If you’ve ever been to the United Kingdom, you’ve almost certainly seen buildings and parks and stuff with blue plaques on them. They’re historical markers which say things like “Lord Nigel-Hogg-Snootbury lived here, 1858-1869” or “Musician Ian Dexys, singer for the band The High Numbers, overdosed in this flat in 1970.” Stuff like that. They’re put up by a body called English Heritage, which manages all the old buildings and monuments and stuff in the country. You may be familiar with some of its portfolio.
I’ve made a lot of friends in the world of British baseball recently, which I suppose is what landed me on the press release for the latest blue plaque being unveiled. The subject: the first ever baseball game. And no, it’s not in Cooperstown, New York or the Elysian Fields in Hoboken. It’s in, of all places, Surrey:
Baseball, surely, is American? No, sorry, it’s English!
The first documented game was played in 1749 in Ashley Park, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey on the estate belonging to the wife of Charles Sackville, Earl of Middlesex, who also played in the match. Another of the players was his friend, Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of George II . . . To celebrate this historical occasion exactly 270 years on, Walton Cricket Club in Ashley Park will be honoured with a Blue Plaque. The Blue Plaque unveiling will be a part of an all-day event on July 7,2019 hoping to attract 2,000 – 3,000 visitors. This will be the first time that baseball has been played on this pitch for 270 years! The wording on the plaque will read: “The Prince of Wales played in the world’s first recorded game of baseball on 12th September 1749 here in Ashley Park.”
This may ring a bell to longtime readers, as I wrote about this about six years ago when an author and researcher named David Block discovered a reference to the 1749 game in the Whitehall Evening Post. It read thusly:
“On Tuesday last, his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and Lord Middlesex, played at Bass-Ball, at Walton in Surry; notwithstanding the weather was extreme bad, they continued playing several hours.”
Block has uncovered many other references to baseball in 18th and 19th century England. In some ways the game described in the sources he has found was similar to the baseball we know: pitching, hitting, running bases, and batters being put out somehow. In others it was much different. The bases were much closer together, the pitcher stood much closer, the batter didn’t, in fact, have a bat, but swatted at the ball with his palm, and the ball itself was soft enough for this to be accomplished without pain. Whether one wants to call that game “baseball” is probably a subjective decision.
It’d have to be, wouldn’t it? That’s because, as we have written in this space many times, baseball was never really invented as much as it evolved from a number of British sports such as rounders, bat and trap, and stool ball. Cricket, too, obviously, arose along with baseball and these other sports in some fashion and all of them share certain elements. They’re cousins, a couple of which left home and became big and famous and a couple of which stayed in school seemingly forever or never left home and just hangs out at the pub all the time. Like, literally rounders is generally thought of as a school kids’ game and bat and trap is played in pub leagues, mostly in Kent.
Deciding which game, when, was the first “baseball” game is kind of up to you, I suppose. Though I’d argue that what they’re commemorating in Surrey in July is just as valid if not more so than the complete fabrication that resulted in Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown getting credit for it for so many years.