Monday, September 15, 2008

Base ball and cricket records

A very early - possibly the earliest - reference to baseball has been found in an English diary, written by William Bray, thus supporting the idea that, in fact, the quintessentially American game began in England and not on the other side of the Atlantic. Another English William who wrote a diary, but lived a century later, William Allingham, was, for a number years, the field manager for the Pre-Raphaelite Baseball Club - bizarre, but true in the imaginary world of the Cosmic Baseball Association. And going back a century before Bray, other diaries provide evidence on the history of that quintessentially English game, cricket.

Last week, the Surrey Advertiser Group broke the news that a diary written by William Bray in the 1750s contained possibly the earliest ever reference to the game of baseball. The diary was found last year by local historian, Tricia St John Barry, and authenticated by Julian Pooley, manager of the Surrey History Centre in Woking (where Bray’s later diaries are held). Associated Press picked up the story and added some details, including the text of the relevant entry which is from Easter Monday 31 March 1755. It reads: ‘Went to Stoke Ch. This morning. 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 sequence of events that led to the Surrey Advertiser story is worth acknowledging. The body that runs baseball in the US, Major League Baseball (MLB) was researching and filming in England for a documentary called Base Ball Discovered. The BBC ran an item about MLP’s project which St John Barry saw; she then contacted MLB to tell them about her discovery in Bray’s diary. Subsequently, MLB contacted Pooley, an expert on Bray, to verify that the 1754-1755 diary was genuine.

According to Associated Press’s story, the Bray reference is about 50 years earlier than the, hitherto, first known reference to baseball, and it had long been thought that baseball was ‘an American invention, with roots in the British games of rounders and cricket’. Apparently, there are earlier references to baseball, but only in fictional books; and the game is mentioned in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, written in 1798 but not published until late 1817. The first recorded competitive baseball game took place in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1846 between the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York and the New York Nine, and the first professional team was playing by the end of the 1860s.

William Bray was born in Surrey in 1736, but educated at Rugby before being articled to a lawyer in Guildford. Over time, he became solicitor to many county families, but also was steward of Surrey manors, treasurer of charities and an indefatigable antiquary. He worked with Owen Manning in compiling notes for a history of Surrey, but, after Manning’s death, took over the responsibility for writing and publishing The History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey, a definitive work in three volumes. He transcribed and published the diaries of Sir John Evelyn, one of Britain’s most famous diarists. Moreover, Bray kept a diary himself, some texts of which are readily available on the internet - see The Diary Junction for links.

Also, see The Diary Junction for information about another diarist called William - William Allingham. Born in Ireland, he lived about one hundred years later than Bray, through much of the 19th century and was a celebrated poet connected with the Pre-Raphaelite movement of painters, such as Rossetti and Millais. Unlike Bray, very little of Allingham’s diaries can be found on the internet. What can be found is thanks to baseball! When the Pre-Raphaelite Baseball Club joined the Cosmic Baseball Association in 1997 they ‘tapped Allingham to be their field manager’. He then compiled ‘a very decent 180-144 won-loss record’ in the two seasons the team played in the Cosmic Underleague. The Cosmic Baseball Association describes itself as ‘a baseball league of the imagination’, but it is also an online source for Allingham’s diary entries!

What baseball is to Americans, cricket is to the English, but cricket was already considered a major sport - according to Wikipedia - by the end of the 17th century, i.e. at least 50 years before Bray’s first and solitary mention of baseball. Some of the evidence for the origins of cricket also comes from diaries. Henry Teonge, for example, a priest who decided to join the navy as a chaplain, wrote a lively diary, which is available online at Googlebooks.

Here is his diary entry from 6 May 1676 when he was staying in Aleppo (now part of Syria): ‘This morning early (as is the custom all summer long) at least forty of the English, with his worship the consul, rode out of the city about four miles to the Green Plat, a fine valley by a riverside, to recreate themselves where a princely tent was pitched; and we had several pastimes and sports as duck-hunting, fishing, shooting, handball, cricket, scrofilo, etc; and then a noble dinner brought thither, with great plenty of all sorts of wines, punch, and lemonades; and at 6 we return all home in good order, but soundly tired and weary.’

One hundred years later, in the 1770s, John Baker, another Surrey diarist, is writing about cricket in much more detail. Thanks to David Underdown and the Cricinfo website for a colourful article about Baker and his diaries. Here one paragraph from the artice: ‘Besides these virtually professional matches, Baker also watched a good deal of local cricket in Sussex. His disgust at Hambledon’s poor performance at Sevenoaks was typical of him. He was just as unforgiving of shoddy play in local games. ‘Poor doings on both sides’, he grumbled when Horsham played Warnham in 1776. But Horsham had a strong team: in 1773 he watched them return from a victory over East Grinstead, ‘in procession a cheval’. There was a good crowd too for Horsham versus Reigate, including one of the local noblemen, Lord Irwin, who ‘got out of his coach and stood with the crowd’. No doubt Reigate’s ‘Shock’ White was a big draw. A couple of years earlier he had gone in against Hambledon with a bat wider than the wicket, thus leading to a rapid change in the Laws.’

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