David Block, the Baseball Archaeologist

This is a fascinating story in Grantland about David Block and his quest to find the origins of baseball:

Block was coming to the subject of baseball’s paternity not as a historian but as a book collector. “Historians are driven by story and issue,” said Thorn. “David was driven by artifact.” As he scoured eBay in the late ’90s — back before anyone knew what their junk was worth — it was Block’s brainstorm to bypass books about baseball. He was looking for books that mentioned baseball, books historians might have missed. “I always liked to go where no one else was looking,” Block said. His collection grew big enough that he decided to write a bibliography of early texts. The bibliography became a proper book.

In 2001, Block got ahold of a copy of a 1796 German book with the ungainly title of Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden. His copy has green and white marbled boards and brown binder’s tape on the spine. An inside page carries the stamp “D. Schaller,” a previous owner. Block ran his finger down the table of contents when he saw a reference:

                    3. Ball mit Freystäten, das engl. Base-ball

A translation confirmed what Block suspected. Here was a reference to baseball 32 years before the first literary reference to rounders. And the German book, by J.C.F. Gutsmuths, wasn’t the only example. The 1744 A Little Pretty Pocket-Book mentioned baseball. So did a letter of one Lady Hervey of England, from 1748. Even Jane Austen included the word “baseball” in her novel Northanger Abbey, which was published in 1818. If baseball had descended from rounders, Block wondered, then why did baseball keep popping up in the historical record before rounders?

Block began to get a little nervous. The historian Thomas Altherr, who talked to Block during this period, said Block was worried he was imposing on the work of others. For Block had confirmed that both the Doubleday theory was bunk. But he had also discovered that the rounders theory was bunk. Everything we knew about baseball’s parentage was wrong.

A reference to baseball, according to Block, can be traced as early as 1755:

In 2007, Block was on a computer terminal in the British Library in London. He came across a comic novel called The Card, by John Kidgell, which was published in 1755. He found this passage:

… the younger Part of the Family, perceiving Papa not inclined to enlarge upon the Matter, retired to an interrupted Party at Base-Ball, (an infant Game which as it advances in its Teens, improves into Fives, and in its State of Manhood, is called Tennis.)

On English baseball: 

Block offered an alternative proposal for baseball’s paternity. It was both simpler and more complex than any previous theory. First, Block said that baseball had descended from … baseball. What the authors of the BA’SEBALL dictionary entry and John Kidgell and William Bray and Jane Austen were describing was a primitive version of the game played in English fields. Block calls this English baseball.

And how was this English baseball played? Block offers that there were no bats (players used their hands), and that the game was social rather than competitive/athletic:

There were bases of some unknown counting. The pitcher threw to the batter underhanded. The fielders tried to catch the ball on the fly or retrieve the ball and throw it and strike the runner when he was off base.”

Fascinating throughout.

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Note: If this topic piques your interest, Block wrote a book called Baseball Before we Knew It that has stellar reviews on Amazon.

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