English origins of a very American sport

By , 14th June 2010 11:39

(Updated) A century ago, there was a concerted effort to prove that baseball originated in the United States.  In response to an article by Henry Chadwick, a famous baseball writer, that had the audacity to suggest the sport evolved from the English game of rounders,  the Mills Commission was appointed in 1905 to determine the origins of the sport.

The central conclusion of the committee’s final report, published on 30 December 1907, was that “the first scheme for playing baseball, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839”.  This finding was, in part, the reason why the National Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown to this day.

Now, in a diary entry made by a Surrey lawyer, William Bray wrote about playing ‘base ball’ with friends near Guildford on Easter Monday, 31 March 1755

William Bray Diary entry mentioning baseball in 1755

Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Centre www.surreycc.gov.uk/surreyhistorycentre

The handwritten diary, found 2008 in a shed near Guildford by local historian Tricia St John Barry, is now believed to be the earliest known manuscript reference to baseball in the world.

William Bray recorded playing "base ball" in the Guildford area in his diary in 1755

William Bray (1736-1832) lawyer and diarist. Reproduced by permission of Surrey History Centre www.surreycc.gov.uk/surreyhistorycentre

Bray, (1736-1832) was a prolific diarist and local historian: Surrey History Centre holds a large collection of his writings covering the period 1756 – 1832.  Julian Pooley, the manager of Surrey History Centre, and an expert on Bray, has been able to verify that the document is genuine.

According to Pooley, Bray was articled to Mr Martyr, a Guildford solicitor, in 1755. Then aged 19, Bray seems to have had a room at Martyr’s house.  Bray’s own family home was a few miles away in Shere.

The game referenced in the diary is likely to have been somewhere in the neighbourhood of St John the Evangelist, Stoke-next-Guildford: Bray talks about playing baseball after attending an Easter Monday service at Stoke church.

The diary and its landmark entry is to feature in a documentary history of the game called ‘Baseball Discovered‘ which has been made by Major League Baseball

There are earlier fictional references to the game.  A short rhymed description of a game called ‘base-ball’ in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (published 1744) by John Newbery is the earliest known reference in print.  Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, written in 1798 but not published until late 1817, also makes a reference to baseball.

CNN covered the new evidence of baseball being played in Surrey in a (vide0) report on the opening of  “Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect“, an exhibition staged at the MCC Museum at Lords during 2010.

The Surrey History Centre also holds two of the earliest known references to cricket.  In the Guildford Court Book for 1598, 59-year old John Derrick recalled that when he was a scholar at the Royal Grammar School 50 years earlier “hee and diverse of his fellows did runne and play there at Creckett and other Plaies”.

In the Wanborough Manor court roll for 1616, Nicholas Hockley was fined three shillings and four pence for hitting Robert Hewett and drawing blood “with a certain sticke called in English a crickett staffe” of the value one penny.

March 2011
A new book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden – The secret history of the early game” by John Thorn reignited the interest of the US media in the origins of baseball in March 2011. NPR interviewed the author and covered the story.

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