THE ORIGINS OF BASEBALL
By Frank Ceresi
“The game of ball is glorious . . .”
“I see great things in base ball . . . Base ball is our game, the American game. I connect it with our national character.”
For those of you who are steeped in the history and lore of the origins of baseball, this has indeed been an exciting year. The reason that the baseball world is abuzz is because there have been several notable recent “discoveries” relating to the game's beginnings that will provide grist for baseball historians for years to come. In a series of related articles, I will describe these discoveries and explain their significance to the development of the national pastime for they are all, in a real sense, linked. They truly give sustenance to those who are fascinated by the roots, the very origin, of what today is a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
The first recently uncovered jewel is what I will refer to as the “Pittsfield find,” a bylaw from 1791 that was just uncovered in a small town Massachusetts courthouse. The second is a classic attic find of the first card that clearly shows youngsters playing a bat and ball game, a rudimentary form of the game that evolved into our national pastime.
In order to fully appreciate the significance of these two discoveries, a short baseball history lesson is in order. While the origins of the national pastime have taken on mythical proportions, history tells us that as long as there has been a child throwing a ball towards another child swinging a stick, there has always been something akin to baseball. Historians have even traced loosely defined bat and ball games to ancient civilizations. We know that contrary to the major league sanctioned Mills Commission Report from 1907, issued after a three-year investigation yielding scant evidence, the game was not “invented” out of whole cloth in 1839 by Abner Doubleday one summer morning on a pastoral river bank in Cooperstown, New York. Doubleday was, in many respects, a great man who achieved prominence as a Union General during the Civil War, but he had very little, if anything, to do with the game of baseball.
In truth, the game evolved over many decades, if not centuries, and its roots are, in reality, a tangled web of bat and ball games brought to this country by immigrants. Some things are, however, certain. We know that baseball does have definite ties to the old English game of rounders and its cousin, the more formal and genteel game of cricket. Also, during the time period that our nation was literally taking form, there are many references to youngsters playing “town ball,” an American form of rounders, in village greens throughout the northeastern part of the United States. Other similar ball games played on this side of the Atlantic Ocean in the late 1700's and for the first decades of the 1800's are the Dutch game of “stool ball,” an English game called “old cat” which actually featured a batter, pitcher and two bases, and yet another game balkanized from rounders called “goal ball.” In that game, the “goal” of the runner was to touch a series of bases.
Against this backdrop, let me tell you about the two exciting artifacts that only a few weeks ago were totally unknown.
The “Pittsfield” Find
In an attempt to date the birth of baseball in this country, as a distinct game from other bat and ball games that preceded it, historians have scoured public records, diaries and newspapers for decades in search of the elusive written word. What is the earliest written “reference” to baseball as a distinct game in the United States? Up until very recently, it was thought to be a scant 1823 reference to the game of “base ball” being played in lower Manhattan in a little known newspaper called the National Advocate . Now, however, thanks to baseball historian John Thorn and Jim Bouton (yes, the former major league baseball player), a bylaw has been uncovered from the musty records of a courthouse in a small town in western Massachusetts called Pittsfield. That statute, written in 1791, over 200 years ago, aims to protect windows in a “new” town meeting house by prohibiting anyone from playing “baseball” within 80 yards of the building.
This is a truly remarkable find as the written record now pulls the national pastime into the 1700's. This is decades before the previously found “earliest” written reference. Further, the statute itself mentions other prohibited games (wicket, cricket, batball, football, cats and fives) thus lending irrefutable evidence to the fact that baseball, at least in 1791 America, was a distinct game with its own identity. To put things into their proper historical perspective, the statute, with its specific reference to “baseball,” was written by the Pittsfield elders only four short years after the United States Constitution was ratified. We now know the game was distinctive and we also know that the game – called “base ball” – was popular enough to be prohibited! Did it have its own rules? Who knows, but I am sure the Pittsfield find will induce others to crack open countless small town courthouse records.
The Earliest Card
Close on the heels of this significant discovery, Hank Thomas, Walter Johnson's grandson and a noteworthy baseball historian himself, has acquired what is certainly the earliest known card of a bat and ball game. Hank's acquisition was originally found in an attic in Maine many years ago and is new to the hobby. Does the card show boys playing one of the dreaded bat and ball games the Pittsfield folks wanted to ban? Exactly what the game featured was called we may never know, but we can say with certainty that the image on the card is a close cousin to the game that today is commonly called baseball. Recall the history lesson recited above and gaze at the card . . . what game do you think it shows? Compare it to a woodcut shown in a garden book from 1833 published in this country (see illustration). Does that game look familiar?
How old is the card? There are obviously no “game statistics” or “yearly totals” on the back of the card to answer that question with the same certainty that we can rely on when viewing a baseball card today. However, historians who have viewed this card have concluded that it was, in all likelihood, manufactured sometime within the first few decades of the 19 th century. I have personally reviewed bat and ball drawings and lithographs from the 18 th and 19 th century, and I believe that this card dates from around the 1830's, the same time period as the woodcut bat and ball scene in the garden book. This was also a time period in which children's educational game cards were popularized and produced as teaching aids in this country and in England. The bat and ball card was uncovered with several other illustrated children's educational cards. None of other cards contain sport related subjects (see illustration). What does it mean?
Similar to the Pittsfield bylaw find, this discovery is very exciting for those of us (as most collectors are) obsessed with finding the “first” of anything having to do with baseball and baseball collectibles. Although there are a few photographs, tickets and trade cards of ballplayers from the 1860's, now, thanks to Hank's keen eye, we have a card that pre-dates those examples by many years. The study and significance of the Pittsfield bylaw, the 1830's bat and ball game card, and other national treasures that I will write about in a future article will keep baseball historians busy for years.