Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Some Thoughts On Ball-Playing In The Illinois Country, Part Four

So here I am, still prattling on about ball-playing and the Illinois Country. But at least today, we're getting to the juicy stuff.

The second wave of Anglo-American settlement of the Illinois Country occurred immediately after Illinois became a state in 1818. It took place in the central part of the state and followed the Illinois River north. In the above map, we see the extent of the spread of settlement in 1840. We see the southern settlements in the American Bottoms and Wabash River areas as well as a new population center in the Sangamon River valley that was settled largely by Yankees from New England, New York and Pennsylvania. These new settlers brought a culture of ball-playing with them.

Their are numerous accounts of pioneer life in the Illinois Country in the decades before the Civil War and many of them contain references to ball-playing. In the histories of Menard County, Mason County, Fulton County, McLean County, and Henry County, there are several references to town-ball and bull-pen as favorite pastimes. All of these counties were in the Sangamon River valley, just north and west of Springfield, Illinois. But together, they describe a lively ball-playing culture existing among the Yankee settlers of central Illinois that began in the 1820s and continued into the Civil War era.

Before I pass along a few of these references, I want to make one observation. Evidence of this ball-playing culture in central Illinois lends a great deal of credence to the Abraham Lincoln town-ball stories. It is often difficult to separate truth from myth when it comes to Lincoln and this is true when it comes to the Lincoln ball-playing stories. They are often dismissed as apocryphal and having been created in an attempt to wrap baseball in the flag. While some of that may be accurate, the fact that a vigorous ball-playing culture existed in central Illinois at the time Lincoln lived there and that the men of the community were active ball-players supports the idea that Lincoln was a ball-player. Each Lincoln ball-playing reference has to be judged on its own merits but, in general, I think it's safe to say that Lincoln, like all the men in his community, played pre-modern baseball. It would have been an aberration if he hadn't.

The evidence of an active ball-playing community exists in the county histories of central Illinois. A series of these histories were written in the 1870s and, while they are not contemporary evidence of ball-playing in the area, they do present testimony from people who had lived during the pioneer era. All the caveats about the memory of human beings apply and much more research needs to be done but the fact that there are multiple accounts describing, in similar detail, ball-playing in central Illinois in the 1820-1840 era gives weight to the evidence. I offer some of the more interesting accounts below:

The principal game among the boys was "bullpen," a kind of ball. The party was equally divided. A field was laid out with as many corners, or bases, as there were men on a side. They tossed for choice, the winners' side taking the corners, or bases, the others going into the "pen." The game was this: The men on the bases, tossing the ball from one to another as rapidly as they could, threw and struck one in the "pen" whenever they could. If one threw and struck no one, he was out; but if he struck one, the men on the bases all ran away, and if the one struck first did not throw and hit one in return, he was out; though if he did, both kept their places. So the game went on till all on the "corners" were out; the others then took the bases. This was a rough, but lively and amusing game. Those in the "pen" often had their ribs sorely battered with the ball; but many became such adepts in the art of "dodging" the ball when thrown at them, that it was almost impossible to strike them. The game was, in time, abandoned for a game called "town ball;" the present base ball being town ball reduced to a science.

-The History of Menard and Mason Counties, Illinois

Almost all sources agree that bullpen was a popular game in central Illinois during the pioneer era. A close reading of this source has town-ball growing in popularity in the 1820s.

Canton was incorporated as a town Feb. 10, 1837. Upon that day an election was held to vote for or against incorporation, resulting in the adoption of the measure by a majority of 34, there being 46 ballots cast. Immediately thereafter the following five Trustees were chosen: David Markley, Joel Wright, Thomas J. Little, William B. Cogswell and Franklin P. Offield. They held this first meeting March 27, 1837, "at Frederic Mennerts' inn..." Under by-laws adopted by this Board, revenue was to be raised by a tax on all real estate within the boundaries of the town, which, it was provided, should be assessed at its true value, and upon the assessment "an ad-valorem tax of not exceeding fifty cents on every one hundred dollars should be levied by the President and Trustees annually." Section 36 of the ordinances provided that "any person who shall on the Sabbath day play at bandy, cricket, cat, town-ball, corner-ball, over-ball, fives or any other game of ball, within the limits of the corporation, or shall engage in pitching dollars or quarters, or any other game, in any public place, shall, on conviction thereof, be fined the sum of one dollar."

-History of Fulton County, Illinois

This is a fascinating reference that gives us a catalogue of ball-games that were being played in central Illinois in the 1830s. I find it significant that one of the first things that the Board of Trustees did upon incorporation of the city was to ban ball-playing on Sundays. This speaks, I believe, to the extent of ball-playing activity in the area. If there wasn't a great deal of ball-playing going on, there would have been no need to pass a law against it. Also, the fact that town-ball is specifically mentioned, separate from a number of other ball-games, suggests that this was a specific game played in central Illinois, rather than a catch-all term used to describe any number of pre-modern ball games. I believe that Larry either has this reference up at Protoball already or it will be up after the next update.

The boys didn't play base ball in 1835. It hadn't been invented. Where I lived..., we played "town ball." There was a pitcher and catcher. We ran in a circle, and being hit by the ball was out, or the man running the bases could be "crossed out," by throwing the ball across his path ahead of him as he ran. They also played "one-old-cat" and "two-old-cat" with ball and bat.

-History of Henry County, Illinois, Volume 1

That's a nice reference to a cross out and again distinguishes between town-ball and other forms of ball games.

We played games to a finish, such as long town; town ball, which was a kind of rudimentary football; [and] shinny in cold weather to keep all warm and going...

-Educational Review: Volume XL

An interesting reference that complicates things a bit with the reference to town-ball as a type of football game but the reference to long town makes up for it. The writer is speaking about his school days in Canton, Missouri in the early 1850s. While the reference is dated a bit late for our purposes, I'm really interested in the possibility of the Anglo-American culture of ball-playing spreading to the rest of the Illinois Country. Canton was just across the river from the Sangamon River valley ball-playing area and the ball-games they were playing should have been influenced by the games played just east of the Mississippi. Also, shinny was being played in St. Louis in the 1850s so, again, we may be looking at evidence of a specific game spreading throughout the region. I'll have more to say about that tomorrow.

In the general, the point I'm trying to make today is that we see a great deal of ball-playing in the Illinois Country after the Yankees arrive in the 1820s. While there is evidence of the French and Southerners playing ball, it is nothing like what we see once the Yankees arrive. Once the Yankees settle in central Illinois, we see an explosion of ball-playing and a vibrant ball-playing culture. It appears, at this point, that we can trace the origins of baseball in the Illinois Country to the Yankees who settled central Illinois between 1820 and 1840. There was ball-playing going on in the Illinois Country prior to that but pre-modern baseball was most likely brought to the area by the Yankees.

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