J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

“Went to Miss Jeale’s to Play at Base Ball with Her”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s first literary citation for the word “baseball” comes from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, published in 1796:

Mrs. Morland was a very good woman, and wished to see her children everything they ought to be; but her time was so much occupied in lying-in, and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves; and it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country, to books.
That passage suggests that eighteenth-century girls gravitated toward cricket and baseball on their own—it wasn’t seen as a game just for boys.

This spring C.N.N. ran a story confirming the picture of early baseball as a sport for females as well as males:
One notable discovery found in a shed in a village in Surrey, southern England, in 2008 was a handwritten 18th-century diary belonging to a local lawyer, William Bray.

“Went to Stoke church this morn.,” wrote Bray on Easter Monday in 1755. “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 and H. Parsons. Drank tea and stayed til 8.”

Julian Pooley, a historian at the Surrey History Centre who verified the diary, said Bray’s precise printing of the words “base ball” suggested the sport may have been new to him.

“He writes in a particular type of handwriting but when he comes across a new word he often wrote it in a clear way as if he wanted to remember it,” Pooley told CNN.
The picture above, painted by Joseph Wright of Derby in 1789, offers yet more evidence: it shows two Wood brothers and one Wood sister preparing for a game of cricket. This lively portrait hangs in the Derby Museum and Gallery, and comes courtesy of ArtFund, “an independent charity committed to saving art for everyone to enjoy” in the U.K.

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