BASEBALL BEFORE WE KNEW IT
by David Block
Nebraska, 340 pages, $29.95
henry chadwick was a lot like Mrs. O'Leary's cow, the innocent creature that supposedly knocked over a lantern and burned down Chicago. In 1860 Chadwick produced baseball's first annual guide, which included a single sentence that lit one hell of a fire: Baseball, he wrote, was "derived ... from the English game of rounders." The suggestion that America's Game might have originated somewhere besides America so "inflamed passions and patriotism," writes baseball historian David Block, that the idea still burns us. The French may get credit for fried spuds, but dammit, baseball is ours!
Block has produced a deliciously researched feast that lays this controversy to rest. In a chapter called "Rounders, Schmounders" he proves that baseball did not grow out of the English sport. But beyond this U.S. jingoists will find only bad news. For Block proves even more conclusively that baseball is derived from another English game: base-ball. Rounders, it turns out, was just a version of base-ball popular in southwest England, where Chadwick grew up. "Had his birthplace been elsewhere in England," writes Block, "there might have been no debate," because in most of the country baseball's ancestors were called base-ball.
And make no mistake: The British invented that game well before Americans invented the United States. Block's proof includes an illustrated English children's book from 1744 that includes this doggerel entitled "Base-Ball":The ball once struck off/Away flies the boy/To the next destined post/And then home with joy! Or consider this German description of "English base-ball" from 1796: "The batter has three chances to hit the ball while at the home plate.... Once the ball has been hit, the batter can run from one base to another."
Block has assembled such a rich pile of evidence for the game's European origins that one might wonder why there ever was a controversy. The deflating answer is that America's burgeoning baseball industry created the flap to popularize the game. The Spalding Commission, established in 1904, came to the conclusion that the game was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839. But its "evidence" was preposterous. The commission relied heavily on the testimony of one Abner Graves, who claimed to have played in the first baseball game, but who changed the details of his story so many times that a confused obituary in The Denver Post reported he was born in 1834 and was a college student when he played in that first game ... in 1840, at age six.
Once an American reader gets past the disappointment of discovering baseball's deep European roots, Block's book is a perfect delight. He has unearthed magnificent medieval manuscripts--a Spanish songbook from the 1200s, a Dutch calendar from 1301, a 14th-century French romance--that show that baseball is just the latest in a very long line of stick-and-ball games. In trap-ball and northern spell, which date from the 1400s, a ball is launched off a low tee and walloped with a bat. In stool ball or bittle-battle, which may date from the 11th century, a pitcher fires a ball at a stool while a hitter defends it with a bat. Perhaps the greatest surprise in these ancestral games is that they were often played by men and women together, who used the opportunity to get better acquainted. Which proves that, loath as we are to admit it, occasionally Europe knows best.