Baseball and Rounders

By Hershberger, Richard | Base Ball, April 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Baseball and Rounders


Hershberger, Richard, Base Ball


The relationship between baseball and rounders has been a recurring topic for a century and a half, with commentary ranging from their being one and the same through their being completely unrelated. The most common modern assessment has been that baseball derived from rounders. However, recent research has done much to situate both rounders and early baseball into broader historical contexts, allowing for a reconsideration of their relationship.

This essay will begin with a sketch of the history of baseball and rounders in Britain and America. This contextualization will shed light on what, precisely, is meant by the words "baseball" and "rounders." A survey of various interpretations of the relationship between the games follows, showing how varying definitions of the two terms has led to differing conclusions. The essay will conclude with a discussion of how the relationship between the terms ought to be regarded in light of current knowledge.

Baseball and Rounders in Britain and America

The term "baseball" seems to have originated in England during the first half of the 18th century. A Little Pretty Pocket Book-first published in 1744 by its author, John Newbery-contains what is widely regarded as the earliest attestation of the word. This book devotes one page to each of 32 children's games as well as to other outdoor activities. A page for "Base-Ball" includes a woodcut showing three players and three bases (in the form of stakes or posts), as well as a short verse:

The Ball once struck off,

Away flies the Boy

To the next destin'd Post,

And then Home with Joy.1

It can be safely assumed that forms of this game were played well before the earliest published use of the term. There are obvious similarities between baseball, cricket, and other less familiar games such as trap ball and stool ball. So presumably baseball evolved from some ancestral game, which was itself a member of a broad family of batand- ball games. Tracing the details of this ancestry is necessarily speculative. It is sufficient for present purposes to note that baseball has never existed in a vacuum. It had ancestors and living relatives from its earliest days.

We might also wonder how similar 18th century baseball was to the modern game. While the verse from A Little Pretty Pocket Book seems to describe a game recognizably like baseball, the image it offers is far from complete. Only a handful of known references to baseball have turned up from the 18th century, but one of these happens to include an extensive description of the game; this description details many features that became characteristic of later baseball. It is an unexpected source: a German book of games, authored by Johann Christoph Friedrich Gutsmuths and first published in 1796. It includes a description of Ball mit Freystäten (order das englische Base-ball): "Ball with free station, or the English baseball."2

Gutsmuths describes English baseball as played by two teams, one serving the ball and the other receiving it. The field has bases marked with stakes covered with kerchiefs, with as many bases as there are players on each team, arranged 10-15 feet apart. The pitcher lobs the ball to the batter at the home base, who attempts to hit it. The batter has three chances, with the ball in play on the third attempt regardless of whether the batter succeeds in hitting it. The batter can be put out in three ways: A member of the serving team might catch the ball in play before it touches the ground; the runner might miss a base, and the ball be delivered to it by a member of the serving team; or the member of the serving team might hit the runner with the ball.

When a member of the batting team was put out, the teams would switch sides. Rather than a stately break between innings, the members of the serving team would run into the home area, while the receiving team would attempt to retrieve the ball and touch any member of the serving team before he reached the home area. …

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