Rounders: A Game That "Gets No Respect"
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The British game of rounders is truly the Rodney Dangerfield2 of bat and ball sports. While countless books enshrine the histories of baseball and cricket, and while millions of fans of those two sports celebrate the accomplishments of their professional heroes, the closely related game of rounders and those who play it receive no such veneration. Indeed, for most of its history, rounders has rarely rippled the British national consciousness, and when thought about at all is typically dismissed as a trifling playground diversion.
How did this all come about? Part of the answer is obvious. Cricket, the oldest game in this triumvirate, became established early on as an activity for gentlemen. With its class standing thus fixed within Britain’s highly stratified society, its preeminence as a national sport stood unchallenged. Conversely, rounders, a pastime with a 200-year history and played by as many Britons in the 20th century as cricket, has never escaped its stigma as a game for the working classes and, most ignobly, for girls.
Rounders beginnings in Great Britain are inseparable from baseball’s. It should be noted, however, that except as a byproduct of my study of baseball’s origins, nobody has ever undertaken a serious look at the history of rounders. Perhaps because of this, its ancestry remains somewhat murky. What is known for certain is that references to rounders first appeared in the late 1820s. They suggest that, by then, the game had already existed for at least a decade or two. The earliest known mention of rounders was in the second London edition of a children’s book on games—The Boy’s Own Book—published in 1828. Inside the book was a diagram of a rounders playing field showing a diamond shaped infield much like baseball’s, and a rough description of how to play. The writeup also stated that the game was popular in western England. A second mention of rounders, in an 1829 memoir by a Cambridge University graduate, indicated that he had played the game while in public school in the year 1819. A third reference established that rounders (and baseball) had been played in a Welsh prison yard around the year 1820.
From Kingston’s Ernest Bracebridge: School Days (1860).
Yet of rounders, prior to then, we know little. That hasn’t stopped present day boosters of the game from inventing a history. The governing body of rounders in the UK maintains the unproven claims that rounders has been played in England since Tudor times, and that the earliest reference to it appeared in the 1744 children’s book, A Little Pretty Pocket-book (where it was called “base ball”). This assertion, that the multiple 18th-century references to baseball in Britain were actually references to rounders, can be found not only on official rounders websites but on those of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and Wikipedia as well. This notion rests upon the assumption that the game of baseball that emerged in England in the mid-18th century was identical to rounders, and that the name rounders was simply a new identifier that came along in the early 19th century to replace the older one.
In my 2005 book Baseball before We Knew It, I challenged the consensus viewpoint of American baseball historians that rounders was the ancestor of baseball. My hypothesis was based upon the plain fact that multiple references to baseball predated the earliest references to rounders. Yet, at the time, I was also operating under the common but mistaken presumption that the original English game of baseball was essentially the same game as rounders, with the latter name gradually replacing the earlier title. Since then I’ve uncovered a considerable body of evidence disproving this earlier view. I’ve learned that English baseball was played under its original name for nearly a century beyond the advent of rounders, and that the two games were distinct from each other. This evidence, as presented in my 2019 book Pastime Lost, includes at least ten documented examples where rounders and English baseball were played side-by-side at the same gathering during the 19th century. Additionally, my research shows that while English baseball was played predominantly without the use of a bat (players using their bare hands to strike the ball), every published description of rounders from 1828 onward stipulated that bat usage was fundamental to its play.
Having concluded that rounders was not a simple relabeling of English baseball, the question of how the game derived remains unanswered. No known direct evidence supports any particular theory of rounders’s history prior to those first mentions of it in the 1820s. Because of its obvious kinship with English baseball, the most likely explanation is that it was a spinoff of the earlier game. In Pastime Lost I hypothesized that English youngsters experimented with English baseball by introducing a bat to it somewhere in the late 18th century. For a period of several decades beginning in the 1790s, multiple references to a game called simply “bat and ball” appeared in British publications. I’ve speculated that this game was a precursor to rounders, although I’m yet to uncover any hard evidence to support this notion.
For all the vagaries of its ancestry, the pastime of rounders swiftly gained favor. By the mid-19th century, references to it in books and newspapers abounded. Several guidebooks on sports and games for boys detailed methods for playing rounders and printed diagrams of its playing field. These descriptions varied, and until the end of the 19th century there was little uniformity among the published handbooks. Some specified a four-base diamond configuration akin to American baseball, while others laid out a five-base infield. Rules covering other aspects of the game also lacked standardization. This was largely a consequence of rounders’ place within the arena of 19th-century British recreation. At the start, it was seen as an activity for boys alone, and since schools had not yet incorporated the game into their curricula, there was no compelling need for consistency. This began to change by mid-century when adult men, almost all of them from working class backgrounds, began to take up the game.
From The Graphic, Aug. 16, 1873
In much the way that rounders may have formed by splitting off from English baseball, the game itself later subdivided into two distinct forms, with one of them reappropriating the name baseball for itself. This process began in the 1860s when a group of working men formed the City of Bristol Rounder Club. They practiced rounders, albeit a modified form of the sport that required more strength and athleticism than the schoolyard version. Over the next two decades, similar organizations sprung up in cities that, like Bristol, were major seaports along the west coast of Great Britain including Cardiff, Liverpool and Glasgow. The rosters of these clubs were filled by the dockworkers and seamen who populated those cities, and over time they discarded some traditional features of rounders such as the short, one-handed bat and the practice of soaking. In 1892 they instituted one final change. Tired of having their sport confused with the original picnic and schoolyard version of rounders that by then was increasingly being played by girls, the major rounders associations changed the name of their pastime to baseball. Despite the new label, however, the clubs resisted overtures to adopt American baseball rules, and forged ahead playing their own unique form of the game. Although this new British baseball did not last long in some of the cities, it prospered in the Liverpool area and in south Wales. It was adopted by school sports programs in those areas and, over time, women players formed clubs of their own that began to rival in popularity those of the men. Yet, by the dawn of the 21st century, this formerly rounders localized form of baseball began to fall on hard times. It had been dropped from school programs and, like many regional amateur sports in the UK, could no longer compete with the glamor of football, rugby and cricket. Today there are only few clubs hanging on in Cardiff and perhaps none at all still functioning in Liverpool.
Meanwhile, the original form of rounders transformed as well. Having been born as a game for boys, the number of girl players that began as a trickle in the late 19th century soon turned into a torrent. By the early 20th century, rounders had become a fundamental component of the UK’s school physical education program, with girls comprising the vast majority of its players. As recently as 2018 an estimated 7,000,000 British schoolchildren were still playing rounders, a number that is likely to decline because of the game being dropped that year from the standard school curriculum. Meanwhile, amateur rounders leagues comprised of players of all ages and genders continue to prosper throughout the UK. In spite of its threatened future, rounders by any measure is a successful and widely played sport. Though it never gained the prestige that class, gender, and professional glory brought its sibling games of baseball and cricket, rounders unquestionably has provided a competitive outlet and means of recreation for countless millions of adherents over its 200-year existence. How to explain, then, why, to this day, not a single book, not one, has ever been written about the history of rounders? Rodney Dangerfield, move over.
__________ 1 David Block is the author of two books and numerous articles on early baseball. 2 For those not of a “certain age,” Rodney Dangerfield (1921-2004) was a well-known comedian whose comic catchphrase was “I get no respect…”