Some things seem to be eternal. The tides, the fruitcake which has made the rounds of Christmas parties since Moses was a babe, elders complaining about today’s youth (likely, goes back to Socrates, at least), and baseball. Not even COVID could stop the 2020 World Series from taking place. But this most archetypical of American sports has a history that starts far from America’s shores.
Most Janeites know one of the first mentions of baseball in literature is in Northanger Abbey. Catherine Morland, the heroine, is introduced in most un-heroine-like terms. In the very first chapter of the novel, finished in 1803, Jane Austen writes,
She was fond of all boy’s plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush….”
A few sentences later, Austen adds that,
“It was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books…
This image below is from 1779, of a Cricket Match Played by the Countess of Derby and Other Ladies. Catherine Morland was certainly not the first lady to take up a bat and ball. [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cricket_Match_Played_by_the_Countess_of_Derby_and_Other_Ladies,_1779.jpg]
Just a few years before Northanger Abbey was completed, Austen’s cousin Cassandra Cooke also mentioned baseball in her novel, Battleridge: An Historical Tale, Founded on Facts (1799):
I came to bid adieu to my old playmate Sir Ralph Vesey: how kindly did he part with poor Jack Jephson as he called me! ‘Ah!’ says he, ‘no more cricket, no more base-ball. They are sending me to Geneva.’
There are earlier references to a sport called baseball as well. According to many sources, the word baseball was first used in print in 1700, when bishop Thomas Wilson complained about “Morris-dancing, cudgel-playing, baseball and cricket” being enjoyed on Sundays. In 1744, a children’s book called A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was published, including a woodcut of people playing at a ball-and-bat game called Baseball.
Here is the page from that pocket book, with the poem.
The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin’d Post,
And then Home with Joy.
Still, these games might have shared a name with modern baseball, but assuredly were not the same game. The details of the rules have been lost to history, but they were almost certainly forms of Rounders, a game which is first named in the second edition of The Boy’s Own Book, published by William Clarke in 1828.
Contemporary baseball mythology asserts that the modern game was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY, in 1839. But like so many great myths and legends, the truth may lie a little distance from the story. The first problem with this founding myth is that in 1839, Doubleday was nowhere near Cooperstown, but was still at West Point. Further, he never made this claim himself, nor any other claim associating himself with the sport. The only link between Doubleday and baseball comes from a letter written decades after the fact by one unreliable man. This man, Abner Graves, was only five years old in 1839, and spent his last years in an insane asylum. His testimony, therefore, is suspect.
Instead, the modern game of baseball, with its particular rules and unique characteristics, may have originated in what was then Upper Canada (now Ontario, Canada). An article in the May 5, 1886, issue of Sporting Life includes the memories of Dr. Adam Ford, who witnessed a game that bears a great deal of similarity to modern baseball – more so than the early American versions of the game. This game was played on June 4, 1838 in Beachville, between the Beachville Club and the Zorras from northern Oxford County.
He describes the distances between bases, the rules of fair and unfair balls, and a great many other details. The editor of Sporting Life describes the account as “A Game of Long-ago Which Closely Resembled Our Present National Game.” The entire article can be found at this site: https://protoball.org/Baseball_game_in_Beachville,_Ontario,_1838
Here is a diagram of the field, including base positions and distances, from Ford’s description of the game.
In the first Miss Mary Investigates mystery, Death of a Clergyman, Mary Bennet has enjoyed a similar girlhood to Catherine Morland, in that she, too, has played baseball, or some version of it. In this excerpt, she uses her throwing skills to try to help her friend and co-investigator, Alexander Lyons.
As she grappled with her beliefs, the man seemed to be grappling with his hold on consciousness. The pistol wavered, the hand that held it unsteady, and in the lights of the hundred lamps and torches, the man’s eyes could be seen as glazed and unfocused. Once more the hand shook and the pistol danced through the air, threatening every man in the woods, before centering once more on Alexander.
Mary’s fists clenched in horror and dread, and she discovered that she still held her stone. She had no particular physical strength, no real skill at all, but she had played baseball with the village children and knew how to throw a ball. She reached back and took aim and let the stone fly, praying to God for it to reach its target.
Since that desperate attempt to help her friend, Mary has had had several more adventures with Alexander, as they solve mysteries involving characters from different Austen novels. Death in Highbury includes the cast of Emma, as Mary and Alexander try to solve a series of seemingly unrelated deaths. In Death of a Dandy, Mary finds herself staying with the Bertrams at Mansfield Park, while Alexander investigates the disappearance of Tom Bertram. The fourth, and latest novel in the series is Death in Sensible Circumstances, due out in February of 2023.