Thursday, March 4, 2010

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

Five thousand words later, I promise that I'm wrapping this up. Probably.

I think that there are two benefits to looking at the history of ball-playing in the Midwest within the context of the history of the Illinois Country. First, it gives us a well defined time frame and a better defined geographical framework to investigate the early history of baseball in the area. The Illinois Country defines the time frame that we should be researching. Marquette and Joliet begin their exploration of the area in 1673. Fort de Chartres is built in 1718. So we have a 150 year time frame to look at and research between the coming of the Europeans to the Illinois Country and the coming of the New York game. Geographically, it makes better sense to look at the Illinois Country, encompassing parts of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Iowa, rather than looking at things on a state-by-state basis. Modern state borders are rather arbitrary and have little to do with the cultural units that exist in the United States. Their is a much stronger cultural relationship between St. Louis, Missouri and Cahokia, Illinois than there is between Cahokia and Chicago or St. Louis and Kansas City. The geographical boarders of the Illinois Country (even defined as loosely as they are) provide a better cultural unit to investigate than do modern states.

The second benefit to the Illinois Country construct is that it illuminates early ball-playing in St. Louis (which is kind of what I'm about here at TGOG). It helps to place pioneer St. Louis in a proper context. St. Louis, like Kaskaskia or St. Genevieve, was just a little French trading village in the Illinois Country and did not have the cultural impact on the surrounding area that it would have later in the 19th century. St. Louis was heavily influenced by the French culture of colonial Upper Louisiana as well as the Anglo-American settlements in Illinois. It's entirely possible that the Anglo-Americans introduced pre-modern baseball to St. Louis and the relationship between the communities is something that we'll have to come to grips with if we want to understand the history of 19th century baseball in St. Louis.

I'm at the beginning of this project and it's something that I'm excited about. It's going to be a long-term, on-going thing that will take a great deal of time and effort to see through. Most of what is uncovered will probably end up at Protoball and whatever the SABR Spread Project becomes, although I'm sure that I'll post some of the more interesting things that are discovered here at the blog. I'm very much interested in bringing others into this and hope that we can get some of the local historical societies involved. Anybody that's interested in the history of early baseball in the Midwest or in the pioneer society of the Illinois Country should email me at or leave a comment here at the blog. I'd love to hear your thoughts about all of this.

Basically, where we stand at this point is that I'm aware of ball-playing going on in the Illinois Country as early as the late 18th century and I believe that ball-playing was going in the Illinois Country from the time of first European settlements. These settlements didn't exist in a vacuum. They were part of a broader culture which had ball-playing as one of its features. It makes sense that the early pioneers brought this culture of ball-playing with them to the Illinois Country.

I have questions about ball-playing among the settlers of Southern Illinois. At the moment, there is little evidence suggesting ball-playing among the Southerners who settled the region until after the Yankees had settled the central part of Illinois. While I expect to find evidence of ball-playing in Southern Illinois in the 1800-1820 era, I'm thinking that the Yankees had an influence on the types of games played in Southern Illinois after 1820. Much more work needs to be done in this area and I still need to take a look at western Indiana and eastern Iowa (and Kentucky, for that matter). Where the settlers of Southern Illinois fit into the big picture at this point is still a mystery.

The influence that the Yankee settlers of central Illinois had on the area is unknown but we know that a ball-playing culture exits in central Illinois from the moment the Yankees show up. They bring not just ball games but it appears that they bring a specific form of pre-modern baseball that they called town-ball. There is no evidence suggesting that this form of pre-modern baseball was played among the French or Southern settlers of the Illinois Country. The earliest I can place pre-modern baseball in St. Louis is in the 1840s and that takes a generous interpretation of one specific source. But there are sources that place town-ball in Southern Illinois and parts of Missouri in the same period. So it's not much of a stretch to think that the Yankees brought pre-modern baseball to the Illinois Country in the 1820s and it spreads throughout the region in the next couple of decades. There is ample evidence to suggest that versions of the game were popular in the area in the 1850s.

Essentially, what I've presented here is a thin sketch of an outline tracing the development of pre-modern baseball in the Illinois Country from 1700 to the late 1850s, when the New York game found its way west. There is much work to be done fleshing out this outline and I'm certain that many of my conclusions will be reworked as more evidence comes to light. But I think we're off to a good start.


David Ball said...

My understanding is that the term "townball" flourished in the central and southern states, as well as much of the midwest, but not the northeast. Does that make it problematic that immigrants from New England called their game "townball" rather than "base ball" or "round ball?"

Jeffrey Kittel said...

It depends on how you define "problematic." It certainly throws an interesting wrinkle into the thing. If the Yankees brought their game to the Illinois Country, one would thing that they would bring their name for the game with them. But, time and again, we see "town ball" being used as the name of the game. There are a couple of instances in the 1850s where we see "base ball" used but, at the moment, these are exceptions to the rule.

I think one could argue that the town ball moniker was applied after the fact, in the postbellum era, when the history of the area was first being written. However, there are contemporary sources that specifically mention town ball in the 1820/30 period. There is no doubt that there was a game called town ball being played in central Illinois at that time. And there's not much of a possibility of it being played prior to that in the region, or of its being native to the region, because there wasn't anybody living in the region before then (even the Native American population in the area was not particularly large).

It's also possible that the Southerners who settled in Southern Illinois a generation earlier had more of an influence on the situation that I currently believe or have evidence for. They may have been using the town ball name for there game and it was then adopted by the new batch of settlers in central Illinois. We'd have to look at the amount of trade and interaction between the two groups in 1820/30 and see if that is a viable possibility.

David Ball said...

Yes, "problematic" was perhaps not quite the right word. But "town ball" always seems something of a puzzle to me. Other names for these games such as "base ball" and "long ball" were brought over from England, but "town ball" has no such antecedents, and as far as I am aware it seems to spring suddenly and spontaneously into existence over a very wide area early in the second quarter of the 19th century. I don't know whether that might perhaps merely reflect in part a dramatic increase in the number of documentary sources from that time.

I should stress that I am using quotation marks because I'm specifically talking about the names and not about the actual game (or games) that bore those names. Games played in two localities might be very similar yet be called by different names, and vice versa. I wish Richard Hershberger would speak his piece here; he knows at least as much about this as anybody, and certainly more than I do.

David Ball said...
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Jeffrey Kittel said...

I think you're right about the explosion of sources. What may be problematic, as far as the use of the term "town ball" is concerned, is that a great deal of my sources are from the 1870s. Their sources are basicly the memory of people who lived during the pioneer era. I did consider the possibility that they were using "town ball" as a catch-all in the 1870s to describe their games from the earlier part of the century but some of the contemporary sources confirm that the usage was correct.

I think that one of the more significant sources is the one from Canton, Illinois (which I passed along). It mentions "town-ball" as being a specific, destinct game seperate from other ball games. This was from 1837 and I think it's the earliest contemporary source that we have that mentions town ball in the Illinois Country. The implication of the source is that it was being played before 1837 and that jibes with the memory of people who were living in the area in the 1820s.

Another point that I should note is that while I call the settlers of central Illinois Yankees, I'm using the term a bit generally to describe the folks from not only New England but also New York, and Penn. I don't think that designation is wrong but it may not be as detailed and descriptive as I need to be. The term "Yankee" can be as confused as town ball and I think it depends on where you live as to who and what is a Yankee. I just found it easy to describe the settlement of the area in terms of French, Southerners and Yankees.

I've been thinking that it might be interesting if someone put together a comprehensive etymology of the word "town ball." Something that would help us see how the word was used and how it changed over time.

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