Monday, 25 June 2012

Jane Austen on Baseball, and related matters

Here is a quiz question guaranteed to annoy Americans: "Which Jane Austen heroine played baseball?".

This is not a trick question: the answer being - Catherine Morland, the very naive heroine of "Northanger Abbey", written around 1798. Just three pages into chapter one, we are told:-

"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 around the country, at the age of fourteen, to books ..."

In other words, Catherine was what in later times would be called a tomboy. Such behaviour wasn't necessarily always discouraged in the 18th century, as this print of "Miss Wicket and Miss Trigger" shows:-

The caption reads "Miss Trigger you see is an excellent shot. And forty-five notches Miss Wicket's just got". Miss Trigger is treading underfoot a paper labelled "Effeminacy": this was a conventional way for a cartoonist of the time to indicate rejection of something.

To return to the original question: there is,of course, no evidence that Catherine's "base ball" (spelt as two words by Jane Austen) necessarily resembled the modern game, but the likelihood is that it was the ancestor of "rounders", and thus of baseball. It might be worth investigating. The development of cricket has been clearly traced from at least fifty years before Jane Austen wrote. (The picture shows Miss Wicket with an early form of cricket bat and stumps, though she hardly seems dressed for the game!)  Playing games with a hard ball goes back to Roman times, as shown in surviving mosaics, and is surely much older than that. A game involving one person throwing a ball and another trying to hit it with a stick hardly takes much devising, and a great many village communities would have had their own traditional rules for such a game. But when communications improved and people from widely separated areas wanted to play games together (such as young men at the universities, for instance) they would have to draw up agreed codes of rules before they could start.

The late Stephen Jay Gould; zoologist, popular science writer and baseball fan; wrote an excellent essay on this theme: "The Creation Myths of Cooperstown". In it he attacks as a myth the tradition that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown in New York State in 1839. Gould argues that outdoor games of this kind are hardly ever created from nothing: what usually happens is that the widely varying rules of ancient village games are modified into a single code, and the new code comes to win general acceptance. This, he thinks is what most probably happened in the case of baseball. Gould intended this essay to be an analogy for Darwinian evolution in biology, as against any "creationist" theory. The history of games also tends to support his own pet evolutionary theory: not continuous steady change but "punctured equilibrium"; long periods of stability interspersed with sudden major changes. In the development of games, every so often the authorities decide to alter the rules, which quickly leads to alterations of tactics and modes of playing.

A very similar argument for evolution rather than creation can be advanced in the case of Rugby football. According to tradition the game was invented when William Webb Ellis (1806-72) caught the ball and ran with it at Rugby school in 1823. There is a plaque at the school to commemorate this event, but the whole story is inherently improbable. The most obvious evidence against it is the children's novel "Tom Brown's School Days", published in 1857 by Thomas Hughes (1822-96; also a Liberal M. P.). Hughes's book is based upon his own time at Rugby school in the 1830s, a decade after Ellis's alleged feat - but he maintained he had never heard of William Webb Ellis! There is a famous description of a match in chapter 5 of Hughes's book, but a number of points stand out. Firstly, any number can play: the "50 or 60" boys of School House take on everyone else. Secondly, there is no involvement by the teaching staff, though some of the masters may be watching, and no sign of a referee. Thirdly, although Hughes only gives a vague account of the rules of the game, it is hardly recognisable as rugby as we know it today: it seems to be mostly a game of kick-and-chase, with the aim being to get into a position to drop-kick the ball over the crossbar. Hughes himself once said, "Running with the ball .... was not actually forbidden, but a jury of Rugby boys of that day would almost certainly have found a verdict of justifiable homicide if a boy had been killed in running it".
In any case, even if we imagine there was some truth in the notion that rugby was invented in 1823, this would fail to explain the existence of other forms of the handling game, such as American football and Australian Rules. It seems obvious that, once again, there was once a great number of local village games played with a large inflated ball, of which some allowed handling and some did not. Ashbourne in Derbyshire still plays a traditional annual game in which there appear to be no rules at all! It was only in the 19th century that codes of rules were drawn up, and different versions of football became clearly established.

Modification or evolution of games is always more probable than invention

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