Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/September 1890/A Little Boys' Game with a Ball

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1194978Popular Science Monthly Volume 37 September 1890 — A Little Boys' Game with a Ball1890Henry J. Philpott



A YEAR or two ago there went the rounds of the daily papers a few verses intended to express the feelings of an elderly lady from the country when her city folks had taken her to see the national game. It was all very interesting and funny, but may be summed up in her oftenest-repeated couplet:

"Jist a passel o' big men a-playin'
A little boys' game with a ball"—

which was a true bill. But how came these men to be playing this little boys' game? Here steps in the student of sociology, and offers explanations in abundance. The truly great philosopher of this and all generations is the man who for the first time considers unconsidered trifles. Herein lies the greatness of Herbert Spencer.

In this matter we all have a duty which most of us are likely to forget. We should record for the benefit of the coming philosopher, who by the process of evolution is sure to have a finer and more effective brain than ours, certain facts which seem trivial to us, but which may be of transcendent importance to him. What if our predecessors had scrupulously done likewise? How much more satisfactory would have been our nineteenth-century philosophy!

Hit or miss, I propose to describe a few of the ball-plays I learned as pupil and teacher in country schools within twenty miles of the Mississippi River, and about half-way between St. Louis and St. Paul. I shall not be deterred by the reflection that others may be able, if they would, to describe a greater variety of ball-games.

Did you ever stop to think how much of human life there is consumed in games of ball? A marble is a ball. So is a billiard-ball, a croquet-ball. So—did you ever think of it?—are shot and shell, though their elongation in modern military engineering has made war less truly than it used to be

"Jist a passel o' big men a-playin'
A little boys' game with a ball."

Perhaps the first thing that boys in their games ever did with a ball was to hit other boys with it. At any rate, their games in my time have been made of such simple elements as the effort to—1. Hit somebody. 2. Hit a target. 3. Hit another ball, as in marbles. 4. Catch the ball. 5. Bat the ball. 6. Run to a goal, or out of reach of the ball, before being hit or "crossed out." And, of course—7. Prevent the enemy from accomplishing any of these things.

Ball-games are products, and pretty good illustrations, of the process of evolution. Hence it is fitting to proceed in their discussion as Nature proceeds in evolution—from the simple to the complex. We can beat Haeckel at this. He can not bridge the gap between life and not-life, but we can go back of all ball-games to a primordial ball-playing which is not a game at all. When a number of boys engage in indiscriminately hitting one another, they often enjoy the excitement, but they are not playing a game. They begin to play a game when they introduce forfeits, or rewards, or both.

The commonest forfeit is that of the right to play—that is, the player who misses is "out" for the remainder of the game or inning. The moment this was introduced, what was called "sockball" became a real game. There were no bases, no bats, no anything except a lot of boys, and a ball with which they were trying to hit one another. But if one threw and missed, or his ball was caught, he was out. When all but one, or an agreed number, were out, the game was ended, and a new one was started. Of course, the last boy could not be put out, for there were no players for him to throw at and miss. He won the game, and his reward was the first throw on the new game.

The game of "hole-ball," or "wibble-wobble," retained these features, and added a hole in the ground large enough to nicely hold the ball. The reward of the winner was not the first throw, but the privilege of placing the ball in the hole and naming the first thrower, who had the advantage of a throw before the players had time to scatter—for, of course, they all stood close by the hole until the name was called, each thinking it might be his own. It required considerable alertness to be ready to instantly do either one of two things—seize and throw the ball, or run away. Faculties were called into exercise which, if duly cultivated, help to make success all through life. They are the faculties needed by the general, who may at any moment be forced to fight or forced to retreat. As the game proceeds, the players come back to the hole every time one goes out on a miss or a catch, and the one who is missed or catches the ball puts it in the hole and names the next thrower, and so on until all but one are out. The hole serves constantly as a base of operations, and the player who at any time is hit, and must therefore try to hit a fellow, may throw from where he finds the ball on the ground, or from any point between there and the hole. That was our rule, at any rate.

The hole was sometimes replaced by the boys' hats, and the owner of the hat into which the ball was dropped was the next thrower. This was called "hat-ball." A new feature was sometimes introduced. A single miss did not put the player out. For each miss he put a chip or pebble into his hat for a counter, called a "pig." When he had accumulated an agreed number of pigs, he was out.

Retaining all these features except the hats, the game of "rolla-hole" went back to the hole in the ground; but, instead of a single one, there was a row of them—as many as there were players. The ball was rolled along the line of these holes, and would stop in one of them. Thus the thrower was chosen by lot, and not by discrimination; though, of course, this was not always true if the ball-holder was dishonest, and had any desire to discriminate. He was closely watched, and often accused of unfairness. It is ever thus.

I do not recall any other games of this class that we played. The most popular of them was the one called "wibble-wobble" in our school, and "hole-ball" wherever else I have seen it. Hatball and roll-a-hole may be higher forms, the latter seeming to me to be the last of its line.

There is an allied line of games which reached a more interesting development. The simplest form of it that I have seen was called "draw-base" by the boy who brought its traditions to our school. Here for the first time the players were divided into two opposing teams, and bases were introduced. These bases were two, facing each other, and the ball was thrown from one base to the other in the effort to hit one of the opposing players, all of whom were standing on the bases. A player who was hit, unless he caught the ball, was not put out, but became an active recruit in the ranks of his late enemies. When one base was in this way emptied of its players, the game was over. Played with a common ball, this game was voted extremely stupid, and was rarely indulged in. But with snow-balls it formed a large part of the winter's sport. Played with a number of balls, inside a high inclosure, so that the balls would not have to be chased, it might be made quite exciting.

Sometimes the two bases were on opposite sides of the schoolhouse, over which the ball had to be thrown to and fro until caught, before anybody could be hit with it. Whenever it was caught, the two teams changed sides of the school-house, and it was while this exchange was going on that the hitting had to be done. A player could not be hit after he reached "home." As in "draw-base" the game kept on until one team swallowed up the other. I always heard this game called "ante-over." It was usually played by the small boys and the girls, the latter catching the ball in their aprons. The point was to get around the house and hit some of the other side before they knew the ball had been caught. The bulls and bears of Wall Street make a similar use of monopolized information.

Retaining the bases, and the division into teams or sides, the game of "bull-pen" went away beyond the last two in complexity and interest. It was one of our great games, and the largest boys delighted in it. It furnishes us a step in evolution which we can partly illustrate by a diagram. In the games of draw-base and ante-over there are two parallel bases, thus:

The players all stand on bases, and they all stand on an equality. There is no specialization of duties or privileges. In bull-pen the two bases are subdivided into half as many as there are players, and they are arranged into the circumference of a ring, as shown below.

One player stands on each base. These are the winners of the last preceding game—the "ins." The bases are positions of honor. The outs are a disorganized rabble, roaming about inside the ring. Here is differentiation as Well as division. Here is a plain case of evolution.

As in ante-over, the ball must be caught by some player before he can hit anybody with it—unless he has just been hit himself. In fact, it is not "hot" at the beginning of the game until it has passed three times around the bases and been caught each time at every base. After that, any baseman who catches it may throw at anybody inside the ring, who, if hit, must get the ball, and, without going outside the ring, must try to hit some baseman. The basemen have the privilege of running as far away as they please in order to avoid being hit.

In one respect the two sides stand on an equality. The player who misses, or whose ball is caught by the enemy, is out, and excluded from the rest of the inning. If the basemen are all out first, the other side gets the bases for an inning. If the men in the ring are all out first, they must go back into the ring for another inning. It is possible for one side to hold the bases all day, but in practice the honors are pretty evenly divided.

When all the basemen but one are out, he may choose a partner, and they "smuggle" the ball. They conceal it under the coat of one, and both hold their hands under their coats as if they had it. Then they run the bases, and the enemy, not knowing which of the two has the ball, may be stolen upon and hit. But at any time a baseman can throw only from a base.

This is, so far as I know, the highest development of this class of ball-games. We have traced their natural history from the wanton hitting of one boy by another, through the hole-ball games, in which there are no bases and no sides, and the base-games in which there are two sides standing equal, on two bases, to the numerous bases occupied by one side as a token of victory. We have not yet encountered one of the most important instruments of ball-playing—the bat. This mighty engine of human amusement, whether in the form of a billiard-cue or a croquet-mallet, or what not, brings about radical variations in the game.

There is so much pleasure in the mere batting a ball that many a boy will amuse himself at it entirely alone for hours. He will gently toss the ball upward and as it comes down bat it either upward or horizontally. He will throw it against the barn-side and bat it on the rebound. He will lay the bat across a fulcrum and the ball upon one end of it, and then, striking the other end with his father's axe, drive the ball out of sight into the blue sky, catching it as it comes down. When several play at this, the privilege of striking being earned by catching the ball, the game is called "sky-ball."

If he can get another boy to toss up the ball, and he strikes it upward, the game used to be called "tip-e-up."

If the pitcher throws horizontally, a nameless and stupid game is produced. The pitcher earns the bat by catching the ball when struck. This was always so hard to do, in my experience, that the bat generally seemed in danger of becoming a hereditary possession of the batter.

It was much more fun to throw the ball against the barn, and standing behind the batter put him out by catching the ball when he struck at it and missed it on the rebound. This we called "barn-ball."

It was still better to divide the work of pitching and catching. There is division of labor, as the economists call it, in any batting game. There is also distinction of rank, the bat being always a token of victory—something to be struggled for and won. In all two-handed games the pitching, catching, fielding, etc., are all done by a single player. In a three-handed game the work is further divided, there being now a batter, a pitcher, and a catcher. This we used to call "one old cat" The three players occupied the same positions now held by the same three players in the great American game.

Bases were now introduced. When the batter had struck the ball three times, he must run to the pitcher's base before the ball was thrown across his path in front of him. Otherwise he was out, and the player who "crossed him out" got his bat. There were, therefore, three ways of securing his bat: by catching the ball when he had struck it, by catching it when. he had struck at it, and by crossing out when he ran bases. And there were two players at work trying to accomplish the object. The batter's life was rendered far less easy by these new features. Of course, every time the batter ran, the pitcher and catcher, instead of changing places, changed occupations.

If another batter was added, the two occupations of pitcher and catcher merged back into one. This was "two old cat." Its rules were usually the same as in the preceding game; but sometimes, instead of "every fellow for himself," it was "one out, all out." It was then a game of partners, like whist.

There was also "three cat," or "three-cornered cat," and even "four cat." The rules were the same.

One important difference between the batting and the hitting games was that, in the former, the complexity of the game increased with the number of players, while, in the latter, the simplest games were those in which the whole school could join. Up to eight players, the simple "old cat" games were the commonest. With more players than eight we usually played "town-ball." It was plainly evolved out of the cat games, for it retained all their rules. And it forms a connecting link between them and base-ball. But it resembles "one cat" more than any of the other forms of cat-ball. It might be called a lateral branch of the cat family, just as the lion and the tiger are related to the common cat. In ball-games the cat family had two principal lines of evolution. Along one line it bloomed into two, three, and four cat, and along the other line into town-ball, the professional base-ball, and one or two other allied forms.

Along the first line there was a mere cumulation of cats. All that is implied by this expression is that there was a multiplication of batting bases. After "one cat" there was just one batter and one catcher to each batting base.

In the other line we revert to the single batting base, regardless of the number of players. Even in "one cat" there were two, which were used alternately by the batter. His run was from one batting base to the other. Every time he ran, his former pitcher became his catcher, and his catcher, pitcher—just as in the lower animals the same organ often has various functions to perform by turns. Just so, too, in rude societies, trades afterward widely separated may be united in the same person—as, for instance, the professions of barber and physician used to be united.

In the town-ball games, the pitcher was always pitcher until the game was ended or his arm was tired. The catcher was always catcher one game through, unless his hands blistered or his incompetency became apparent. In the professional games these two have permanent and well-paid positions. All the advantages mentioned by economists as resulting from "division of labor" are here illustrated.

In these games the conspiracy against the batter's peace of mind reaches appalling proportions. The conspirators are an organized band of indefinite numbers. Their lives are consecrated to the single end of putting him out. Even in "town-ball" one man has nothing to do but pitch him deceptive balls. Another has nothing to do but catch the balls he misses or only "ticks" or knocks foul. All the rest are scouring the field for his "flies," or stopping his "grounders" and crossing him out.

To add to his burdens, he is forced to run four bases instead of one. It was sufficient for any one of his numerous enemies to throw the ball across his path between him and the base to which he was running. This hardship is somewhat mollified in professional base-ball.

In "town-ball" there was as yet no distinction between basemen and fielders. After the pitcher and catcher had been selected, the others on that side went where they pleased; and they did not get the bat until they had put all the batters out. Nay, when all but one had been put out, he could sometimes call back to his assistance any one he chose of his slaughtered comrades; and he often had a rubber ball which, if he did not burst it, he could drive to the other side of the hay-field.

The professional batter has to contend with a curved ball, and go out when three of his comrades are out. But, on the other hand, the ball has to be pitched to him within definite limits, and he has to be touched with it when running.

Except mechanical details and minor rules changeable from year to year, these are all the differences between town-ball and base-ball. The rules were not so strict in the former, and there was no umpire to enforce them. They were often adopted by unanimous consent at the beginning of the game. One rule, often but not always adopted, was that the batter who knocked the ball over the fence was out. Another was that, when all the batters but one were out, one might be called back to "run bases." He had to make home runs—three of them within a maximum limit of nine strikes. This was the most exciting part of the game, but was not a standing privilege.

Our good town-ball players developed into good base-ball players, and took to it quite naturally. In fact, the two might almost be called the same game under different names and at different ages. I believe it is quite common to speak of them in that way. Our town-ball was probably called base-ball in that part of the country where the game first began its rapid development; but, by the time the developed game had reached us, it was so different that for some years the two games were played side by side, each retaining its old name.

What caused this sudden development? The ingenuity and the wrangling of the boys had refined the game until adult men all at once saw the merit in it. Up to this point its rules had been wrought out and fought out on the vacant town lot or in the meadow surrounding the country school. It was pretty well understood that, unless fair rules were agreed on and held to, somebody would get hurt. The cry of "'Tain't fair!" would be raised and persisted in by the party infringed on. The other boys would soon tire of having the game delayed; and many a time have I seen them stop right there and adopt a new rule covering the case. It was always, as in the affairs of men, the courage and determination of the oppressed which brought about evolution and progress. It was the necessity of admitting reasonable claims and adopting acceptable rules in order to keep the peace and save time and strength.

When by these processes of ingenuity, goaded on by conflict, the boys had made it really a fine game, the men took hold of it and pushed it forward more rapidly, as men ought. They held their quarrels and set their rules in hotel parlors. They are still at it; and I should not like to say that many legislative bodies are engaged in business either more harmless or more profitable. Certainly a good many persons recuperate in worse ways than watching

"Jist a passel o' big men a-playin'
A little boys' game with a ball."

Mistakes in orientation usually result from some incidental and temporary bewilderment, which may, under peculiar circumstances, overtake any one. Instances are cited by Sir Charles Warren in which they are chronic. Erroneous conceptions formed by children as to distances and positions may grow up with them undetected till near their maturity. Then, when the defect is revealed, it will be too late to apply any other remedy than to recognize it, and make such allowance for it as is possible. Probably few persons have grown up without forming some errors of the kind which they have found it impossible to get rid of. The defect may account for some of the accidents that occur on railways and shipping.