The Humble, Original, and Now Completely Forgotten Game of English Baseball
nebraska, 298 pages, $29.95
Never mind Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, not to mention tales of Jane Austen as an espionage agent during the Napoleonic Wars or a Miss Marple avant la lettre. Why traffic in such fantasies when, without stretching the truth at all, we can marvel at Austen’s mention of baseball! It occurs in Northanger Abbey, where Austen says of her protagonist, Catherine Morland: “It was not very wonderful that Catherine . . . should prefer cricket, base-ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books.”
Wait a minute, you say. I’ve heard that there was a game in England called “rounders,” a little bit like baseball but obviously not the same game. It’s pretty well established that baseball started in America, even though we do know now that Abner Doubleday didn’t “invent” it. Probably Austen was talking about a different game, perhaps vaguely similar to ours but not a direct ancestor of our National Pastime!
If you have some such notion about the history of baseball, you must not have read David Block’s 2005 book Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game, which persuasively argues that an early form of baseball (known by that name) was well-established in England by the mid-eighteenth century. In his new book, Pastime Lost, published just in time for the opening of the 2019 Major League Baseball season, Block reports on his research in the intervening years, adding a good deal of new evidence.
Baseball in those early days did not include bats. The ball was soft and was struck by hand. It was played by girls as well as boys, and by adults as well as children and youth. Games could last a long time and evidently were often as much an occasion for socializing as for competition. Beyond the bare bones of the game—that it included running to bases and returning “home”—we still know very little. But I think any fair-minded reader of Block’s book will conclude that he’s made his case.
Part of the charm of Pastime Lost lies in Block’s candor, his lack of pretension, and his willingness to acknowledge how fragmentary the historical record is; he spends more time telling us about the search for evidence, the patient sifting, than he does in elaborating his conclusions. Even so, thanks to “full-text digital databases,” including books and historical documents mostly not yet available when he wrote Baseball Before We Knew It, he was able to “gather scads of new information about English baseball.”
OK, OK, but except for antiquarians and baseball history fanatics, who cares? Maybe this “English baseball” really was the direct ancestor of Baseball as We Know It, but we see it dimly, as across a vast gulf. And, to be honest, it sounds like a pretty feeble game.
On the contrary. Block’s findings should be of general interest. How did it come about that the modest English origins of baseball were lost track of over time? Origin stories are always subject to manipulation as well as to the shifting vicissitudes of time; consider received opinion about the origin of the United States, the founders, and so on (both the canonical story in its idealized form and its double, the anti-canonical version). Praise God for mildly fanatical historians like David Block, whether of the professional or the amateur variety. And thanks as well to the University of Nebraska Press, publisher over the years of so many books of baseball history.
It’s a particularly suitable moment for taking a long view of baseball’s history, trying to hold the whole arc of it in the mind’s eye. As commissioner of MLB Rob Manfred likes to say when he’s pushing some outlandish innovation, baseball has always changed. We don’t now lament the introduction of the catcher’s mitt and, in due course, the chest-protector. But that doesn’t mean that every proposed change is good for the game. Nor has the pace of change been constant. While I was reading Pastime Lost, I couldn’t help but think about how much baseball has changed just in my lifetime—for kids and professionals alike.
As I’m writing, the news is that Mike Trout has signed a 12-year contract extension in excess of $400 million to stay with the California Angels—which would have been unimaginable to Jane Austen and even to me, not so long ago. Manfred’s plan for a pitch-clock has been tabled until it’s time to hash out a new collective bargaining agreement. Somehow, for the moment at least, the game lurches on.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.