Monday, March 18, 2013

Belcher and Baseball

The origins of our national pastime are as shrouded in myth as the stories that are told about the founding of our nation.  Historians of the development of baseball have long acknowledged that the game did not emerge fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus in a Cooperstown meadow as the brainchild of Abner Doubleday. 

There are numerous references to games played with bats and balls in America going back to the 18th century.  A 1791 bylaw in Pittsfield Massachusetts, for example, reads as follows:

At a legal Meeting of the Inhabitants of the Town of Pittsfield qualified to vote in Town Meetings, holden on Monday the fifth day of Sept. 1791 Voted
The following ByeLaw, for the Preservation of the Windows in the New Meeting House in said Town ______ viz,
Be it ordained by the said Inhabitants that no Person, an Inhabitant of said Town, shall be permitted to play at any Game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball[emphasis added], Batball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other Game or Games with Balls within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House __ and every such Person who shall play at any of the said Games or other Games with Balls within the Distance aforesaid, shall for any Instance thereof, forfeit the Sum of five schillings to be recovered by Action of Debt brought before any Justice of the Peace to the Use of the Person who shall sue and prosecute therefor _____
And be it further ordained that in every Instance where any Minor shall be guilty of a Breach of this Law, his Parent, Master, Mistress or Guardian shall forfeit the like Sum to be recovered in Manner and to the Use aforesaid ____”

These games of protoball were also known during the Revolution.  Members of the 3rd New Jersey played a ball game called Whirl while on garrison duty in the Mohawk Valley in 1776, involving some of the local Indians, certain officers and even the chaplain.  

It was with great pleasure, then, that I discovered the following passages in the Belcher Journal that also make reference to the antecedents of baseball in the Jersey Brigade, and even more significantly, provide the earliest known reference to one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time.

[May 3rd 1777] “To Day some Gentlemen of the 3rd battalion exercised among us with great familiarity with leathern ball and washing beetle.  
[May 6th 1777] A most diverting play at ball this day / saw ye Neue Yorckers  in striped ticken overhawls contest  a considerable time with sum Easterners in red hose. 
[May 8th 1777] Sum of ye men Playd again at base-ball / Am more a crank than ballist, for tho’ I did catch one foul tick at short scout still muff’d another daisy cutter & wair dead at Home point.
[May 10th 1777] After drill this Day made 2₤ 7s 10 a-sellin’ Cracker jack & water beer at ye ball game.”

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