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MFFL
07-07-2001, 08:41 PM
New York Times
July 8, 2001
Baseball's Disputed Origin Is Traced Back, Back, Back
By EDWARD WONG

It is as elusive as the search for Atlantis, as tangled in legend as the quest for the Holy Grail. For nearly a century, historians have trolled stacks of dusty tomes in hopes of unearthing the origins of baseball.

Its primordial myth held that Abner Doubleday, a West Point cadet, invented the game in 1839 on a dirt field in Cooperstown, N.Y., where the Baseball Hall of Fame is now situated.

In recent years, historians have credited Alexander J. Cartwright, a New York bank clerk, and the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club for codifying many of the modern rules and using them for the first time in an 1846 game at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J.

Now, two newspaper references to baseball have turned up that show that an organized version of the game was being played even earlier in New York City. The articles appeared April 25, 1823; they indicate that some form of the game was even then being called "base ball" and was played in Manhattan.

The articles, discovered by a librarian at New York University, George A. Thompson Jr., bolster a growing consensus that baseball emerged gradually, by evolution and not by invention.

The longer of the two articles appeared in The National Advocate, one of about eight daily newspapers published in New York at the time. It is signed by a person wishing to be known only as a spectator. A mere four sentences, the article begins:

"I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of `base ball' at the Retreat in Broadway (Jones'). I am informed they are an organized association, and that a very interesting game will be played on Saturday next at the above place, to commence at half past 3 o'clock, P.M. Any person fond of witnessing this game may avail himself of seeing it played with consummate skill and wonderful dexterity."

The game was played on the west side of Broadway between what is today Eighth Street and Washington Place in Greenwich Village, long before anyone dreamed of putting on a pinstripe uniform.

The booming port city of New York had more than 120,000 residents in 1823, according to the census, and its warren of cobblestone lanes had pushed as far north as present-day Canal Street. The Retreat mentioned in the article was a two-acre rural estate that in 1822 became the site of a tavern run by a man named William Jones.

John Thorn, a baseball historian, said the article supported the theory that baseball gradually evolved from prototypes. "It really is an uninterrupted lineage," said Mr. Thorn, who edits "Total Baseball" (Total Sports Publishing, 2001), a 2,600-page encyclopedia of the sport. "Amateur scholars will attempt to put stakes in a moving stream. But the water is the water."

Newspaper articles discovered over the last decade or so bolster that theory. In 1990 a Harvard student unearthed an account, complete with a box score, of a baseball game between teams from New York and Brooklyn in 1845.

Then an article surfaced the following year that had been published in 1825 in a newspaper in Delhi, N.Y. Signed by nine men from the town of Hamden, it challenged an "equal number of persons in any town in the County of Delaware" to "play the game of BASS-BALL, for the sum of one dollar each per game." (Stagecoach Series, anyone?)

In the early 19th century, Americans were just starting to adopt leisure activities, historians say, and ball games were still considered child's play. Boxing, horse racing, rowboat racing and bowling in saloons were more popular as entertainment for adults. But many sports, and the gambling that inevitably accompanied them, drew denouncements from newspapers.

Scholars say that probably explains why the author of the 1823 article in The National Advocate ended it with this line: "It is surprising, and to be regretted that the young men of our city do not engage more in this manual sport; it is innocent amusement, and healthy exercise, attended with but little expense, and has no demoralizing tendency."

The second article discovered by Mr. Thompson, the soft-spoken N.Y.U. librarian, was published the same day in The New-York Gazette and General Advertiser. That paper apparently received the same letter printed in The Advocate and summed it up in one paragraph, starting with "We have received a communication in favor of the manly exercise of base ball."

The writer of the letter seemed to assume readers knew what he was talking about, indicating the game was "not a revolutionary new product" in 1823, Mr. Thorn, the editor of "Total Baseball," said.

Another baseball historian, Mark Alvarez, said, "The exciting thing about this discovery is that it implies this game was a regular meeting, that you could go somewhere and expect people to play ball and you could watch." Mr. Alvarez is the editor of The National Pastime, an annual journal of baseball history that recently published an article by Mr. Thompson on his finding.

Dean A. Sullivan, another baseball scholar, said the finding was fascinating and had some significance as to the overall evolution of baseball.

But Mr. Sullivan, who edited "Early Innings" (University of Nebraska Press, 1995), a collection of early accounts of baseball, cautioned that although the article "mentions the magic word, you can't equate that exactly to what we know as baseball today."

The Advocate article has no description of the game it refers to. Many rules of the modern game, like foul territory and throwing to a base to get a player out, were not known to have been formally introduced until the 1846 match in Hoboken. Other elements, like nine innings in a game and nine players to a team, did not become the norm until the following decade, scholars say.

So, the 1823 game could have resembled any of the ancestors of baseball that were being played at the time. For example, a game called town ball (probably played before or after a town meeting) required a player to be hit with the ball to be called out. In cricket and rounders, all the players took a turn at bat. Variations of another game, known as ol' cat, used holes as bases and required players to stick their bats in them as they raced from one to the next.

"History is much more interesting, much more messy, and baseball has 1,000 fathers," Mr. Thorn said.

Ball games involving bases were mentioned in print as early as the 18th century, said David Q. Voigt, a retired professor of sociology and anthropology at Albright College in Reading, Pa., and the author of a three-volume history of baseball.

For instance, a doctor in George Washington's army in Valley Forge, Pa., wrote of a game where players ran from base to base, he said. Children's books of that century described a similar game. And Mr. Thorn points out that an Englishwoman named Lady Hervey wrote in a letter in 1748 that the family of the Prince of Wales was "diverting themselves with baseball, a play all who are or have been schoolboys are well acquainted with."

By the early 1830's, a version of baseball was starting to be played by clubs in New York, according to a book published several decades later. But after its mention in The Advocate in 1823, references to the game did not crop up again in New York newspapers until the 1840's, scholars say.

Mr. Thompson said he had looked through thousands of early 19th century newspapers on microfilm without finding any other reference to baseball. (As for why he spends hours each week poring over such papers, he said, "It's a cheap hobby, and it keeps me from falling into the company of frolicsome women.")

"Finding this paragraph on the 1823 ballgame was an accident," he said as he stood outside his cluttered office, a navy blue tie with white baseball diamonds dangling over his belly. "I certainly didn't go looking for it. Anyone who goes looking for something specific in newspapers of that era is in for a lot of frustration."

As baseball overtook cricket in popularity after the Civil War, it showed up in more and more writings. People would wax nostalgic over how it was played during their childhoods, Mr. Sullivan said. One politician, for instance, wrote in 1884 of seeing the game in Rochester in 1825, only two years after it was played at the Retreat in Manhattan.

But such recollections are unconfirmed and possibly apocryphal, Mr. Sullivan said.

By the 1880's, baseball had already entered the mythos of the United States as a symbol of an "idyllic, rural American past, an expression of nostalgic desire for `the good old days,' " Mr. Sullivan wrote in "Early Innings." In other words, it had become the national pastime.