Take me out to old Blighty

News item: 1755 diary mentions baseball in England. That's nice, but we already had a 1744 reference. Not to mention David Wells.


King Kaufman
September 17, 2008 11:00PM (UTC)

There was a story running around last week that a reference to baseball had been found in 18th century -- get this -- England.

"Baseball is as American as ... tea and crumpets?" read the lead of an Associated Press story datelined London.

I was reminded of the classic Onion story headlined "'Midwest' Discovered Between East And West Coasts."

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Of course baseball has its roots in England. It was developed from cricket and especially rounders, which survives mostly as a playground game over there and looks a lot like slow-pitch softball.

The real news was actually that the manager of the Surrey History Centre in England said he had authenticated a 1755 diary reference to baseball by a teenage future lawyer named William Bray, who almost certainly was referring to rounders when he wrote, "After Dinner Went to Miss Jeale's to play at Base Ball with her, the 3 Miss Whiteheads, Miss Billinghurst, Miss Molly Flutter, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Ford & H. Parsons & Jelly. Drank Tea and stayed till 8."

The passage, by the way, is eerily similar to a paragraph in "Perfect, I'm Not" by David Wells. And another modern connection: William Bray is supposedly the great-great-etc.-something of Bill Bray, a relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.

The Associated Press story mentions that 1755 would put the reference "about 50 years before what was previously believed to have been the first known reference to what became the American pastime."

Craig Calcaterra pointed out on AOL Fanhouse that even that news wasn't really news. Discovery of the diary in question had played a large part in an MLB.com documentary called "Base Ball Discovered," which premiered last year.

An aside: Try to get to the end of that clip without smiling.

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But 1755 wouldn't put the reference 50 years before what was previously believed to have been the first known reference to baseball, or base ball, as it was often called before the 20th century.

To be pedantic, Jane Austen mentioned baseball in "Northanger Abbey," which she wrote in 1798, though it wasn't published until 1817. But why be pedantic when you can just link? Here's the Web site of the National Rounders Association -- the nation in question being the United Kingdom -- on the history of the game:

The game of rounders has been played in England since Tudor Times, with the earliest reference being in 1744 in "A Little Pretty Pocketbook" where it is called baseball. This explains why the two games are similar, and in fact many students of baseball accept that their sport is derived from Rounders.

"A Little Pretty Pocketbook" doesn't just refer to baseball. It has, according to the book "A Legend for the Legendary: The Origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame" by James A. Vlasich, "the earliest recognized illustration of the game."

Want to see? Well, that's why we have a Library of Congress.

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So the news last week was that a year ago, someone had discovered the earliest known reference to baseball, except for a well-documented reference that was 11 years older.

I'm having fun. A 1755 reference to baseball is still pretty damn cool, even if it isn't the earliest known anything. It's just good to remember you shouldn't believe everything you read. Especially if it's about David Wells.


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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