Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Certain Game Of Ball

"True philosophy," according to an elegant writer, "consists in doing all the good we can, in learning all the good we can, in teaching to others all the good we can, in bearing, to the best of our abilities, the various ills of life, and in enjoying with gratitude every honest pleasure that comes in our way."  But to decide what are honest pleasures sometimes "pussies the will," particularly when those which our young and innocent hearts once joyed in are deemed sinful by church bigots.  As in the case of a sectarian paper way down in the State of Georgia, which publishes a long string of resolutions against "popular amusements," including social games...However, a little reflection will convince anyone that this is all right.  Does not the skipping rope end in the hangman's?  Will not children who engage in blind man's bluff inevitably grow up "bluffers"...?  And will not those who, on winter evenings, "grind the bottle," have the bottle to grind them into the gutter some day?  Say, do not they who play "thimble" become "thimble riggers?"  Is not a certain game of ball "base?"
-Daily Missouri Republican, December 28, 1858

That was a long way to go to get to a scant baseball reference but I think this is the earliest reference we now have to the game in a St. Louis paper.  The Alton references come about six or seven months earlier but that's the Alton papers.  One implication of this reference is that, just as the game was called base ball in Alton, it was also commonly referred to by that name in St. Louis.  While there is plenty of evidence showing that a variant of the game was being played in St. Louis under the town ball moniker, there is now equal evidence showing that either the game was also known as base ball or that there was a second variant being played under that name.   

One interesting thing here is how the game is grouped with other children's game such as jump rope and blind man's bluff.   One of my assumptions is that a sporting culture existed in St. Louis in the 1850's that paved the way for the acceptance of the New York game.  Adults were playing cricket, town ball and football (come back tomorrow for that information) and forming social clubs around the playing of those games.  However, this reference casts some doubt as to the general acceptance of adults playing baseball.  I'm not necessarily rethinking my assumptions but I do think this should be noted.  

Another interesting thought regarding town ball/base ball in St. Louis:  the context of the 1860 St. Louis Daily Bulletin reference to base ball is that the author stated that he had played the game as a student.   Is it possible that, in St. Louis, the baseball variant played by children was referred to as base ball while the variant played by adults was called town ball?       


Richard R. Hershberger said...

The linguistic situation on the upper Mississippi was more complicated than I previously thought. After my first big run-through on the topic I concluded that the upper Mississippi and its tributaries was "town ball" teritory until you got to Wisconsin. Between the Alton evidence and scattered odds and ends such as a "base ball" cite from Quincy and this one from St. Louis (which is new to me, by the way: good catch!) it is clear that there was some "base ball" influence in the region. I still think that "town ball" was more common.

I know next to nothing about migration patterns in this region, but I wouldn't be surprised to find early settlers coming upriver, from "town ball" regions, with later settlers (with the coming of the railroad?) from the "base ball" regions of the Great Lakes, New York, and New England adding an overlay of "base ball".

This is pure speculation, but my intuition is that this is a likelier explanation than trying to find distinctions in useage.

Jeffrey Kittel said...

There might be something to what you're saying about migration patterns and its influence on linguistics. The population of StL, between 1835 and 1845, grew from around 8,000 to 35,000 and by 1860 it was over 160,000 so there is massive immigration going on.

Certainly, much of the immigration is coming from the Old World-Germans, Irish, Italians. But a lot of it also coming from Eastern cities. There's a book called Yankee Merchants and the Making of the Urban West, by Jeffrey Adler, which explores the growth and collapse of StL as a western boomtown in the antebellum era and Adler talks about how commercial traffic moved north to south and immigration followed trade patterns. He writes at great length about the influx of Yankee settlers and capital and the influence it had on the economic boom that was taking place in StL. It's a good book.

By the 1850s in StL, you have this wierd mix of the old Creole settlers, southerners who arrived from Virginia via Kentucky and Southern Illinois, recent European immigrants, as well as a large group of Yankees. It's an interesting mix of people and they created a unique culture. Due to this mix, there had to have been idiosyncratic usage of language and the town ball/base ball situation may be an example of this.