Ah, Baseball! Some things seem to be eternal. Even during these strange COVID times, the World Series is underway. Baseball will not take second place to a mere pandemic! But this most typical of American sports has a history that starts far from America’s shores.
Most Janeites know that one of the first mentions of baseball in literature is in Northanger Abbey. Catherine Morland, the heroine, is introduced in most un-heroine-like terms. In the very first chapter of the novel, finished in 1803, Jane Austen writes,
She was fond of all boy’s plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush….
A few sentences later, Austen adds that,
…it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books…
Just a few years earlier, Austen’s cousin Cassandra Cooke also mentioned baseball in her novel, Battleridge: An Historical Tale, Founded on Facts (1799):
I came to bid adieu to my old playmate Sir Ralph Vesey: how kindly did he part with poor Jack Jephson as he called me! ‘Ah!’ says he, ‘no more cricket, no more base-ball. They are sending me to Geneva.’
Nor are these the earliest references to baseball as a sport. According to many sources, baseball was first used in print in 1700, when Bishop Thomas Wilson complained about “Morris-dancing, cudgel-playing, baseball and cricket” being enjoyed on Sundays. In 1744, a children’s book called A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was published, including a woodcut of people playing at a ball-and-bat game called Baseball.
Still, these games might have shared a name with modern baseball, but assuredly were not the same game. The details of the rules have been lost to history, but they were almost certainly forms of Rounders, a game which is first named in the second edition of The Boy’s Own Book, published by William Clarke in 1828.
Contemporary baseball mythology asserts that the modern game was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY, in 1839. There are some problems, though. The first is that in 1839, Doubleday was nowhere near Cooperstown, but was still at West Point. Further, he never made this claim himself, nor any other claim associating himself with the sport. The only link between Doubleday and baseball comes from a letter written decades after the fact by one unreliable man. This man, Abner Graves, was only five years old in 1839, and spent his last years in an insane asylum. His testimony, therefore, is suspect.
Instead, the modern game of baseball, with its particular rules and unique characteristics, may have originated in what was then Upper Canada (now Ontario, Canada). An article in the May 5, 1886 issue of Sporting Life includes the memories of Dr. Adam Ford, who witnessed a game that bears a great deal of similarity to modern baseball – more so than the early American versions of the game. This game was played on June 4, 1838 in Beachville, between the Beachville Club and the Zorras from northern Oxford County.
He describes the distances between bases, the rules of fair and unfair balls, and a great many other details. The editor of Sporting Life describes the account as “A Game of Long-ago Which Closely Resembled Our Present National Game.” The entire article can be found at this site: https://protoball.org/Baseball_game_in_Beachville,_Ontario,_1838
In my recent release, Death of a Clergyman, Mary Bennet has enjoyed a similar girlhood to Catherine Morland, in that she, too, has played baseball. In this excerpt, she uses her throwing skills to try to help her friend and co-investigator, Alexander Lyons.
As she grappled with her beliefs, the man seemed to be grappling with his hold on consciousness. The pistol wavered, the hand that held it unsteady, and in the lights of the hundred lamps and torches, the man’s eyes could be seen as glazed and unfocused. Once more the hand shook and the pistol danced through the air, threatening every man in the woods, before centering once more on Alexander.
Mary’s fists clenched in horror and dread, and she discovered that she still held her stone. She had no particular physical strength, no real skill at all, but she had played baseball with the village children and knew how to throw a ball. She reached back and took aim and let the stone fly, praying to God for it to reach its target.
At once there was a crack, followed by an explosion, a great burst of sound and a flash of light that tore from the muzzle, followed by absolute silence and then the oaths of a hundred men. Mary was dimly aware of somebody screaming, somebody quite close to her. With a start, she realised that the screamer was herself. She could not look, dared not look, to see what had become of the man she had begun to think of as a friend.