Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Good Old Social Game Of Base Ball

The good old social game of base ball, which we used so much to delight in when a student, and which, semi-occasionally, we have indulged in since arriving at man's estate, is fast becoming one of the most popular pastimes among us.  On Monday night a base ball club was organized, with twenty-four members, under the style of the "Morning Star Club."  The following officers were elected: President-J.R. Naylor; Vice-President-R. Henry; Secretary-Geo. Franklin; Directors-C.C. Ferguson, R.H. Franklin and Chas. Scudder.

The club will meet every morning for practice.  We wish them much enjoyment, and shall accept their kind invitation to take a game when convenient.
  -St. Louis Daily Bulletin, June 6, 1860

This is the earliest contemporary reference that we now have of the formation of a St. Louis baseball club.  While there are sources that place the founding of the Cyclone Club in the summer of 1859 and the Empire Club in April of 1860, Richard Perry, a member of the Morning Star Club, stated in 1887 that his club was "the first club organized" in St. Louis and, as of now, I can't conclusively prove that he's incorrect.  I do believe, however, that the weight of the evidence still supports the Cyclone and Empire Clubs forming prior to June of 1860.  The true significance of this information from the Bulletin is that it is contemporary evidence confirming some of what we already know based on secondary sources as well as the fact that it fills in some of the gaps of our knowledge regarding the Morning Star Club.  

The real interesting thing here is the reference to the "good old social game of base ball" that the author of the piece played in his youth and what that means in the context of the May 4, 1860 reference to town ball and the 1858 Alton references to base ball.  If we parse the text, what we have is a reference to an old game, played previous to 1860, that the author refers to as base ball.  We've already seen, in the Alton references, that there was a bat and ball, safe haven game called base ball played in the St. Louis area in 1858 and, given the geographical, cultural, and economic connections between Alton and St. Louis, I always assumed that if this game was being played in Alton then it was also being played in St. Louis.  This reference may be confirmation of that assumption.  

However, there are at least two things that complicate the matter.  The first is the earlier reference to town ball in the Bulletin.  Speaking of the game as "old" and referring to a "revival" of the sport, the reference gives the impression that a sport called town ball was played in St. Louis and had been for some time.  So the question becomes whether or not we're talking about one game or two.  Were the terms town ball and base ball being used interchangeably in the St. Louis area?  If this is unlikely then we're possibly looking at two different forms of American base ball, town ball and base ball, played in the St. Louis area prior to the arrival of the New York game.        

The second complication is the identity of the author.  Edmund Tobias wrote in The Sporting News that the "first newspaper man to hold out a helping hand to the 'infant industry' of base ball reporting was Col. W.H. Swift, then the editor of the St. Louis Daily Bulletin, who magnanimously consented to publish the reports if gratuitously furnished his paper.  And this was done."  If William Henry Swift was the author of the above reference to base ball then this puts the reference in a different light and it's much easier to explain.  Swift was born in Cayuga Co., New York in 1832, educated in New York public schools, and apprenticed at the Auburn (New York) Advertiser from 1844 to 1849 before moving to St. Louis in 1850.  If he was the author then the reference to the "old social game" and to student play would be to baseball in New York rather than St. Louis.  

Let's see if I can be a bit more clear in my thinking.  Here are the facts:

1. We have an 1858 reference to base ball in the Alton papers.  The description of the game leaves no doubt that it is not the New York game.  

2. We have an 1860 reference to town ball in St. Louis that implies that the game had been played in St. Louis in the past.  We also know that there were clubs organized to play this game.

3. We have an 1860 reference to base ball in St. Louis that directly refers to a club organizing to play the New York game while at the same time implying that the game was played by the author of the article in his youth.  

4.  Since the best available evidence suggests that the New York game was first played in the St. Louis area in the summer of 1859, any references to base ball in St. Louis prior to that is to the St. Louis version of base ball rather than the New York version.    

Trying to reconcile these facts, I could argue that in the antebellum era, prior to the advent of the New York game in the area, various bat and ball games were played in St. Louis and clubs were organized around the playing of those games.  In Alton, the game went by the name of base ball while in St. Louis it was known as town ball.  The reference to the "old social game of base ball" is W.H. Swift speaking about his experiences playing base ball in New York.  

However, we could also possibly argue that we're talking about one bat and ball game referred to by different names.  While certainly this game was malleable and lent itself to rule-change variations, in general there was one bat and ball game around which clubs were formed and this game was known variously, around St. Louis, as town ball or base ball.  Under this theory, the game played in Alton in 1858 and called base ball was the same as that played in St. Louis in 1860 and called town ball.  The main reasoning behind this argument would be the economic, social, and cultural connections between St. Louis and the various satellite communities that sprung up around it.  I find it unlikely that entirely different forms of bat and ball games, going under different names and being played by adults, would develop at the same time in St. Louis and Alton.  It's possible but I just can't imagine any type of evolutionary trend taking place in one of the cities without it immediately impacting the other. 

I was looking through David Block's Baseball Before We Knew It last night to see if there might be anything which could address some of the questions that I have and found this:

From all available indications, the term "town-ball" was simply one of several regional aliases for baseball before 1845.  In those years, the game was a localized and generally unorganized activity.  Two teams in neighboring communities might have called their respective games town-ball but played under different sets of rules.  By the same token, their rules could have been identical, but one might have called it "town-ball" and the other "base ball."

I think that this lends some support to the idea that we could be looking at one game under two names.  Certainly it isn't conclusive or any kind of smoking gun but it at least touches on the possibility.  

There is one more point I'd like to mention before wrapping this up.  If Swift was the author of the article and had some familiarity with the New York game before moving to St. Louis then it appears that he recognized the game that Morning Star Club was playing as the New York game.  However, if Swift was not the author or he had no familiarity with the New York game then the reference to base ball becomes even more interesting because the author is using one term to refer to both the New York game and the St. Louis variation of American base ball.  The implication is that the author did not see enough difference between the two games to distinguish between them.  I think that would be significant in that it would speak to the subtleness of the evolutionary development of baseball.  Not only was there a subtleness to the development of the game itself, as it distinguished itself from other forms of bat and ball games, but also to the spread of the game.  An event which we might see as significant, the advent of the New York game in a specific city or region, was most likely a non-event to those who participated in the game or observed its playing.  The New York game was just one more bat and ball game being played at the time; just one variation of base ball among many.  There was nothing special about it.               


Richard Hershberger said...

There is a lot to unpack here.

Regarding both names "town ball" and "base ball" in the same area, I believe that David Block's statement about adjoining towns is not true in any general sense. The two terms for the most part were regional. St. Louis is within the "town ball" region.

On the other hand, I am gradually being forced to soften my position with regard to the upper Mississippi. The few cites I have for Wisconsin are all "base ball" regardless of what part of the state. I have a "base ball" cite for Quincy. Then of course there are the Alton cites and now this St. Louis example. "Town ball" is still more common (apart from Wisconsin) but "base ball" is found too often to be random noise.

I suspect that you are right about the effect of immigrants from "base ball" territory. That has been my working hypothesis with the Quincy cite (the newspaper editor watching boys playing and remeniscing about his youth). But even so, these are too many examples to dismiss.

As for the question of same or separate games, this is a philosophical question. I tentatively believe that the exact forms of the game were extremely localized. But with a pre-modern, unstandardized game, it is arbitrary whether we judge two towns' versions as the same or different. This only becomes important if they are setting up match games. When that occurs, the rules need to be negotiated even between clubs in the same city. This was the impetus for the 1854 NY and the 1858 Dedham rules.

There is a very widespread phenomenon that as the NY game spread, local observers recognized it as the game they already knew, whether called "base ball" or "town ball". They recognized it as having some refinements and being more "scientific" but it regarded as an improved version, not a new game.

In some areas the local version was played competitively by organized clubs. This made the local version a competing standard. Language had to be adapted to talk about these competing standards. Where the local version was called "town ball" this was easy. Where the local version was called "base ball" they had to come up with longer forms, hence the "Massachusetts game".

Bringing this home to the question of how Swift "assuming it was he" was using the language, the bio you give makes it unlikely that he knew the NY game prior to moving to St. Louis. The NY game was played by very small numbers before the 1850s, even within New York City itself. But New York state was "base ball" territory. So Swift played the local version of baseball in his youth, and recognized the game being played in St. Louis as the same thing. This is not at all to suggest that it was exactly the same. If by June of 1860 he had seen the NY game played, he likely would have regarded it is simply another (albeit perhaps superior) version.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

Excellent comment and very helpful.

The phrase "a premodern, unstandardized game" is an fantastic description of what we're looking at and I'm going to steal it and use it often. I've been using the word "variant" a lot when describing the games. The New York variant, the StL variant, the Alton variant, etc. Variants within variants. While the differences between the variants are obvious, I've been having a difficult time communicating how they are versions of a common game. I think that "a variant of a premodern, unstandardized game" nails it.

The stuff about Swift was also very helpful. I considered the possibility that Swift had not seen the New York game played but the thought passed through my mind rather quickly. If Swift was unfamiliar with the New York game then the reference to base ball is just fascinating. It makes me much more comfortable talking about the idea of there being such a thing as "St. Louis base ball" during the antebellum era that included town ball, the Alton game, and the New York game.