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1820s.31 "Many Different Kinds of Ball" Remembered
In a charming 1867 volume, a father delivered an extended disquisition about ball games in his youth in New England. That was definitely before 1840 and more likely in the 1820s, or the 1830s at the latest. (The book had an 1860 copyright registration, so the author penned it in that year or in the 1850s). The detail of this recounting merits full excerpting:
“I think the boys used to play ball more when I was young than they do now. It was a great game at that time, not only among the boys, but with grown-up people. I know that playing ball is getting into fashion again, but I don’t think it is as common even yet as it used to be. We had, I remember, a good many different kinds of ball. There was “barn-ball,” when there were only two boys to play, one to throw the ball against the barn and make it bound back, and the other to strike at it with his club. Then there was “two-hold-cat,” when there were four boys, two to be in and knock, and two to throw. Then there was “base-ball,” when there were a good many to play. In base-ball we chose sides, and we might have as many as we pleased on each side -- five or fifty, or any other number.
“Then there was “wicket-ball,” as we called it in the part of the country where I lived. In this game, two sticks, some five or six feet long, were laid on some little blocks near the ground, and the ball, which was a large one, was rolled on the ground, and the one that rolled it tried to knock off this stick, while the one that was in and had the bat or club, was to strike the ball and not let it knock the stick off. If the stick was struck off, then the one knocker was “out.” Or if he hit the ball and raised it in the air, and any one on the other side caught it, he was “out.” I find that ball-playing changes some, and is different in different parts of the country, but it was a very wide-awake sport, and there was no game in which I took more delight. On ‘Lection-day, as it was called, of which I have spoken before, all the boys and young men, and even men who were older, thought they must play ball. On town-meeting days and training days, this game was almost always going on."
Winnie and Walter’s Talks with Their Father about Old Times Boston: J.E. Tilton and Company, 1867[1860 copyright]), pp. 54-56.
Allowing for the somewhat “in-my-day” tone, there are a few interesting items in this passage. Note the unusual spelling of two old cat or two o’cat. Was there some action of holding the ball, holding the bat, holding the runner that inspired the use of the word “hold?” The initial claim that ball play was more popular in his youth is at first a head-scratcher given the surge of popularity of baseball in the1850s and 1860s.
But what if he reckoning was accurate, if only for his part of New England? That would be interesting evidence for baseball historians trying to measure the trajectory of the game’s development. Did what he called “base-ball” more resemble town-ball, or did the word “base-ball” have a wider currency that we have suspected? The description of wicket-ball seems slightly askew from other accounts--regional variation or memory lapse? Last, the civic holidays that ball play accompanied were not always in clement seasons. Training days tended to be during milder or hot weather, but town meeting and election days often occurred in March and November. The author’s points about the importance of ball play may be stronger than at first glance, if the players did not let the prospect of foul weather discourage their zeal.
Bruce's comment: The author, Increase Niles Tarbox (yes, that was his name!) was born in East Windsor, CT in 1815, and was raised there and in Vernon, CT. After graduating from Yale, he became a pastor in Framingham, MA.
1831.1 A Ball Club Forms in Philadelphia; It Later Adopts Base Ball, and Lasts to 1887
The Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia unites with a group of ball players based in Camden, NJ
Orem writes: "An association of Town Ball players began playing at Camden, New Jersey on Market Street in the Spring of 1831."
Orem says, without citing a source, that "On the first day but four players appeared, so the game was "Cat Ball," called in some parts of New England at the time "Two Old Cat." Later accounts report that the club formed in 1833, although J. M. Ward  also dated the formation of the club to 1831.
Orem notes that "so great was the prejudice of the general public against the game at the time that the players were frequently censured by their friends for indulging in such a childish amusement."
* * *
In January 2017, Richard Hershberger reported (19CBB posting) that after more than five decades, the club disbanded in 1887 -- see Supplemental Text, below.
The Olympic Club played Town Ball until it switched to modern base ball in 1860. See Chronology entry 1860.64.
* * *
For a reconstruction of the rules of Philadelphia town ball, see Hershberger, below. Games were played under the term "town ball" in Cincinnati as well as Philadelphia and a number of southern locations (for an unedited map of 23 locations with references to town ball, conduct an Enhanced Search for <town ball>.
* * *
The club is credited with several firsts in American baserunning games:
 1833: first game played between two established clubs -- see Chronology entry 1833c.12.
 1837: first team to play in uniforms -- see Chronology entry 1837.14.
 1969: First interracial game -- See Chronology entry 1869.3.
* * *
[Orem, Preston D., Baseball (1845-1881) From the Newspaper Accounts(self-published, Altadena CA, 1961), page 4.]
Constitution of the Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia [private printing, 1838]. Parts reprinted in Dean A. Sullivan, Compiler and Editor, Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908 [University of Nebraska Press, 1995], pp. 5-8.
Richard Hershberger, "A Reconstruction of Philadelphia Town Ball," Base Ball, Volume 1 number 2 (Fall 2007), pp. 28-43. Online as of 2017 at:
For a little more on the game of town ball, see http://protoball.org/Town_Ball.
The "firsts" tentatively listed above are for the US play of baserunning games other than cricket. Further analysis is needed to confirm or disconfirm its elements.
Protoball would welcome an analysis of the US history of town ball and its variants.
It seems plausible that town ball was being played years earlier in the Philadelphia. Newspaper accounts refer to cricket "and other ball games" being played locally as as early as 1822. See Chronology entry 1822.3.
Is it accurate to call this a "town ball" club? When was it formed? Dean Sullivan dates it to 1837, while J. M. Ward [Ward's Base Ball Book, page 18] sets 1831 as the date of formation. The constitution was revised in 1837, but the Olympic Club merged with the Camden Town ball Club in 1833, and that event is regarded as the formation date of the Olympics. The story of the Olympics is covered in "Sporting Gossip," by "the Critic" in an unidentified photocopy found at the Giamatti Research Center at the HOF. What appears to be a continuation of this article is also at the HOF. It is "Evolution of Baseball from 1833 Up to the Present Time," by Horace S. Fogel, and appeared in The Philadelphia Daily Evening Telegraph, March 22-23, 1908.
2 Are we certain that the "firsts" listed in this entry predate the initial appearance of the indicated innovations in American cricket?
1834.9 Town Ball, Other Games on Sabbath Subject to Dollar Fine in Springfield IL
"Any person who shall on the Sabbath day play bandy, cricket, cat, town ball, corner ball, over ball, fives, or any other game of ball, within the limits of the Corporation, or shall engage in pitching dollars, or quoits in any public place, shall on conviction thereof, be fined the sum of one dollar."
Illinois Weekly State Journal, June 14, 1834.
Richard Hershberger writes: "If I recall correctly, the earliest known cites for "town ball" are reportedly from 1837, from local ordinances in Canton, IL and Indianapolis, IN. This is a similar ordinance, from Springfield, IL, from 1834."
1837.1 A Founder of the Gothams Remembers "First Ball Organization in the US"
William R. Wheaton, who would several years later help found the Knickerbockers [and write their playing rules], described how the Gothams were formed and the changes they introduced. "We had to have a good outdoor game, and as the games then in vogue didn't suit us we decided to remodel three-cornered cat and make a new game. We first organized what we called the Gotham Baseball Club. This was the first ball organization in the United States, and it was completed in 1837.
"The first step we took in making baseball was to abolish the rule of throwing the ball at the runner and ordered instead that it should be thrown to the baseman instead, who had to touch the runner before he reached the base. During the [earlier] regime of three-cornered cat there were no regular bases, but only such permanent objects as a bedded boulder or and old stump, and often the diamond looked strangely like an irregular polygon. We laid out the ground at Madison Square in the form of an accurate diamond, with home-plate and sand bags for bases."
" . . . it was found necessary to reduce the new rules to writing. This work fell to my hands, and the code I them formulated is substantially that in use today. We abandoned the old rule of putting out on the first bound and confined it to fly catching."
"The new game quickly became very popular with New Yorkers, and the numbers of clubs soon swelled beyond the fastidious notions of some of us, and we decided to withdraw and found a new organization, which we called the Knickerbocker."
See Full Text Below
Brown, Randall, "How Baseball Began, National Pastime, 24 , pp 51-54. Brown's article is based on the newly-discovered "How Baseball Began - A Member of the Gotham Club of Fifty Years Ago Tells About It, San Francisco Daily Examiner, November 27, 1887, page 14.
See also: Randall Brown, "The Evolution of the New York Game," Base Ball Journal, Volume 5, number 1 (Special Issue on Origins), pages 81-84.
Note that while Wheaton calls his group the "first ball organization," in fact the Philadelphia club that played Philadelphia town ball had formed several years earlier.
"Wheaton's 1837 Gotham rules may have resembled the Knickerbocker rules forged 8 years later. He said, in 1887, that "the code I then formulated is substantially that in use today" -- after a span of 5 decades. (In the meantime, however, the Knicks went back to using the bound rule.)"
Note: Brown knows that the unsigned article was written by Wheaton from internal evidence, such as the opening of the article, in the voice of an unnamed reporter: “An old pioneer, formerly a well-known lawyer and politician, now living in Oakland, related the following interesting history of how it originated to an EXAMINER reporter: ‘In the thirties I lived at the corner of Rutgers street and East Broadway in New York. I was admitted to the bar in ’36, and was very fond of physical exercise….’”
Wheaton wrote that the Gotham Club abandoned the bound rule . . . but if so, the Knickerbockers later re-instituted it, and it remained in effect until the 1860s.
Wheaton also recalled that the Knickerbockers at some point changed the base-running rule, which had dictated that whenever a batter "struck out" [made an out, we assume, as strikeouts came later], base-runners left the field. Under a new interpretation, runners only came in after the third out was recorded.
1847.14 Holiday Encroached by Round Ball, Long Ball, Old Cat
"FAST. This time-hallowed, if not time-honored occasion, was observed in the usual way. The ministers preached to pews exhibiting a beggarly emptiness, upon the sins of the nation -- a frightful subject enough, heaven knows. The b-hoys smoked cigars, kicked football, payed [sic] round ball, long ball, an [sic] old cat, and went generally into the outward observances peculiar to the occasion."
[A] Nashua Telegraph, as reported in New Hampshire Statesman, and State Journal (Concord, New Hampshire), April 30, 1847, column B.
[B] Nashua Telegraph, as reported (without the typos) in the Boston Courier, April 14, 1847
 Stephen Katz observes: "The "fast" referred to was probably Thanksgiving, celebrated on April 13, 1847."
 "Long Ball" also cited, is generally known as a baserunning bat-and-ball game in Europe. However, Stephen Katz (email of 2/5/2021) notes that, according to an article in the Connecticut Courant, April 23, 1853, it was locally the name of something like a fungo game: "Reader, did you ever see a bevy of boys playing what they call long ball? One stands and knocks and the others try to catch the ball, and the fortunate one gets to take the place of the knocker."
 "B-hoys?" Stephen Katz checked Wikipedia for us, and learned that "B'Hoy" was a slang word used to describe the young men "of the rough-and-tumble working class working class culture of Lower Manhattan in the later 1840's." He also pointed to various newspaper sources showing that its meaning evolved to refer generally to ruffians, or unwholesome or unsavory lads or young men.
Were Fast Day and Thanksgiving distinct holidays in 1847?
1850c.35 U. of Michigan Alum Recalls Baseball, Wicket, Old-Cat Games
A member of the class of 1849 recalls college life: "Athletics were not regularly organized, nor had we any gymnasium. We played base-ball, wicket ball, two-old-cat, etc., but there was not foot-ball."
"Cricket was undoubtedly the first sport to be organized in the University, as the Palladium for 1860-61 gives the names of eight officers and twenty-five members of the "Pioneer Cricket Club," while the Regents' Report for June, 1865, shows an appropriation of $50 for a cricket ground on the campus."
The college history later explains: "The game of wicket, which was a modification of cricket, was played with a soft ball five to seven inches in diameter, and with two wickets (mere laths or light boards) laid upon posts about four inches high and some forty feet apart. The 'outs' tried to bowl them down, and the 'ins' to defend them with curved broad-ended bats. It was necessary to run between the wickets at each strike."
Wilfred Shaw, The University of Michigan (Harcourt Brace, New York, 1920), pp 234-235. Accessed 2/10/10 via Google Books search ("wilfred shaw" michigan).
The dates of wicket play are not given.
1850s.41 "The Popular Game" For Boys in NY State: Old Cat
"The popular game among the boys previously."
M. F. Roberts, A Narrative History of Remsen, New York (private printing, 1914)., page 220. Described in Originals, volume 4, number 10 (October, 2011), page 2.
Reportedly the author writes of Remsen ballplaying before the Civil War. Remsen, a town in Central New York, is about 20 miles N of Utica NY and about 60 miles E of Syracuse and, if you must know, about 60 miles NW of Cooperstown. Its current population is about 1,900.
1850s.42 Indianans Play Town Ball, Two Old Cat
"There were several games of ball played when the weather would permit. The first was town ball and was played somewhat after the style of baseball, but without outfielders. The bases were much nearer together than in baseball. There is no question that baseball is an outgrowth of the old town ball.
"Another ball game was called 'Two Old Cat,' in which there was a batter at each end, and when one of them hit they exchanged places, and either could be put out before he reached the other plate. As I remember only four could play at once."
Judge Ivory George Kimball, Recollections from a Busy Life 1843 to 1911 (The Carnahan Press, 1912), page 31. Reported in Originals, volume 4, number 11 (November 2011), page 3.
Finder Tom Altherr asks whether there are other known examples of town ball lacking outfielders. One possibility is that the use of a soft ball and young batsmen combined to make long hits so rare as not needing an outfield.
1850s.43 South Carolina College Students Make Do with Town Ball, "Cat"
"Much of the trouble of the (U. of S. Carolina) professors have have no doubt been obviated if there had been outdoor sports or athletics to relieve pent up animal spirits. A game of ball, perhaps, 'town ball,' or 'cat', was played."
Edwin L. Green, A History of the University of South Carolina (The State Company, 1916), page 242.
The text does not state the exact period that is described in this account.
1850s.45 Future NL President Plays ball in Mohawk Valley of New York
Nicholas Young, National League President, 1885-1902
"I was born [in 1840] in Amsterdam in the beautiful Mohawk Valley, and while I played barn ball, one old cat, and two old cat in my early boyhood days, cricket was my favorite game, and until I enlisted in the army I never played a regular game of base ball, or the New York game as it was then called."
Letter, Nicholas Young to A. G. Mills, December 2, 1902, in the Mills Commission file at the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was resonding to the Mills Commission's call for knowledge on the origins of base ball.
Young first played base ball in 1863 his cricket friends in the Army could not find opponents to play the game. See entry 1863.19.
1850s.47 Boys and Girls Play Old Cat at Recess in Wisconsin
"elias molee, in his completely lower-case autobiography, recounted mixed-gender cat games at his southern Wisconsin school in the 1850s: 'a little before 10:30 o'clock she [the teacher] called out "20 minutes recess." [the] boys played catching each other, or played ball which we called "1 old cat" when 3 were playing, boys or girls made no difference to us, when 4 played we called it "2 old cat"'"
Elias Molee, Molee's Wanderings, An Autobiography (private printing, 1919) page 34. As cited by Tom Altherr, Coed Cat Games in Wisconsin in the Early 1850s, Originals, volume 4, number 1 (January 2011), page 2.
1853c.13 At Harvard, Most Students Played Baseball and Football, Some Cricket or Four-Old-Cat
Reflecting back nearly sixty years later, the secretary of the class of 1855 wrote: "In those days, substantially all the students played football and baseball [MA round ball, probably], while some played cricket and four-old-cat."
"News from the Classes," Harvard Graduates Magazine Volume 18 (1909-1910). Accessed 2/11/10 via Google Books search ("e.h.abbot, sec."). From an death notice of Alexander Agassis, b. 1835
1859.16 Boy's Own Toy-Maker Covers Tip-cat and Trap-ball
The Boy's Own Toy-Maker [London, Griffith and Farran]. This book has information on making toys and sporting equipment. It spends two pages on tip-cat and three on "trap, bat, and ball." An American edition [Boston, Shepard, Clark and Brown] also appeared in 1859.
David Block, Baseball Before We Knew It, page 220.