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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In Search of Baseball’s Holy Grail

Block has discovered a 245-year-old dictionary and a 258-year-old comic novel and other “interesting things” that point toward the answer. But that afternoon, he left the room and came back with a copy of his newest find: a 264-year-old English newspaper called the Whitehall Evening-Post. The paper has news of inmates attempting a jailbreak from Newgate Prison, and of a chestnut mare that disappeared from a local forest. On Page 3, there is a small item. It reads:

  On Tuesday last his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and Lord Middlesex, played at Base-Ball, at Walton in Surry; and notwithstanding the Weather was extreme bad, they continued playing for several Hours.

The date of the game was September 12, 1749. That’s 90 years earlier than, and 3,500 miles away from, baseball’s alleged conception in Cooperstown, New York. The “Base-Ball” player is the heir to the British throne. Block is rewriting the prehistory of the game. He is exposing a century’s worth of lies. He has come up with a shocking answer to the riddle of baseball’s parentage.

Fascinating stuff in the article, well worth a read.

The John Wetland Memorial Death (CoB) Posted: September 18, 2013 at 08:48 PM | 54 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: baseball history, origins

Reader Comments and Retorts

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   1. Eric Ferguson Posted: September 18, 2013 at 11:15 PM (#4544992)
This is the kind of article (along with Jonah's stuff) that re-affirms my faith in Grantland.
   2. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: September 18, 2013 at 11:21 PM (#4545002)
baseball was invented by Columbus while looking for a shorter route to India
   3. JE (Jason) Posted: September 18, 2013 at 11:27 PM (#4545016)
And one hundred years later, the Portugese Jesuits introduced the sport to the Japanese.
   4. PreservedFish Posted: September 18, 2013 at 11:29 PM (#4545022)
When did they stop capitalizing nouns?
   5. Walt Davis Posted: September 19, 2013 at 12:42 AM (#4545070)
they continued playing for several Hours.

Must have been a Sox-Yanks game.
   6. Jarrod HypnerotomachiaPoliphili(Teddy F. Ballgame) Posted: September 19, 2013 at 12:46 AM (#4545073)
I was about to post and ask what this guy had to say that wasn't already in Baseball Before We Knew It, but then I read the article and realized it was about the guy who wrote that book.
   7. McCoy Posted: September 19, 2013 at 12:58 AM (#4545075)
"We're a nation given to precision, sometimes inappropriate precision, about origins," said the writer George F. Will, who serves on Major League Baseball's new origins committee. "The idea that young Abner Doubleday wandered into Farmer Phinney's pasture in 1839 and that baseball sprang full blown from his brow is jolly fun. But I wish he'd done it closer to a major metropolitan area."
   8. boteman Posted: September 19, 2013 at 01:08 AM (#4545086)
MLB Network aired a special a year or two ago that traced the origins of baseball back to a town near Surry (is Surry a town or county?). There in a ramshackle outbuilding of some lady's estate they found a boy's diary entry about going to play baseball with friends on a Summer day in 1749.
   9. vortex of dissipation Posted: September 19, 2013 at 01:09 AM (#4545088)
Surrey is a county
   10. Loren F. Posted: September 19, 2013 at 06:20 AM (#4545105)
Great article. Worth reading.
   11. Fernigal McGunnigle has become a merry hat Posted: September 19, 2013 at 06:54 AM (#4545110)
Block's book is pretty interesting, if not brilliantly written.

One issue with finding the origin of baseball is that it seems there have been bat and ball games for a very, very long time. The picture at the top of this blog entry is of some sort of bat and ball game, from a manuscript created about 1400. IIRC, the book containing the Cantigas of Alfonso X (el Sabio) of Castile has an illustration, in amongst a lot of images of play, of what looks like a monk swinging a baseball bat. That dates to about 1280. Was that monk playing baseball? No, probably not, but he was playing some sort of bat and ball game. So finding the origin of baseball is really about a.) finding the origin of the word "baseball", and b.) trying to work out when the primordial bat and ball games crossed whatever arbitrary threshold we create that separates baseball from related games.
   12. RMc is a fine piece of cheese Posted: September 19, 2013 at 07:18 AM (#4545114)
Baseball’s Holy Grail

You must choose. But choose wisely!
   13. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: September 19, 2013 at 07:24 AM (#4545117)
7. McCoy Posted: September 19, 2013 at 12:58 AM (#4545075)
"We're a nation given to precision, sometimes inappropriate precision, about origins," said the writer George F. Will, who serves on Major League Baseball's new origins committee. "The idea that young Abner Doubleday wandered into Farmer Phinney's pasture in 1839 and that baseball sprang full blown from his brow is jolly fun. But I wish he'd done it closer to a major metropolitan area."


Now THAT is primeyworthy on so many levels I've already lost count. If nothing else, McCoy deserves a copy of The Annotated Hitch-Hikers' Guide To The Boonies.
   14. Tim Wallach was my Hero Posted: September 19, 2013 at 07:59 AM (#4545124)
A GENERAL
DICTIONARY
OF THE
ENGLISH LANGUAGE
COMPILED
WITH THE GREATEST CARE
FROM THE
BEST AUTHORS AND DICTIONARIES
NOW EXTANT.

I love 18th and 19th century book titles.
   15. BDC Posted: September 19, 2013 at 08:44 AM (#4545140)
David Block's Baseball before We Knew It is indeed highly recommended. As TFA (also highly recommended) suggests, and Fernigal notes, this isn't a single-point-of-origin story, even if Block and others keep finding earlier and earlier printed uses of the word "Base-Ball." Block sees the game as having evolved from bat-and-ball sports played across Northern Europe into Scandinavia and the Baltic, where some distant cousins of baseball and cricket and rounders survive today. Fascinating stuff.
   16. AndrewJ Posted: September 19, 2013 at 10:38 AM (#4545227)
...And there was much rejoicing. ("Yayyyyyy.")
   17. alilisd Posted: September 19, 2013 at 10:48 AM (#4545241)
Not surprising bat and ball games have been around forever. What did early humans do? Throw rocks at each other and at prey and hit each other, and prey, with sticks. Oh, and great article! Can't wait to get a copy of Block's book.
   18. AROM Posted: September 19, 2013 at 10:51 AM (#4545247)
There have been articles suggesting baseball goes back to at least ancient Egypt.

http://mlb.mlb.com/memorylab/chronology/

But it probably goes back earlier than that. If the book of Methuselah had a complete accounting of his life, it would likely mention his grip on the knuckleball.
   19. Fernigal McGunnigle has become a merry hat Posted: September 19, 2013 at 10:58 AM (#4545258)
7. McCoy Posted: September 19, 2013 at 12:58 AM (#4545075)

"We're a nation given to precision, sometimes inappropriate precision, about origins," said the writer George F. Will, who serves on Major League Baseball's new origins committee. "The idea that young Abner Doubleday wandered into Farmer Phinney's pasture in 1839 and that baseball sprang full blown from his brow is jolly fun. But I wish he'd done it closer to a major metropolitan area."

Now THAT is primeyworthy on so many levels I've already lost count. If nothing else, McCoy deserves a copy of The Annotated Hitch-Hikers' Guide To The Boonies.


It should be noted that McCoy didn't make that up. It's an actual George Will quote from the article.

You can't parody George Will. He'll always do it first, and better that you can.
   20. Alex meets the threshold for granular review Posted: September 19, 2013 at 11:11 AM (#4545279)
And we're all familiar with Jesus Christ's inability to hit a curveball.
   21. AndrewJ Posted: September 19, 2013 at 11:31 AM (#4545298)
Not surprising bat and ball games have been around forever.

Block's book mentions 1930s anthropologists who studied a North African tribe with blond hair, which had emigrated from middle Europe during the Stone Age -- and discovered they were playing games with sticks and balls.
   22. Born1951 Posted: September 19, 2013 at 12:59 PM (#4545391)
But it probably goes back earlier than that. If the book of Methuselah had a complete accounting of his life, it would likely mention his grip on the knuckleball.

How different would the Baseball Encyclopedia look if people today lived to around 900 years old like Methuselah and some others did in Genesis chapter 5?
   23. AROM Posted: September 19, 2013 at 01:35 PM (#4545440)
And we're all familiar with Jesus Christ's inability to hit a curveball.


To be fair, you don't expect relief pitchers to hit all that much. And the guy held the alltime record for saves before Rivera passed him.

How different would the Baseball Encyclopedia look if people today lived to around 900 years old like Methuselah and some others did in Genesis chapter 5?


Something like this.
   24. Johnny Sycophant-Laden Fora Posted: September 19, 2013 at 02:33 PM (#4545524)
Something like this.


For the full effect you have to hit the "show minors/Japan" stats link.
   25. Schilling's Sprained Ankiel Posted: September 19, 2013 at 02:46 PM (#4545543)
What, by God, is "inappropriate precision?" Something that doesn't jibe with a personally preferred myth?
Or, is he really talking about calculated inaccuracy? Like, if we're going myth make let's make it convenient and commercially valuable?
   26. Barry`s_Lazy_Boy Posted: September 19, 2013 at 02:54 PM (#4545548)
Inappropriate precision is expressing WAR to the hundredths place.
   27. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: September 19, 2013 at 03:10 PM (#4545567)
"We're a nation given to precision, sometimes inappropriate precision, about origins," said the writer George F. Will, who serves on Major League Baseball's new origins committee. "The idea that young Abner Doubleday wandered into Farmer Phinney's pasture in 1839 and that baseball sprang full blown from his brow is jolly fun. But I wish he'd done it closer to a major metropolitan area."


It should be noted that McCoy didn't make that up. It's an actual George Will quote from the article.

You can't parody George Will. He'll always do it first, and better that you can.


You've got to be kidding. I've read way too much Will in my time, but when I saw BTF's anti-Cooperstown guru McCoy's name on the top of the comment, I had to assume it was a real parody, since it not only parodied Will so perfectly but the sentiment about "major metropolitan area" was so completely in line with what McCoy's been saying for the past 20 or 74 years.

So I guess that the Primey will have to go to Will, which is just as well, since in my book self-parodies are the best kind.
   28. The Yankee Clapper Posted: September 19, 2013 at 04:11 PM (#4545606)
This is America, folks. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Doubleday and Cooperstown, now and forever, one and inseparable.
   29. Morty Causa Posted: September 19, 2013 at 06:24 PM (#4545691)
extreme bad

C'mon, where's those grammar pusses?
   30. Best Regards, President of Comfort, Esq. Posted: September 19, 2013 at 06:31 PM (#4545697)
Ni!
   31. Gonfalon Bubble Posted: September 19, 2013 at 06:38 PM (#4545699)
And we're all familiar with Jesus Christ's inability to hit a curveball.

Comeback Player of the Millennium. Although groundballs went right through His hands.
   32. Super Creepy Derek Lowe (GGC) Posted: September 19, 2013 at 06:51 PM (#4545709)
Block's book mentions 1930s anthropologists who studied a North African tribe with blond hair, which had emigrated from middle Europe during the Stone Age -- and discovered they were playing games with sticks and balls.


I suspect that baseball may have migrated from here to Egypt, but I never contacted that Professor in the Carolinas who was fixated with sekar el hemat. (Paul Piccione? Was that his name?0
   33. BDC Posted: September 19, 2013 at 07:06 PM (#4545716)
From the scouting report, spring training, AD 30:

Young third sacker signed out of Galilee last winter, seems to have been working in a local woodshop till then. Oddly meek approach at the plate. Saw him get hit in the butt with a pitch and refuse to go to first; walked around to the LH batters box and stood in again. Other odd things: fielded a grounder cleanly in the second inning and then insisted that somebody else make the first throw. Disappears into the clubhouse before home games with a small bag of Filet-o-Fish sandwiches. Club's watercooler has been filled with Chardonnay since his arrival. Claims his mom is a virgin. Right.
   34. AndrewJ Posted: September 19, 2013 at 07:13 PM (#4545720)
After Willie Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame with 94.7% of the BBWAA vote instead of unanimously, Dick Young wrote, "If Jesus was eligible for the Hall, some writers wouldn't vote for him. He dropped the cross three times, didn't He?"
   35. Super Creepy Derek Lowe (GGC) Posted: September 19, 2013 at 07:42 PM (#4545730)
Peter Piccione is the professor. I think I left him a message once, but he doesn't have an email address on his page. I thought about actually sending him a letter about my Libya - Egypt theory, but I never got around to it.

FWIW, I have a theory why relatively rural Pittsfield had people blying baseball in the 1790s. I suspect that it was kids emulating soldiers who were garrisoned in the towm after Shaays' rebellion. I've meant to ask John Thorn about that theory but have yet to get around to that, too.
   36. the Hugh Jorgan returns Posted: September 19, 2013 at 11:21 PM (#4545904)
Although groundballs went right through His hands.


As silly as this is, this made me chuckle...well done.
   37. the Hugh Jorgan returns Posted: September 19, 2013 at 11:24 PM (#4545909)
After Willie Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame with 94.7% of the BBWAA vote


Was amazes me about this is not that he didn't get 100% and it was a voter here and there who doesn't vote any one on the 1st ballot, but that around 20 other voters looked at Willie's career and thought, "nah, just not good enough to get my vote this time."
   38. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: September 19, 2013 at 11:40 PM (#4545923)
In Robert Henderson's classic Ball, Bat and Bishop (1947), which traces the origins of many sports back to ancient times, he dates the earliest written mention of "baseball" to 1700.

The earliest mention of a game called baseball so far located was made by the Rev. Thomas Wilson, a Puritan divine at Maidstone, England. He wrote reminiscently in the year 1700, describing events that had taken place before that time, perhaps during his former years as minister. "I have seen," he records with disapproval, "Morris-dancing, cudgel-playing, baseball and cricketts, and many other sports on the Lord's Day."
   39. Misirlou was a Buddhist prodigy Posted: September 19, 2013 at 11:44 PM (#4545927)
Was amazes me about this is not that he didn't get 100% and it was a voter here and there who doesn't vote any one on the 1st ballot, but that around 20 other voters looked at Willie's career and thought, "nah, just not good enough to get my vote this time."


At that time there were plenty of writers who, not understanding the rule changes over the years, felt that "If Joe DiMaggio wasn't good enough to get in on the first ballot, no one is.", and thus wouldn't vote for anyone on the first ballot.
   40. PreservedFish Posted: September 19, 2013 at 11:46 PM (#4545930)
Baseball sounds like the worst of those four sports.
   41. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: September 19, 2013 at 11:51 PM (#4545934)
Baseball sounds like the worst of those four sports.

Morris-dancing is colorful, but

Cudgel-playing looks like it's the nuts.
   42. Cooper Nielson Posted: September 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM (#4545938)
Was amazes me about this is not that he didn't get 100% and it was a voter here and there who doesn't vote any one on the 1st ballot, but that around 20 other voters looked at Willie's career and thought, "nah, just not good enough to get my vote this time."

I think Joe Posnanski brought this up before, but if you were given the privilege of a Hall of Fame vote, wouldn't you want to say, "I voted for Greg Maddux/Rickey Henderson/Hank Aaron"? That gives you some kind of a "connection" to the all-time greats. If you insist on not voting for first-ballot players, you'll never get to say you voted for the best guys (ignoring PED penalties for now), because they're always gone by the second ballot.

"Grandpa, do you really get to vote for baseball Hall of Famers?"
"Yes, Billy, and let me tell you what a great honor it was to be able to write down the names 'Bruce Sutter' and 'Tony Perez.'"
   43. Morty Causa Posted: September 20, 2013 at 01:02 AM (#4545965)
The protagonist of one of my favorite comic novels, My Search for Warren Harding, is a member of a Morris Dancers club.

   44. boteman Posted: September 20, 2013 at 02:45 AM (#4545977)
43 posts and only one Monty Python reference so far. Yinz are slippin!
   45. just plain joe Posted: September 20, 2013 at 08:09 AM (#4546002)
How different would the Baseball Encyclopedia look if people today lived to around 900 years old like Methuselah and some others did in Genesis chapter 5?


Well, career numbers would be off the charts, and, there would be a lot more people claiming the sport was better when they were young.
   46. Super Creepy Derek Lowe (GGC) Posted: September 20, 2013 at 06:25 PM (#4546638)
BTW, Block's book is one of my desert island baseball books. That and the NBJHA.
   47. Juan Uribe Marching and Chowder Society Posted: September 20, 2013 at 06:36 PM (#4546640)
43 posts and only one Monty Python reference so far. Yinz are slippin!


I count at least 2. 16 and 30.
   48. AndrewJ Posted: September 21, 2013 at 07:50 AM (#4547004)
Speaking of Python, I passed on getting this last Christmas when it sold in the stores for $50, but relented when I found it on Amazon.com this month for $8...
   49. Slivers of Maranville descends into chaos (SdeB) Posted: September 21, 2013 at 10:54 AM (#4547068)

I think Joe Posnanski brought this up before, but if you were given the privilege of a Hall of Fame vote, wouldn't you want to say, "I voted for Greg Maddux/Rickey Henderson/Hank Aaron"? That gives you some kind of a "connection" to the all-time greats. If you insist on not voting for first-ballot players, you'll never get to say you voted for the best guys (ignoring PED penalties for now), because they're always gone by the second ballot.


That's what selective memories are for.
   50. Monty Posted: September 21, 2013 at 01:06 PM (#4547158)
Speaking of Python, I passed on getting this last Christmas when it sold in the stores for $50, but relented when I found it on Amazon.com this month for $8...


That is an excellent price.
   51. boteman Posted: September 21, 2013 at 01:09 PM (#4547163)
Your last name wouldn't just happen to be "Python", would it?
   52. DanG Posted: September 21, 2013 at 03:27 PM (#4547218)
43 posts and only one Monty Python reference so far
1st soldier with a keen interest in birds: It's not a question of where he grips it! It's a simple question of weight ratios! A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut.

King Arthur: Well, it doesn't matter. Will you go and tell your master that Arthur from the Court of Camelot is here?

1st soldier with a keen interest in birds: Listen. In order to maintain air-speed velocity, a swallow needs to beat its wings forty-three times every second, right?

King Arthur: Please!

1st soldier with a keen interest in birds: Am I right


Damn sabermetrics!
   53. Infinite Joost (Voxter) Posted: September 21, 2013 at 03:49 PM (#4547224)
"Morris Dancing, which is fashionable to loathe, I really don’t mind at all. In fact I quite like it, because there is never the faintest chance of being invited to join in."
-- Stephen Fry
   54. Accent Shallow Posted: September 21, 2013 at 06:49 PM (#4547290)
Why did Julio Franco have to go to Japan to get a job in 1995? He was very good in both '93 and '94.

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