for one last look and saw summer turning into autumn, and another stoolball season going into the record books and into history.

That's okay, because spring comes soon, and within months on village greens all over Sussex and Kent and Surrey we'll hear the thwack of bat against ball and the activity of fielders scurrying to return a ball to the next wicket. So will another season start in the sixth or seventh century that stoolball has been played in this fair isle.

As for me, I can hardly wait for opening day.

Last Updated on Monday, 06 April 2009 20:13