Monday, March 28, 2005

Even in the Origin of Baseball...You Don't Know Nuthin' by John Shiffert

(Editor’s note: The following is from the introduction to the forthcoming book, Philadelphia Baseball, 1831 to 1900 to be published by McFarland and Company in 2006.)

One of the classic philosophers, I think it was Yogi Berra, or maybe Joaquin Andujar, said, “In baseball, you don’t know ‘nuthin’.”

Another noted American hero, Mark Twain, when asked to serve as the master of ceremonies at a reception at Delmonico’s in New York, celebrating the return of Al Spalding’s group of baseball-playing round-the-world travelers in 1889, proclaimed baseball to be “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th Century.”

Now, there’s something to be said for the veracity of both statements. The first is probably self-evident. As for Twain’s simple, yet profound comment, while baseball may well have been the embodiment of 19th Century America, its origins were not American, and extend back much further than the 19th Century. Mr. Spalding, the 1908 Mills Commission, Abner Graves and the Doubleday Myth to the contrary, baseball does not have a single origin, or a single originator. In reality, there are several contenders to the “Birth of Baseball” honor, and, in reality, none of them have a completely clear claim to the title. Because, in baseball, you don’t know nuthin’. While homo sapiens may or may not have come from a single common ancestor, extensive research over the past decade has made it clear that baseball has many roots, and many contributors to the rules. For baseball’s origins are many and varied, as varied as the rules they were played under, and the names they went by. Maybe even as varied as the pronouncements of Yogi Berra.

To start way back…Dr. Joseph Baldassarre, a professor at Boise State University, writing in the 2001 issue of the Society for American Baseball Research’s (SABR) The National Pastime, notes that children’s games played with balls date back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. In fact, pictographs still exist of children of the Nile playing ball games of some sort. No, I don’t know if King Tut or Rameses II threw left-handed or right-handed, or if there really was a Base Baal. Only Phillip Roth knows the latter, because, in baseball, you don’t know nuthin’.

Now, bat and ball games…they go back to Medieval Western Europe, most notably on the British Isles, where many of these games had religious or ritualistic overtones. (Some things never change.) Robert Henderson, while writing Ball, Bat and Bishop in 1947, makes that claim for various bat and ball games in both medieval Europe and Great Britain. Baldassarre especially remarks on the games of creag, club ball and stool ball. And what were they? It’s hard to say exactly, but, according to Baldassarre, King Edward I of England even went so far as to shell out 100 shillings so that the Prince of Wales could play creag in what may have been the first organized Little League. Stool ball may well have been a precursor to cricket, since the object of the game was for the batter to protect an overturned milking stool. Even if it wasn’t cricket’s originator, stool ball does go back a long way—it’s mentioned in the English Domesday Book in 1085. And, speaking of cricket, Baldassarre notes a reference to a sport with that name as early as 1344.

Still, these examples are a long way from the game of Albert Pujols, Al Newman, Al Schact or even Albert Spalding. Coming closer to baseball, both chronologically and geographically, SABR’s Thomas L. Altherr, an expert on early baseball and baseball-like games, writing in Nine in the spring of 2000, quotes from the 1779 journal of Revolutionary War New Hampshire soldier Henry Dearborn—specifically two references to playing “ball” that make it clear that, first, Dearborn had played the game before, and second, this game was pretty important—the players involved had to walk four miles to find a place level enough to play!

A better-known reference from the Revolutionary period is the 1778 diary of George Ewing, a New Jersey ensign at Valley Forge that refers to a game of “base” being played by the troops. However, Altherr points out that this reference is far more likely to be in regard to that era’s popular tag-like children’s game, known variously as base or prison base. This was the game that eventually came to be called prisoner’s base—I played it myself as a kid (and, no, that does not mean I’m old enough to have fought at Valley Forge, even if I did grow up near there), and maybe you did, too. Like capture the flag, nightfighter, hide-and-seek, buck-buck and ringo, prisoner’s base has nothing to do with bats and balls.

Although Ewing’s reference is not very detailed, two much more famous early Americans, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, proved to be much more responsible journalists. Maybe to keep their boss back in Washington, President Thomas Jefferson, off their backs, both Lewis and Clark noted in their journals for June 8, 1806 that the game of “base” they were playing with the Indians (Nez Perce, not Cleveland) was prisoner’s base, and not a ball game. Why would Jefferson care? Well, in 1785 he had written that “games played with the ball and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind.” (Sounds a little like Teddy Roosevelt, talking about football in 1906, doesn’t it?) So, while there were clearly “ball” games played during the early post-Revolutionary period, we should be dubious of references to “base’ when looking for baseball’s origins.

Another comment on the base and ball dichotomy comes from the first great baseball writer, Henry Chadwick, in 1867. Chadwick, who was born in England, claimed that the tag-like game of base, which he also says eventually became prisoner’s base, dated back to King Edward III of England’s era (that’s the early 14th century—he was Edward I’s grandson, in case you’re keeping track of the first royal baseball family), and that it was, at some point in the 17th century, “united” (Chadwick’s word) with the game of ball to form rounders, which was also called round ball or base ball (note the two separate words). Although speculative, Chadwick’s comment is especially noteworthy, since he played rounders as a boy in England, and it was Chadwick’s claim, made at the time of the Mills Commission in 1908, that baseball was in fact descended from rounders.

References to baseball from non-sports sources also appear in 18th century and 19th century literature. A few years after Valley Forge, Jane Austen, writing to Northanger Abbey in 1798, says that one of her characters liked cricket, baseball (note—two different games), riding on horseback, and running about the country. Even earlier comes a reference from a poem in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (published in 1744), that sounds like a walk-off home run: “B is for base-ball, The ball once struck off, Away flies the boy, To the next destined post, And then home with joy.” (If only Joe Carter had lived in the 18th Century instead.)

Then, there’s a fairly well-known reference, from Massachusetts in 1834, in Robin Carver’s Book of Sports. This volume includes rules for baseball and a woodcut of boys playing the game on Boston Common. However, it should be noted that Carver apparently lifted his set of rules for “baseball” directly from another book, The Boy’s Own Book, published in London in 1829, copyright laws being somewhat looser in those days. The rules are the same in both books, except that, in the London book, they’re the rules of the English game rounders.

This is a significant understanding. Just because you call a game baseball doesn’t mean it’s the same sport that saw the Red Sox win the World Series in 2004. Almost anything can be in a name...but, if you have a reference that gives the actual rules to the game in question…that’s like finding the DNA link when trying to trace your ancestors.

Even references in the news media are typically incomplete. Up until last year, the claim for discovering the earliest written reference using the term “base ball” (the classic spelling of the national game until the early 20th Century) seems to have rested with New Yorker George A. Thompson, Jr. Writing in the same 2001 edition of SABR’s The National Pastime as Baldassarre, Thompson reports on finding an article in a New York newspaper, The National Advocate, that refers to a base ball (that’s how it was spelled in the paper) game, played in New York, apparently on April 19, 1823. The article also notes that an “organized association” of young men was playing these games every Saturday at a location that is now on the west side of Broadway, between Washington Place and Eighth Street. It should also be noted that Thompson closes by noting, “Whatever sort of ball these wicked boys were playing, it hardly seems that it could have been any form of baseball.”

Further proof of, if nothing else, an established game called base ball comes from another New York state newspaper, this time from the July 13, 1825 Delhi Gazette, which reports a challenge from nine (note the number) residents of Hamden, New York, to any like number of individuals from any town in Delaware County, New York, to play a game of “bass-ball” (another common spelling of that time), for the sum of $1 per game.

None of these 19th Century references provoked nearly the interest of the events of May 10, 2004, when one of the pre-eminent baseball historians of any time, John Thorn, turned up a gem in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. While researching the origins of baseball, Thorn came upon a reference to an ancient Pittsfield city ordinance that mentioned “baseball.” (That’s how the AP wire story spelled it, however, as noted, the game that became baseball as we know it was most commonly spelled “base ball” much later than this.) The reference Thorn found was in an 1869 book on Pittsfield’s history, and referred to a law passed by that city in 1791 regarding baseball. Thorn, with the help of Pittsfield resident Jim Bouton, went to Pittsfield city officials and, wouldn’t you know it, a Pittsfield librarian dug up the 213-year-old document in a local library. The ordinance is quite explicit—it said that you weren’t allowed to play baseball within 80 yards of the city’s new meetinghouse (for fear of breaking the windows…glass was almost worth its weight in gold in those days).

However, what isn’t obvious is exactly what game they were talking about in 1791. It wasn’t baseball, as played in the U.S., say, some 55 years later. Indeed, as the Hall of Fame’s Jeff Idelson is quoted as saying in the AP story on Thorn’s find, “There’s no way of pinpointing where the game was first played. Baseball wasn’t really born anywhere.” Absolutely correct, in that baseball is not basketball—it wasn’t invented one day in Massachusetts at a YMCA. Still, it’s pretty exciting to find more proof of baseball’s varied and broadly played antecedents in a contemporary American document.

Possibly the most intriguing literary reference in the hunt for the origins of baseball comes from 1796, and it’s not even American. The year 2001 must have been a good one for researchers, because David Block, writing an article that now can be found on the SABR website ( at that time brought to light a remarkable 1796 German book. This is a reference that gives the rules of “Ball mit Freystaten (oder das englische Base-ball)” or “ball with free station, or English base-ball.” The book was written by German physical education pioneer Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths, and was called, Games for the Exercise and Recreation of Body and Spirit for the Youth and his Educator and All Friends of Innocent Joys of Youth (certainly taking the crown for the longest-titled reference mentioning baseball). According to Block, it’s a 492-page tome, written for a German audience, although there is no indication that the baseball-like game Guts Muth described was played in Germany. It was, according to Games, an English game that was well-enough established by the late 18th Century that Guts Muth, writing in Gotha in Central Germany, knew of it, and its rules.

And what were those rules? Although there were some that don’t fit what is considered baseball in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries—like a varying number of bases, home base being an area and not a specific spot and only one out per “inning”—Guts Muth’s description of “das englische Base-ball” does set some familiar standards in that; 1) the pitcher throws to a batter who has three chances to put the ball in play, 2) after hitting the ball, the batter runs the bases counterclockwise for as far as he can without being put out, which act is accomplished by the fielders catching the ball, touching the runner with the ball, or throwing to a base, and, 3) the object of the game is to complete a circuit of the bases.

What’s significant here, claims Block, is that this is a set of rules for a game that pre-dates the 1829 London-published rules for rounders/baseball. Thus, it would seem, Guts Muth’s book pre-empts both Chadwick’s and Henderson’s claim that the baseball of their eras was developed from rounders. Or does it?

It would seem obvious that these games were not baseball. Maybe they were descendents of the national pastime, maybe not. Ultimately, their claims are unproveable, because, in reality, in baseball, you don’t know nuthin’, and, besides, there is no DNA evidence in baseball’s ancestry. Given so many, varied and vague literary references, we cannot really take a shot at pinpointing the game’s start without the evidence of rules that are clearly those of baseball. And, as intriguing as it may be, “das-englische” is not baseball. At this point in time, the best we have to go on is a set of 20 rules, drawn up in 1845 by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York, that were possibly, though this claim is tenuous, based on rules drawn up eight years earlier by the Gotham Base Ball Club. The Knickerbocker rules included; four bases set equidistant from each other in a square, a ball knocked outside of the demarcated field of play was foul and there was no advancing on such foul hits, three strikes were an out and three outs were an inning (although that term wasn’t used at that time), the batters had to hit in their regular turn, and by no means were the fielders allowed to “soak” or “plug” an opposing base runner with the ball (i.e., throw the ball at the runner… stick it in his ear… with often painful results) while he was running the bases as a means of putting him “out.” And, indeed, it was this set of rules that eventually led to the game we now know as baseball.

(Remarkably, according to noted baseball philosopher Andrew Coyne, kids on Long Island to this day in pick-up baseball games “can get an out by pegging the runner in the legs.” I liken this phenomenon to the finding of a coelacanth off of South Africa some years ago.)

Credit for these rules is most commonly given to the Knickerbockers’ Alexander Joy Cartwright, Jr., a bank teller who would later seek his fortune in the California gold fields—serving as sort of a baseball Johnny Appleseed along the way—and then leave for China, stopping in Hawaii, where he would become the founder of the Honolulu Fire Department and one of the islands’ leading citizens. While the Baseball Hall of Fame was having its official opening in 1939 to celebrate a completely mythological version of baseball’s origin, they also held an Alexander Cartwright Day as part of the events.

However, just to prove that, in baseball, you don’t know nuthin’…especially when it’s something that happened almost 160 years ago…the Cartwright fatherhood of baseball is also far from 100 percent certain. According once again to Altherr, arguments have been made—most notably by Thorn in his “The True Father of Baseball” essay in Total Baseball—that Cartwright was just one of a group of Knickerbockers who drew up the rules that evolved into baseball as we know it. Daniel L. “Doc” Adams, a 31-year-old Mt. Vernon, New Hampshire native and physician who served as the president of the committee that drew up the Knickerbockers’ by-laws, may well have had a significant hand in the 20 rules. And so too might have William Tucker and William Wheaton, also on the committee on by-laws of Knickerbocker. At least, Charles Peverelly, writing American Pastimes in 1866, thought so, and so did Francis Richter, writing in his 1914 landmark work, The History and Records of Baseball. Peverelly states that the playing rules were formulated by Tucker and Wheaton, and Richter concurs, in part because he considers Peverelly to be “doubtless authentic, owing to the contemporaneousness of the narration.” Broadly speaking, Knickerbocker’s group claim is boosted by Chadwick’s even more contemporaneous (1860) statement, in the first Beadle’s Dime Base Ball Player, that Knickerbocker deserved the honor of being “the pioneers of the present game of base ball.”

As for Dr. Adams’ individual claim, The Sporting News put in one for him in its February 29, 1896 edition. In an interview with a Sporting News stringer/freelancer the good doctor—who also stated he was the first to play the shortstop position—claimed that he personally fixed the distance between the bases and from the pitcher to the batter, and advocated that balls caught on one bounce should not be outs—a rule that was eventually codified years later. Adams also states, interestingly enough, that the Gothams were the second club organized, but not until 1850.

What about the Gotham claim? In a manner similar to Adams’ years-after-the-fact interview with The Sporting News, Wheaton, who claimed to be one of the Gothams’ members in 1837, decided to set the record straight in a San Francisco Examiner article published in November 1887 and uncovered by Randall Brown for an article in the 2004 edition of The National Pastime. In quoting Wheaton’s 1887 interview, Brown notes that the old lawyer (he would die less than a year later) claims that the Gothams were the first ball organization in the United States (untrue in either case, if we are talking about clubs that played baseball-like games, that would have been the Olympic Club of Philadelphia) and that what they had done was to make some key rule changes from the game of three-corned cat—one of the innumerable bat and ball games previously mentioned. These changes included, according to Wheaton, abolishing soaking and replacing it with tagging, permanently fixing the bases in the shape of a diamond, pitching the ball to the batter (underhanded throwing by the pitcher was forbidden), and eliminating the “out if caught on the first bounce” rule. Of course, Wheaton was also one of the founding members of Knickerbocker, and, as noted, a member of their by-law committee. If you’ve ever seen the famous photo of those half dozen distinguished gents, Wheaton is on the left end of the second row, right next to Cartwright. (Adams is in the middle of the first row.) Wheaton, in fact, is one of the two signers (on the behalf of the Knickerbockers’ Committee on By-Laws) of the copy original 20 rules appearing in Peverelly’s book.

So, did Wheaton bring some or all of Gotham’s rules to Knickerbocker, some eight years later? At this point, all we have is Wheaton’s claim, made some 50 years after the fact.

Brown does offer some strictly circumstantial hard evidence to help back up the validity of Wheaton’s claims, notably that the three other former Gotham players he mentions in the Examiner interview were indeed baseball players in New York in the 1840s, and, the area where Wheaton claimed the Gothams played, which later became part of the site of the original Madison Square Garden, was indeed an open lot in 1837. Still, memory can play tricks, even among the best-intentioned, after 50 years. At this point in time, it seems that the Knickerbockers’ claim is still the best documented, since there’s no denying that their 20 rules from 1845 existed… although exactly who among the club members drew up those rules is still subject to discussion. The best guess at this point is that Cartwright, Adams, Wheaton and Tucker all had a hand in formulating the Knickerbocker rules. However, one further caution—Thorn says those rules were actually just codifying a game the club was already playing.

And what about Alexander Cartwright, and Alexander Cartwright Day at Cooperstown? Well, that may well have been an example of speaking up at the right time. The only hard evidence of Cartwright’s involvement in the rules comes from his own diaries. Cartwright’s son, Bruce, who was living in Hawaii at the time of the Mills Commission, went right to the source of the Doubleday Myth—Albert Spalding—in protest. What’s more, when the Hall of Fame was being founded, Bruce heard about the Hall’s plan to further anoint Doubleday with the “Founder of Baseball” title, and came east with his father’s diaries, to protest further. Probably out of embarrassment at propagating a falsehood as much as anything, the Hall took the Cartwright diaries (and the son) at face value, forgetting one of the first dictums of baseball… you don’t know nuthin’.

John Shiffert is the author of Baseball: 1862 to 2003 (PublishAmerica, 2004) and the forthcoming book, Baseball… Then and Now (Publish America, 2006). He can be reached through his website,

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