Saturday, January 17, 2009

An 1858 Match Game In Alton

A Match Game

Some time since we noticed the organisation, in our city, of a Base Ball Club. Since then, the Club has played from one to three games every week, the regular games being played on Friday afternoons, and the members have become very expert. Last week they accepted a challenge to play a match game with the Upper Alton Club. The game was played on Saturday afternoon, by twelve picked men from each Club, upon the Alton Club ground, in Middle Alton, the latter winning in five innings, by one hundred and thirty-four rounds. The game stood at the close: Alton Club, 224 rounds; Upper Alton Club, 90 rounds. We are told, however, that the Upper Alton boys played at a disadvantage, being on strange ground, and three of their best players being sick. It is admitted by some of the members of the winning Club, that had the advantages been equal, the contest would have been a close one, and the result perhaps entirely different. We presume it will be tried again.
-Alton Weekly Courier, June 24, 1858

This reference to a baseball match in Alton in 1858 is similar to the Porter's Spirit of the Times July 17, 1858 reference that's used in the Protoball Chronology. Interestingly, the Spirit of the Times article is written in the first person while this one is not which rules out the Courier piece being the direct source for the Spirit of the Times reference although it's possible that they share a common author.

Update: After writing this I noticed one discrepancy between the two sources. The Spirit of the Times source mentions thirteen players per side and the Courier source mentions twelve.

The significance of this article, as I wrote before, is that it is the earliest reference to a safe haven game in the St. Louis area of which we're aware. Actually, what I wrote was that it was the earliest reference to a non-cricket safe haven game that I know of but checking my notes I noticed that the earliest reference to a cricket game I have is from November of 1858 and the earliest reference to a cricket club is from September of 1858 so this Courier piece predates both of those by several months. As of right now, this is the line between the light and the darkness. We have direct contemporary evidence of a safe haven game being played in the St. Louis area in June of 1858 with club formation in May of 1858. While I have no doubt that safe haven games were being played in the St. Louis area earlier then this, that's speculative with nothing to back it up other than Tobias' vague reference to the popularity of town ball and cricket in the area prior to the arrival of the New York game.

Of course, this Courier article is not a reference to the New York game. The earliest reference to the New York game in the St. Louis area continues to be the notice for the Cyclone/Morning Star match that ran in the Missouri Democrat in July of 1860. The Courier piece does nothing to change the time line regarding the advent of the New York game in St. Louis. What it does is give us more information about the nature of St. Louis bat and ball games and clubs prior to the formation of the Cyclone Club in the summer of 1859.

This, of course, raises significant questions. What kind of game exactly was the Alton Base Ball Club and the Upper Alton Base Ball Club playing if it wasn't "baseball?" If it isn't the New York game (and based on the fact that they were using twelve men per side and playing only five innings, it's easy to say that it wasn't) than what is it? Well, the simplest answer, as it's been pointed out to me, is that they were playing a bat and ball game that was known, in Alton, as "base ball." It was simply a local variation of a safe haven game that they happened to call base ball and, based on Tobias' recollections, was likely similar to what was more commonly called town ball. How was the game played? I don't know. How was the field laid out? Don't know. What kind of rules were used? Don't know. Was this game specific to Alton or was it played throughout the St. Louis area? Don't know.

Certainly, the lack of answers to these specific questions seems frustrating but it really isn't. We now have numerous sources showing that safe haven games were being played in the St. Louis area in 1858 and that has a significant impact on our understanding of the origins and development of baseball in St. Louis. And over time we're going to find more references, more sources, more information and we're going to continue to push back the darkness on our knowledge. This is a good thing.

Note: If you ever look at the tags that I add to each post or use the list of tags in the sidebar, you may have noticed that I misspelled "origins." Yeah...I'm embarrassed. And I'm really not sure if I can fix it without changing the tag on each individual post. I'll have to look into it. Of course, I'm sure that my poor spelling (and grammar) is not a shock to any regular readers of this blog.


Richard Hershberger said...

I would be astonished if Porter's used the Alton Weekly Courier as a direct source, simply because the Courier was a small paper in a small town far far away from New York. The usual procedure would be that someone from the Alton club sent a report to Porter's. The New York sporting weeklies were generally willing to give space to such things.

I'm not entirely comfortable with the characterization that the Alton folks "happened" to call their game "base ball". They called it "base ball" because it *was* base ball. At that time "base ball" meant a family of closely related games, with different regions playing different variants. The folks in New York played the New York variant. The folks in Alton played the Alton variant. The New York game prevailed over the Alton game, but that doesn't make the New York version any more entitled to the name "base ball".

The only surprising thing here is that the baseball family of games went by several regional variant names, and Alton is a region where I would expect the name to be "town ball". But "base ball" and "town ball" were synonyms, in the same way that "truck" and "lorry" are synonyms today.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

The similarity in language between the two pieces certainly leads me to think that there is a common source for the material. Most likely it was written by the same person, submitting the material to two different papers, or the earlier source was submitted to Porter's. Of course, it could be a coincidence and I'm overanalyzing it. There really is only so many ways to briefly write up an account of a game.

Your point about "base ball," "Alton base ball," "town ball," etc is well taken and understood. The problem is internalizing it without succumbing to cognitive dissonance.

It honestly seems sometimes that no matter how much I look at this, how much I read, or how much I think about it, this material is still just ridiculously alien to me. There are times when I think I'm over it and have learned to put aside my modern frame of reference and accept this 19th century world on its own terms. But then something else comes down the line to humble me.

Richard Hershberger said...

You are probably right about the two reports being from one person. The question of where the Courier got its material is just as valid as that of Porter's. Did the Courier have a reporter at the game? (Did the Courier have reporters, or was it a one man operation?) (I'm not claiming to actually know anything specifically about this paper. I'm riffing off of small town weeklies of this period.) It is entirely plausible that some enterprising member of the ball club wrote up the game and sent it to both the local paper and to Porter's. The respective editors then would edit it to fit their needs.

As for the difficulty of internalizing the base/town ball vocabulary, you are far from the first.

By way of fair warning, I should point out that this is my personal research project and conclusion. I have been pushing it to anyone willing to listen, but it is not the received version. I think I am on solid ground, but I'm prejudiced in this matter.

The received version is a bit muddy, but typically goes something like this: baseball evolved from rounders, with townball as an intermediary. What was townball? It is identified with the Massachusetts game. So when you see talk of Alexander Cartwright changing the ballfield from a square to a diamond, the assumption is that pre-Knickerbocker baseball in New York was something very like the Mass. game. Taking this a step further, there are otherwise excellent books which assume that any reference to "town ball" in any part of the country means the Mass. game. It is variously assumed either that the Mass. game was uniformly played throughout the country (and therefore only identified with Massachusetts through the historical accident that Massachusetts clubs codified it) or that most of the country was baseball terra incognita, with the NY and the Mass. games competing to fill the vacuum.

My contention is that the received version of the previous paragraph is pretty much entirely wrong. I can go into as much or as little detailed discussion of the facts in evidence as you want. But getting back to internalizing this scheme, you likely are used to the received version, and so you automatically interpret a text by fitting it into the received version. I am reminding you (gently, I hope) of the new and improved Hershberger Egomaniac Version, and placing the text in this scheme.

There are two key concepts to internalize: (1) Early baseball was a family of closely related games, played throughout Anglophone North America (this glosses over Britain, as not relevant to the current discussion). There were innumerable local versions until displaced by the New York version in the years following the Civil War. (2) The members of the baseball family went by different names, depending on region. The three that matter in the American context are, roughly, (a) "base ball", generally used in New York state, New England, Canada, and the Great Lakes basin, (b) "round ball", used in New England (alongside "base ball"), and (c) "town ball", used everywhere else (i.e. Ohio and Mississippi river basins, most of Pennsylvania, and the South). There is no evidence that "base ball" and "town ball" form branches of a family tree: this is, forms called "town ball" are no more likely to be similar to one another than they are to forms called "base ball". It is strictly a matter of dialect.

If anyone has any further questions, my office hours are posted...

Jeffrey Kittel said...

I appreciate the time and effort that you've put into responding to all of this, Richard. You've certainly been extremely helpful. I'm going to respond in more detail when I have more time and get a chance to more carefully read what you wrote.