19 to 21
Baseball 2015

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  John Shiffert has been a sportswriter off-and-on since he was in the 11th grade at Germantown Friends School . . . which is longer ago than he cares to admit. A native Philadelphian currently living in exile outside of Atlanta, he is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, a true red Phillies fan who is still enjoying re-living the 2008 baseball season, a certifiable history nerd, and the author of three baseball history books, the most recent of which, "Base Ball in Philadelphia," is the story of the game in the City of Brotherly Love from 1831 to 1900. His fourth book, on that very same 2008 baseball season, "The Breaks Even Out and Midnight Comes Quickly for Cinderella," is now available. 

Contact John at jas2baseball@gmail.com

19 to 21... A Review of Baseball History
Volume 13, #4, March 2, 2015

The Origins of Baseball

  With the start of another baseball season nigh upon us, this might be a good time to discourse on the ultimate start of baseball, the game's origins.

  They are, in fact, origins, plural, since the National Pastime did not spring full-grown from the forehead of Abner Doubleday, ala Athena and Zeus (my high school history teacher/baseball coach, Harry Gratwick, could explain that one to you.) And while old Abner is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and did start the Civil War (at least he fired the first shot from Fort Sumter) the myth that he started baseball in Cooperstown in 1839 has also long been buried, possibly causing Al Spalding, who ran with the Doubleday Creation Myth with a little help from Abner Graves and Abraham Mills, to spin like a top in his grave.

  Furthermore, it has also been conclusively proven, by historians from John Thorn (the Official Historian of Major League Baseball and currently the foremost expert on the subject) to Monica Nucciarone (who wrote an excellent bio) that Alexander Cartwright has garnered far more credit for "inventing" the game than he deserves. Indeed, as Thorn has shown, Cartwright's cohorts with the Knickerbocker club, including Doc Adams, William Wheaton and Louis Wadsworth, really merit far more credit for, not inventing the game, but codifying some of the evolutionary rules that have been more or less handed down over the past 170 years or so. Wheaton probably deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the rules of what became the modern game – Thorn points to an interview Wheaton gave in 1887 wherein he stated he wrote the rules for the New York Base Ball Club in 1837… rules that were “borrowed” eight years later by Knickerbocker.

  In point of fact, the game as it exists now wasn't invented (and Wadsworth and Adams also had their hands in developing the current game). To quote "Father Chadwick," pioneering sportswriter and perhaps the American's game seminal founding figure, Henry Chadwick, who incorrectly believed the game descended from the English game of rounders, “like Topsy, the game just growed." Chadwick himself was, BTW, English. Maybe that's how they talked in England in the mid-19th Century.

  No matter. However, it is true that the sport, or if you prefer, the National Pastime, we know as baseball, has a rich historical heritage coming from The Mother Country. Although known as “Perfidious Albion” to generations of Napoleonic scholars, England is also the birthplace of the American national game. While games played with balls, sometimes struck with other objects and sometimes just ball-related games, date back to ancient Egypt, and while scanty records of similar games exist in other locations in Europe, the sport of baseball is indeed based in England, a land that featured a multiplicity of bat and ball games, dating back to medieval times.

  These early English games had a variety of names and, most likely, a variety of rules. However, the exact nature of such contests from about the late 13th Century to the late 18th Century is uncertain. That’s because games like stool ball, hand-in, hand-out, club ball, stobball, stow-ball, and the various “old-cat” games were kid’s games, and were thus seldom recorded for posterity outside of passing references. Why was that? The answer is quite simple – given the difficulties inherent in publishing before the advent of modern printing techniques, it wasn’t considered worth the while of monks working on illuminated manuscripts or Gutenberg’s successors to waste time and effort writing and publishing stories about children’s games.

  Nonetheless, some references to these children’s ball games do survive. For example, we know that King Edward III (1312-1377) issued an edict banning games with balls, and the records of the Huestengs Court in Oxford for March 17, 1292 record that Godfrey and John Faber were playing in the street with “a club and great ball.”

  Moving ahead, references to a game known as “base ball” finally started appearing more regularly in English literature in the 18th Century, most famously in “A Little Pretty Pocket-Book,” published in 1744; in a letter written on November 14, 1748 by a “royal,” Lady Hervey, and in Jane Austen’s novel “Northanger Abbey,” written in 1798. It is significant that “base ball” was mentioned in the 1744 book, since that volume was possibly the first to describe kids’ games in England, and, as a result, one must assume that the game was well-known enough in 1744 to make it into the book in the first place.

  It is here with these references that we not only see the first mentions of a game known as base ball, but to the game that would become, some years later in the Colonies, baseball. The key to making the distinction between stool ball, rounders (a very popular baseball-like English game that Chadwick played as a youth, but that didn’t come into existence until 1828 or so) and the game known as “English Base Ball,” comes from a single remarkable volume, uncovered by distinguished researcher/historian/author David Block, who discovered the Rosetta Stone of the origins of baseball. A 1796 book, written about the same time George Washington was warning against permanent foreign entanglements, and published in, of all places, the Dutchy of Gotha in Germany.

  The author, who is much more famous for having basically invented the sport of gymnastics, was Johann Christoph Freidrich Gutsmuth, and he published the first known comprehensive compendium of popular sports and games. The German title of the book is far too long to reproduce easily, so we’ll just call it ‘Games for recreation and exercise of the body.” Lo and behold, beginning on page 78 and running for seven pages, are the earliest known rules of a game called “base ball,” what Gutsmuth referred to as, “Ball mit Freysaten (oder das englische Base-ball) or “ball with free station, or English base-ball.”

  That Gutsmuth, in a little town in Germany, would know of English Base-ball, and know enough to publish seven pages of the rules, rules which clearly tie English Base-ball to the game played so well in later centuries by George Wright, Cap Anson, Ed Delahanty, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Warren Spahn, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Henry Aaron, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Tony Gwynn, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, etc., etc., makes it clear that the game was already well-established in 1796. As Block puts it, “even at that stage, the game was recognizable.” And yes, while the game has changed a lot since 1796 – for that matter, the game has changed a lot since 1896 and 1996 -- Block’s discovery of the rules for English Base-ball make it clear that here is the origin of the National Pastime of America.

  Simply put, English Base Ball, though a series of subtle changes that stretched basically from the late 18th Century to the late 19th Century, evolved into Baseball. Another Englishman, Charles Darwin, would understand.