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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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Baseball Mystery from the Late 1700s

Back in 2010, Doug Tribou reported for WBUR radio’s high-brow sports show, Only a Game, on a mysterious painting that appeared in an advertisement by the Bonhams auction house in 1975.

It shows two boys, dressed similarly in late eighteenth-century style, holding a ball and bats.

Other portraits of children from the same period show similar sports equipment, such as the 1789 painting of the Wood children I linked to here. If this picture is from about the same time and if it was produced in America, it could be the earliest visual representation of American baseball.

Another intriguing detail is that bigger boy appears to have darker skin than the smaller. But the boys’ dress and body language reflects affection and equality, not subservience—the bigger boy’s right hand rests on the smaller one’s shoulder. Since all we have is a black-and-white reproduction, it’s unclear exactly how the bigger boy’s skin was painted. And since there are no names attached to the portrait, we don’t know who these boys were.

One man researching this painting theorized that it was created by Ralph Earl, active in Connecticut and Britain and finally back in America. However, Earl didn’t paint such monstrously small hands. Edward Savage did, toward the start of his career, but so might other self-taught artists.

The final mystery: evidently no one knows where this painting is now.


Robert S. Paul said...

Couldn't that be rounders?


According to this (and what an odd way to start an article), it's been played as long ago as Tudor times. I know they play it sometimes at OSV during Rebels and Redcoats.

Trip said...

You might be interested in learning that in 2004, a librian found a by-law regarding baseball being playing in Pittsfield MA...the by-law dates to 1791.


J. L. Bell said...

Rounders, tip-cat, stoolball, base—they’re all terms for bat-and-ball games that led up to today’s formalized baseball, cricket, softball, and so on.

We know one of the shooting victims at the Boston Massacre carried a bat for one of those games, and that the Continentals at Valley Forge played another. (More here.) The rules were probably adapted to who was playing and where, the way pick-up games are played today. I therefore think it’s nearly impossible to draw strict lines between the terms until people started writing down rules.

J. Harris said...

Another possibility is that the smaller boy may be a holding Cricket bat and ball. The top of the bat is very much like an 18th C Cricket bat and the small leather appearing ball is appropriate for that period. We know that Cricket was played in 18th C Virginia. My husband hand carved an 18th C Cricket set and taught Cricket at several historic sites in Virginia.

J. L. Bell said...

The boys’ hands are so out of scale that I hesitate to assume any particulars about the size and shape of their bats.

Catsticks seem to have been carved for one-handed swinging, and were thus small clubs. Cricket bats in England were already flat, as the portrait of the Wood children shows. But I don’t think we have visual depictions of baseball for another few decades, and thus no hint of whether there was a standard shape for a baseball bat.