Captivating read about the early history of baseball

Isak Lidström
Institutionen för idrottsvetenskap, Malmö universitet

David Block
Pastime Lost: The Humble, Original, and Now Completely Forgotten Game of English Baseball
298 pages, hardcover, ill.
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2019
ISBN 978-1-4962-0851-4

In 2005, David Block published his book Baseball Before We Knew It. It was a groundbreaking and much needed work that cleansed the house of the myth that baseball was invented in the United States in the 1830s. With source critical precision and extensive empirical evidence, Block instead traced the game’s roots to 18th-century England. In his new book Pastime Lost: The Humble Original, and Now Completely Forgotten Game of English Baseball, Block revises some of his old conclusions and after long and laborious searching presents new historical findings that increase the state of knowledge about baseball’s early history.

It should be pointed out that the author has made an outstanding contribution. Few professional sports historians can probably take pride in having carried out a more extensive and meticulous data collection. Projects of this kind are made possible by passion, ardor and enthusiasm more than by research grants. Block’s pursuit of small baseball-related text fragments appears to be a life project, and the enthusiasm is contagious. It is in many ways a captivating read that the author offers.

David Block, an American with a thirst for knowledge, has dedicated decades of hard work to deprive his country of the origin of its national sport. He collects confirmations of the presence of baseball in England and presents them carefully, one by one, so that there is no doubt as to where the game’s cradle stood. Already during the first half of the 18th century baseball was played in England, even by the very Prince of Wales! However, it was but a simple party game that only required a good playing mood of the participants.

It is a delicate task to depict the origin and development of an individual sport. Fragmentary data must be systematized and organized so that a credible theory can be substantiated and presented. Order should be derived from chaos. Block had more than succeeded with this achievement when his first book came out. There were offensive discussions therein, with previous generation baseball scholars, and thus his contribution appeared in a clear way. This book is written slightly differently. The prose does not align with the usual academic genre, although his sources are presented continuously in endnotes.

However, the controversy is played down. It is almost a personally written story in which all the joys and hardships of the research process, which are not usually presented in dissertations and scientific articles, are clearly stated. This makes the text readable, while at the same time the contribution of knowledge is somewhat more diffuse when the exchange with previous research is sometimes missing.

I think it would be very fruitful if also other researchers, who master languages other than English, could take an interest in the history of bat-and-ball games in general and of baseball in particular.

My reservations against some of Block’s reasoning may be considered as petty given the context, but they still deserve to be mentioned. Previously, Block har argued that baseball and the related game rounders “were essentially the same pastime (p. 250). Now he claims that they instead are two distinctly separate games that existed side by side. As argument he alleges that both games could be mentioned side by side in newspapers and books. The argument is certainly well-founded, but Block does not stop there but chooses to present several baseball categories of his own designs. “English baseball is something other than rounders which in turn is something other than “British baseball. That may be the case, of course, but the question is whether the empirical evidence always supports such a division.

Maybe Block is trying to create a little too much order out of chaos. The folk sports, contrary to modern sports, were not subject to standardized regulations. In addition, one and the same game were given many different names. To try to identify sharp boundary lines between a small number of distinct variants of baseball and rounders much later may be difficult since very few of the empirical evidence indicate of how the games were actually played. It is a bit confusing when Block claims that Johann Christoph Friedrich GutsMuth’s thorough and detailed description of “Ball mit Freystäten (oder das englische Base-ball)” from the end of the 18th century was in fact rounders! Such a claim complicates things unnecessarily. The distinction between premodern baseball and rounders that he sees is not as clear for the reader.

One impression I get from reading Block’s book is that no ball games outside the UK seem to have had any greater influence over the emergence of baseball. This sport seems to be an Anglo-Saxon creation through and through. I think it would be very fruitful if also other researchers, who master languages other than English, could take an interest in the history of bat-and-ball games in general and of baseball in particular. Then baseball’s kinship with other bat-and-ball game variants could appear ever clearer. That the English developed their kind of ball games without the influence of continental European counterparts – such as långboll (the Nordic countries), palant (Poland), schlagball (Germany), lapta (Russia) – I consider unlikely. All ball games played today are to some extent cross-fertilization and the results of cultural meetings that have taken place in the past.

However, my points of criticism should not obscure the inestimable value of David Block’s empirical effort. Pastime Lost is written by an in every way outstanding baseball scholar, and I find it hard to see that someone should be able to exceed the contribution that David Block had added to its history.

Copyright © Isak Lidström 2020

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