BASEBALL BEFORE WE KNEW IT: A Search for the Roots of the Game
By David Block University of Nebraska Press 340p
“The age-old debate over baseball’s ancestry has always been long on bluster and short on facts.” Thus begins David Block’s remarkable book, in which he travels many scholarly miles in redressing the imbalance. The work is without question the most definitive study of the origins of bat, ball and running games to date, and may be regarded as an instant classic of sports history.
“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 benighted 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 lazy commonplace is trotted out. It’s boring. It isn’t original. It isn’t witty. And, more to the immediate point, there is considerable doubt as to whether it’s true.” This was the opening paragraph of “The Chicken or the Egg”, a small jeu d’esprit of my own written some ten years ago, which I happily reprise, gratified by its citation in David Block’s chapter notes.
The book is written in an engaging, wryly humorous, often elegant style that is never, considering the prodigious and wide-ranging research that has gone into it, aridly academic; nor, in view of Block’s abiding passion for baseball, subject to the breathless banality of many “fan” books. The salient result of Block’s studies is the final obliteration of the twin transatlantic delusions concerning the origins of baseball. On the American side, while the Doubleday Myth – the absurd tarradiddle that baseball was ‘invented’ by young army officer Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, New York in 1839 – was long ago discredited, there has been a residual belief held by many that somehow the game sprang, ex nihilo, and ‘just growed’ like Topsy from the native genius of the American Boy. On the British side there lies behind the parrot cry of “Oh, you mean rounders” the belief that baseball is a direct development of the ‘ancient English game’ of rounders. As this book authoritatively demonstrates, the problem with this theory is that no one has ever been able to adduce a shred of historical evidence that there is or ever has been such a thing as a single ‘ancient English game’ of rounders.
There seems to be a primordial human instinct that leads a child, when presented with an approximately round (inedible) object to either kick it, throw it or hit it with a stick. To believe that one game gives birth to another in a direct lineal fashion is to fundamentally misunderstand how sports develop. What David Block’s original and collated secondary source researches show is that we are dealing with a family of bat, ball and running games (including cricket and its forerunners) with numerous names and a multitude of regional and localized variations, which truly reflect the inventiveness and flexibility of the young in organizing their sporting activities. The term ‘rounders’ does not occur in any written record before 1827 and appears to have been merely the West of England regional name for one variety of the basic bat, ball and running pastime. Most earlier, mainly 18th century, references to the game call it ‘base-ball’. The name popular in London and environs seems to have been ‘feeder’. Some animal anthropologists hold that the world’s 400-500 breeds of dog can be traced back to the Grey Wolf, which first proved itself amenable to domestication. If baseball and its cousins could be traced back to a single ‘grey wolf’ (a fruitless activity in any case) it certainly wouldn’t be rounders.
A striking feature of Block’s book is his extensive researches into non-English language sources. Perhaps the most important of Block’s discoveries has been a work by a young German pioneer of physical education, J.C.F. Gutsmuths, published in 1796. The title of Gutsmuth’s book, Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Korpers und Geistes fur die jungend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugenfreuden, translates as ‘games for the exercise and recreation of body and spirit for the youth and his educator and all friends of the innocent joys of youth.’ Not only does it include detailed rules for what Gutsmuth calls Ball mit Freystaten (oder das englische Base-ball – Ball with free station, or English base-ball – but these are minutely compared with the then-prevalent German variation, the author suggesting that a hybrid of the two versions might prove superior to either. Note again these dates: English baseball, 1796; Rounders, 1827.
Those versions of the basic formula of striking a pitched or bowled ball with a bat and running between fixed points that have evolved to the status of being thought suitable to be played by highly skilled professional athletes – notably baseball and cricket – are those which have best adapted themselves to their physical, social and, indeed, political environments. (My own belief is that the reasons for the dominance of baseball over cricket in America and cricket over baseball in Britain – both games having long been played in both countries – are to be found in differences of class structure and the availability of space, together with a generous seasoning of mutual xenophobic bloody-mindedness. But that is a personal view and a theory to be developed elsewhere.) Overall, the recent research exemplified by and encapsulated in Baseball Before We Knew It represent a basically Darwinian rather than a creationist view of baseball’s origins. Block opens the title chapter of his book with a concise theoretical flowchart outlining baseball’s evolution from a multitude of predominantly (but not exclusively) European ‘longball’ games dating from the late middle ages, through the English and American versions of club ball, trap-ball, the sundry ‘cat’ games, and on to cricket by way of stool-ball and to modern baseball via English base-ball, squares, rounders, feeder and, in America, the variations of town-ball, and the early 19th century New York and Massachusetts games. That the development of these games is not uninterruptedly linear may be deduced by observing young people adapting the fundamentals of existing, fully developed and codified professional sports to the space and numbers available to them. A wicket chalked on a gable-end wall, together with a stump and tennis ball will, in his mind, transport the imaginative youth to the centre-square of Lord’s or Old Trafford, just as various forms of stickball and stoopball took the New York City street kids of my youth in their fancies to Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds.
A fine example of family cooperation – akin to a literary double play – in a book about the origins of what is quintessentially a team sport is a fascinating chapter by David Block’s brother, Philip Block. This examines the intriguing connection between Abner Doubleday and the sporting goods magnate, Albert Goodwill Spalding, chief propagator of the Doubleday Myth. A former player and club-owner, Spalding was also a Gilded Age archetype with the jingoistic prejudices of his time and as such extremely anxious to establish that baseball was of exclusively American ancestry. When it was suggested to him in a letter of 1905 from one Abner Graves – a 71 year-old retired mining engineer who claimed to have been present at the time – that Doubleday had invented baseball at Cooperstown in 1839 Spalding jumped at the idea. General Doubleday had been a hero of the American Civil War, with an abiding interest in the occult. An early convert of Madame Blavatsky, he had been president of the American Theosophical Society. Spalding’s second wife, Elizabeth Mayer (with whom, it is thought, he enjoyed relations before the death of his first wife) had also for some years moved in similar circles, having been a personal pupil of Blavatsky’s and deeply involved with the Theosophical Society both in England and America. Following their marriage in 1900, Spalding also became an adherent of Theosophy. It is not difficult to imagine that when presented with a possible progenitor of America’s “National Game” who was not only a military hero but also a fellow-devotee, Spalding was inclined to put his prodigious energies into championing the case for Doubleday. Despite early counter-arguments the Doubleday Myth was taken as gospel by most Americans until its authoritative demolition by Robert Henderson in his book, Bat, Ball and Bishop, itself a seminal work which David Block owns as being in many ways his starting point.
Both in his formal acknowledgements and in his chapter notes, Block is generous and conscientious in crediting his many sources, archival, periodical and personal. For interested people on this side of the Atlantic, it is good to see his citation of the work carried out by members of what was The U.K./Europe History Committee of the international baseball research society, SABR, later re-designated as The Origins Committee. It is to such individuals that David Block addresses his last words: “…Yet I also yearn for a time when the enduring folk tales and misguided notions of baseball’s beginnings will finally fade into the background, supplanted by a consensus vision of the game’s evolution that is faithful to the details of history.”
NOTE: I wrote this review on the appearance of David Block’s book over five years ago. I stand by the views expressed in it. Anyone curious enough on the subject to read the original The Chicken or the Egg article may find it at http://chapters.sabr.org/uk/sabr-uk-examiner/14-examiner-5-january-1995-the-chicken-or-the-egg The piece is also cited in Beth Hise’s book Swinging Away, written to accompany the exhibition of the same name examining the historical connections between baseball and cricket. The exhibition was first mounted in the Lord’s Cricket Ground Museum, London, during the summer of 2010 and was again featured the following year at the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York. By way of self-promotion I would also recommend interested parties to the next (fourth) chapter of the Memoir category of these Notes of a Footnote. The chapter, Spaldeen City, is an account of some street games played during my youth in Greenwich Village during the 1940s and ‘50s. See also, if possible, the film Baseball Discovered, produced under the auspices of Major League Baseball.