Revival of the old game
By Lisa R. Neilson
Only one out per side. No foul territory or baseline. Wooden stakes for bases. Sound like your typical baseball game? If you said no, then you’d be right. But if you were playing a game of Town Ball back in 1858, this is exactly what your experience would include.
Few fans of baseball today ever consider the origins of the game or what it was like to play back in the 1800s before the formation of professional baseball teams. Early variations of the sport allowed it to be played in both urban and rural settings. One form called Town Ball (often referred to as the “Massachusetts Game”) is said to be a stepping stone toward modern baseball. While the gist of both Town Ball and modern baseball is basically the same—the team to score the most runs by hitting a ball with some kind of stick and running around the bases wins—the how-to’s of each are very different. At Marist College this week, students of my History of Baseball class stepped back in time and experienced this difference.
The students were enthusiastic about their assignment. What college student wouldn’t want to participate in a ballgame—as foreign as the rules may have seemed—on a beautiful spring day instead of sitting inside listening to a lecture from me? But they were surprised to discover how difficult it was to perform like a member of an 1858 Town Ball team. Sporting jerseys of modern MLB heroes, the Jeters, Piazzas, Murphys, Pedroias, and Kemps of the class enthusiastically took to the diamond—wait a minute, it’s a square—to take some knocks, plug out opponents and get some tallies. But they kept forgetting that it was one-out, all-out to a side and that a base runner can wander far beyond the four bases in order to avoid being thrown out. Their tried-and-true strategies had to be tossed aside. There were no foul balls or double plays, no sacrifice bunts and no sacrifice fly balls either. The ball itself was difficult to catch; it is called a lemon peel baseball because it is made of a single piece of leather and it is smaller and much softer than today’s ball, causing it to bounce out of a player’s hands more easily. This was all a little more unpredictable than the students were used to. The rules were different, and therefore the action on the field was, too.
We started to wonder whether spontaneity has been muted in the conventional form of Major League Baseball compared to Town Ball. To onlookers, we decided, Town Ball might be viewed as chaotic at times but lots of fun for participants. Today’s game, on the other hand, feels a little more structured, but its rules (derivatives of Town Ball) haven’t eliminated the unpredictability or the excitement of play. Surprises still happen but they happen within a more controlled, organized game. When a team gets a walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the 10th it can be a powerful experience for players and fans alike. When the unexpected happens, well, sometimes it feels like a miracle. And no matter what, isn’t that why we play?