Town Ball

By David Nevard

I’ve been working on a research project for my friend Larry McCray, who lives in Arlington Va. He and some other of my friends have been after me for years to join the Society for American Baseball Research. So I finally did recently. Larry is working on a project for the 19th Century Committee. He is trying to figure out exactly when and how baseball got started. Nobody actually knows the answer to this. There are a lot of myths.

Larry is good at asking interesting questions. So he asked me one, and I said, hmmm. Let me find out. I got on the internet and one of the first things I found was a quote from Henry David Thoreau, about his memories of playing baseball on Fast Day, which was an old New England holiday in April. I passed it on, and Larry thought it was great, and he passed it on to the Vice President of SABR who thought it was cool, too.

Meanwhile I began collecting stories of this old game called Town Ball, which they used to play in the South and Midwest. Most of what I was gathering from the internet was the recollection of old folks, written down as family history. I keep finding these stories, I’ve got 15 pages worth, and they’re from all different places, but they have a common thread -- The little country school house, recess out in the yard. The girls and boys are playing Town Ball, bullpen, hand ball, hot ball, catchball, cross-out-ball, base, dare base, prisoners’ base, stink base, cat, mad dog, antie over, black man, shinney, steal-stick, fox-and-geese, drop-the-handkerchief, tag, wolf-over-the-river, hopscotch, pop-the-whip, marbles and hide-and-seek.

Town Ball is sort of like baseball. It may be an ancestor of baseball, which is what Larry is looking for. We don’t know exactly when it started, or even exactly how it was played. I don’t think Town Ball was just made up and passed on by kids. Some stories I found tell of the schoolmaster teaching the game to the kids at recess. Maybe that’s how it spread.

I’ve always been interested in the mysterious spread of songs, games, jokes, customs, nursery rhymes – how they change and evolve. Sometimes things move quickly. In our internet age, an event occurs which captures the public imagination, and two days later you’re getting email jokes about it. Who makes up these jokes? At the other end of the spectrum, last summer I was at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and learned how the raising of corn (maize) spread from the Indians of Mexico. Moving from person to person, village to village, by people who traveled only on foot, corn agriculture took about 1000 years to reach the coast of Connecticut.

So… How do children’s games evolve? Where does hopscotch come from, and why do all little girls know how to play it?

Here are a few of the stories I picked up. I think they’re interesting in themselves.

o       We played a number of ball games. We played a game of ball, from which our baseball of today comes, called Town Ball. And we had another called , cat, which was a ball game too. And there was still another called roll-a-hole. We had a row of holes about as big as a tea-cup, or perhaps bigger, one for every boy; then the ball was rolled and he, whose hole the ball rolled into had to pick it up and hit some boy, and as they scattered he hit somebody else until he missed. Every fellow who missed got to picked, as we called them, and put that into his hole, and when a boy got ten picks he was out of the game. We used grains of corn, or pieces of wood, for counters, or picks. I never heard of that game being played anywhere else. – Patrick Henry Jameson. The date is uncertain, but he says his parents were married in Kentucky in 1810.

o       When I was a school boy in the country, there was a boy in school with me whose name was Vul Nabors. We used to play cat, bullpen, town-ball and several other such games during our noon hour and at recess. Vul was a good player, but he wanted to have his own way. So if we did not agree to play his way he declined to take any part in the game, but would sit on a log, or stand about and watch the progress of the game. So when the South seceded and war was declared I, like Vul Nabors, declined to take at first any part in the game of war, because it failed to be played my way. – J.E. Robuck, born 1837, Mississippi

o       School always, winter and summer, “took in early in the morning and closed late in the afternoon. An hour and a half to two hours was given at noon for “playtime.” Town-ball, marbles and shinney were the principal games. Town-ball was something like baseball, and I presume the latter derives its origin from town-ball, only it has been systematized and regulated according to rule. Shinney was adopted from the Indians, and is an exciting game. It is played altogether with sticks made for the purpose, and affords an abundance of severe exercise. The method of teaching has changed very materially in these latter days, and probably for the better. However, those old log schoolhouses turned out some great men in all walks of life. -- William Frierson Fulton, born 1840, Alabama

o       Talk about home and loved ones till we would cry. Then someone would remark, boys this won’t do, let us have a game of town ball, base, or blackman. We played each of these games. Also many other exercises were engaged in. Foot races, pitching chips, stones or anything to make a game. Many of the boys were so weak that very little running would completely exhaust them.--Civil War Diary of Linus Freeman Parrish, born 1846, Iowa

o       When I was a boy we used to play town ball. But I will tell you what, if I had a dog and he were to go out and look at a game of base ball an hour, and then come back in my yard, I would go out and kill him, I would. None of your base ball in mine. There is not a more corrupting thing this side of hell than base ball. Now, put that down. They all thought I had forgotten that, I never have had any use for it. The idea of a great big young buck twenty-five years old running all over creation for a ball. If your mother wanted you to cut a stick of wood she couldn’t get you to do it to save her life, but you dress up in a fool’s garb and run after a ball, the hottest day, until your tongue lolls out, you fool you. That isn’t all. It is one of the finest fields for gambling in America. And that is not all. I wouldn’t wipe my feet on any crowd that would go out and play base ball on the Sabbath. Those are my sentiments. I couldn’t put it in any more concise way than that. I don’t know whether you agree with me or not; but you understand me, I reckon, don’t you? I will let my boy play ball until he is ten years old, but after he is fifteen years old I believe I will wear him out with work. If he falls catch him at such foolishness as that.  Evangelist Samuel Porter Jones, born 1847, Alabama

o       He recalled his boyhood games. They were games for the timber boy. They played “deer.” That meant that one boy was the deer and others “hounds” and they chased with much baying. Then the boys used to climb trees and run races in jumping from branch to branch. Then there was town ball played with a twine ball, much like baseball but took less players. – Joseph Smith born 1850, Ohio; grew up in Missouri.

o       Played Town Ball, Cat and Bullpen. Children played marbles and Annie-over, made bows and arrows and blow guns. Made blow guns by punching and burning out pit of 3 or 4 length of cane. Make dart out of light wood with knitting needle. Could kill birds with it. Men went to shooting matches, turkey shoots, very little gambling, lots of whiskey drinking but no drunkenness. Raced horses. Rode bareback straightaway 1/4 or 1/2 mile, sometimes 2 paths through field. Men went through country racing horses and betting on them. A man at Brownsferry on Tennessee River had an extra fast horse. A horse trader came through and bet him $50 that his horse could bet his. They took hoe and cut down row of green corn through field in river bottom. The trader’s horse was trained to run without a rider and won the race. – Franklin Monroe Hudson, born 1852, Alabama

o       On the 24th of July we had a celebration in commeration of our entrance into our mountain home by which we are freed from oppression and violence of mobs. The 24th coming on Sunday, we had our performance on Saturday 23rd; a very good time.

The fore part of the day we devoted to speechifying, songs, toasts, &c. Then come an intermission and public dinner in the bowery which past off without a dissenting voice. The ball being prepared we had a singular good game of town ball, the first evere played at this place.

The floor being cleared, we gathered in and commenced another exercise for the first time at Shoal Creek, called “The Dance” in which old and young took a part, this writer heads of youth and those that had grown white with age were alike happy. There woz an adjournment for milking time and continued in the eve ‘til bedtime.

This was at Pleasant Valley & a pleasant time it was. – Items of History of the Shoal Creek District of the Cotton Mission [Mormon], Utah 1864

o       Tuesday, August 29, 1865. Had 24 scholars. Whipped Jno. L. Barrow and Doctor Gwathney for disturbing the school with noise, etc. during study hours. Introduced the game of town-ball at recess in the morning. The boys were well pleased and we enjoyed ourselves finely at playing then, at dinner time, and at recess in the afternoon. Mrs. Ebert’s cows had the misfortune to get into Mr. Mulkey’s sorghum patch where they ate so much that two of them died.” -- James Appleton Blackshear, teacher 1865, Georgia

o       We had many sports. No ball except town ball, (no new sports) hot ball and antie over… We also played hot ball. This was an exciting game. We had a hard rubber ball and would chose sides. The ball was thrown from one to the other side with all force, each side trying to get the ball; and when it was caught it was instantly thrown to the opposite side. Then, there was a great scramble to obtain possession of the ball. When caught the opposite side would be peppered as hard as was possible. There couldn’t be any winner, as there was so much confusion after the game started. “Bull pen” was another game and “antie over”. These were enjoyed as all youngsters would. – John Garrett Matthews, born around 1860, Texas

o       Wednesday, July 12, 1876: Went over to Middleboro with Jas and went in swiming [sic]. Staid over there all day as it rained so that we could not get home. Played cards more today than I ever did in my life. Had a game of Town ball in the evening and then came home. Rained all day.
Saturday, August 19, 1876: Went over to see Isaac Elliott but he was not at home. Came home and ran around until noon. Had Uncle Bills’ half sole and repair two pairs of boots. Went down to town in the afternoon with Marcus and staid until near sundown then came home. Played a game or so of Base ball but was so sore and stiff I could not play much. Fair and warm. – Pettis Arlindo Reid, born 1855, Ohio

o       Along about 1878 or nine they built the Portland school house and after that we had a much better house and better equipment though nothing to compare with the schools today. We played what we called town ball, a game similar in some respects to baseball. We also played Cat and bullpen. – John W. Roark, born 1866, Texas

o       In public school in the woods, our winter sports were skating, tracking rabbits and other game in the snow, playing “fox and geese” and “blackman,” and “town ball” which was something like baseball, when we would “choose up sides” and play against each other. The first schoolhouse was a frame building boarded inside and outside, and filled in between these boards with sawdust in which all kinds of insects, snakes, mice and lizards lived and harbored. -- Reverend Daniel Burghalter, D. D, born 1867, Indiana

o       At twelve I thought more of pleasure and fun and played all kinds of games including town ball, steal stick, and, of course, foot races. In the winter we coasted down the hill on sleds. Little did I dream during those moonlit nights that this life’s road would have so many rough places. I never thought of the danger and problems that I now realize are just part of everyone’s life. But I’ll never forget the good times my chums and I had together during these years. – Anne Marie Boren Bigelow, born 1873, Utah

o       You ask about my playmates. Oh, there was a crowd of us boys grew up - about seven of us in that part of town. The town was divided into about four wards or districts. In our district, the northeast part of town, there were seven or eight of us boys about the same age, and now they are all dead, except me. Games, we played, oh, yes, Run Sheep, Hide Seek, and then we used to play ball of course -- Town Ball was the big game. We had more fun at Town Ball than they do now with their baseball games.

Town Ball -- you have about five on a side, and you strike the ball out and of course you’d have to run to the first base. Anyone on the opposite side who was out, or on the outside, would catch that ball and throw it in front of you they could cross you out. They didn’t have to throw it to the base if they could get it in front of you before you got to the base, you were out! That would apply to all the bases and then when there were three out we used to run then to get some of the members back into the game; and we would run what they call “ganders”. And then the boy or man would have to strike that ball out far enough that the one who ran the “ganders” could make the run clear around and come into base without being crossed out. And if they could do that they could win a member in. If they could get them all out the game was over. But sometimes they would play and one would make home run -- that would have an extra count, but very few could they do that because there was so few who run the circle before they could get the ball and strike him out.

Five or six on a side -- we didn’t have any specified number -- whatever crowd could get together -- divide the crowd and then play. Just like baseball now, only we didn’t have the rules and regulations -- we just had - if you caught it on a fly, you were out. Or in a certain ____ we caught it on the first bounce, or if you are running, and they can catch the ball and throw it in front of you they cross you out. But they were interesting games, and we just had as much fun playing that Town Ball as they do now playing baseball. That shows a little of the evolution of the baseball today -- its the same thing, only its developed into a baseball game with rules and regulations--different to what they had then. – Lars Larson Olson, Jr., born 1874, Utah

o       1886. My fifth year of school. My teacher was Mr. Martin L. Robinson. He sure kept good order in school. My studies this year consisted of spelling, reading, writing, geography and arithmetic. On Fridays we would have spelling bees… Past time at recess was playing marbles or black man or tug. Then Mr. Robinson learned us to play ball. It was called round town then. That was before baseball was invented. We had six or eight boys my age and a little older. I could name them all but what the use. This was the year I had carbuncles on my head and the scars are there until this day. They sure were painful. Father taken me to Dr. Gable about fourty miles and he cured them by washing them with carbolic acid. It took about three months to do it. – James Henry Akers, born 1876, Kentucky

o       The school boys found time for play, too, and a favorite game was Town Ball, a forerunner of today’s baseball.  He describes the balls they used as “made from yarn from old woolen socks, wound tightly around four or five buckshot until it was about the size of a baseball.” Frank Tucker, born 1870’s, Florida

o       There was not much in the way of entertainment in those early days. At school, some of the games we played were town ball (much like baseball), black man and antie-over. Antie-over was one of my favorites. Two sides would choose up and the one that took the ball would throw it over to the other side of the house. If they didn’t catch it, they would throw it back over the schoolhouse. If they did catch it, the one with the ball ran to the other side and if he hit one of the players, the one hit was out or went to the other side. – Mack Pamplin, born 1888, Missouri (Ozarks)

o       I know that they played town ball because a lady who was one of them told me they did and she said that Lizzie Painter was a star town ball player. Town ball, forerunner of baseball, was popular with both boys and girls until well into the nineteen hundred decade. No inhibitions of the Victorian age would keep those young ladies from running races with each other, staging jumping contest, or even wrestling, as some, thought not all, of them had done all their lives on the farms or on the lawns of village homes with brothers, masculine cousins, and childhood boy playmates as well as with their sisters and girl companions, and from all accounts neither Dr. Scherer nor Mrs. Scherer was the sort of disciplinarian who would stop them. – A Brief History of Marion College (Virginia)

o       After dinner Arch, Thayer and Garvis would get together with some friends such as the Keetleys. They would get together to play “Round Town Ball”. Round Town Ball was as close as you could get to the game of baseball, however, the ball was a little bigger and instead of a bat, a paddle was used to hit the balls. Each person playing would get three balls to hit, and of course similar to baseball, if you got a hit you had a chance to run to the first base. – Arch Spangler, born 1916, West Virginia

o       We had seven months of school. Some would walk as far as two miles to school. My family walked a little over a mile. In the winter the boys would go by their traps, dead falls, and snares. Some of the games played at school were “Dare Base,” Town Ball,” “Mad Dog,” and “Fox and Geese.” Of course, the boys might smoke rabbit tobacco, sometimes called life everlasting. They also might smoke grapevines or cornsilks. What a treat! – Elmer Ray Carter, born 1922, Kentucky

o       If we managed to get to school early, and the weather was warm enough, we started (or continued) a game of ‘town ball’. In ‘town ball’ there were no teams, there were only individuals wishing to play ball. Positions were first chosen at random, or continued from a previous game. There was no end to the game., and the only object of the game was to get up to bat and hit the ball. There was no umpire… batting rules were simple; three strikes and you’re out.

When you struck out, you went to a position between home plate and the first base to wait for a chance to get back into the game. When the ball was hit, it could be caught on the fly, or first bounce. Either one was ‘out’. When the ball was hit out of the infield and not caught on the fly or first bounce, those in the ‘out’ position were allowed to run and try to reach home plate before the ball was returned to the infield. If they made it ‘home’ before the ball was returned to the infield, they were back in the game. If the ball was thrown to the infield first, then the runners trying to reach ‘home’ had to return to their waiting place to wait for another ball to be hit out of the infield. The only person who could be tagged ‘out’ was the batter.

If a player made it back in the game, he, or she, went to the field as a fielder. The field and pitcher rotated as each new person entered the game. The pitcher went to the batter line, with one fielder taking over, in turn, as pitcher.

The game was played as a recess or lunchtime game, so the intermissions of the game were determined by the hand bell to go back into the schoolhouse to begin, or resume, classes. There was no score, no winning, no losing… only fun. I might also say that the ‘bat’ was usually a board pulled from a handy barn.

Either ‘town ball’ was a favorite of everyone, or we didn’t have any other equipment to play games with. It was hard enough to keep a ball! Bats were handy enough, as long as the barns lasted. –”GranKY”, born around 1930, Kentucky


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