Baseball, or Something Like It

June 14th, 2019

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

After the Civil War (1861-1865), team sports developed into the spectator events we know today. Nothing happens overnight and the evolution of baseball is no exception. (The myth of Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York was created by the Spalding sporting goods company in 1907.)

A square marked A, B, C and D at each corner with a T in the middle and an S in a square midway between the A and D. The lines from A to B, B to C, and C to D are marked as 60 feet.

Diagram for a “Massachusetts” baseball field

Beginning in England in the 1500s, rounders was a ball-and-bat game with four bases. It came to America with colonists, and by the 1800s it was called town ball. The bases (A-D) were laid out in a square with the striker (S), catcher, and thrower (T) in the same formation as today. Rules included: the striker could tell the thrower where to pitch the ball; fielders could hit (“plug”) a runner with the ball for an out (it was a light ball); and games went to 100 runs. This became known as “Massachusetts Rules Base Ball.”

There were various forms of the game but the biggest rival to “Massachusetts Rules” was “Knickerbocker Rules,” played in New York. The major differences were the diamond shape of the bases, and games were played to 21 runs. Whether Massachusetts or New York, no rules were set in stone and teams pretty much did what they liked. Town-versus-town games were difficult when teams didn’t agree on the rules.

excerpt from a book

Diagram for a “Knickerboker” baseball field

In 1857 there was a convention of New York baseball clubs that wrote and adopted the “Laws of Baseball.” The rules are still used today: 90 feet between bases; nine players on each team; and nine innings in a regulation game.

The first mention of baseball in Geneva came about 30 years after the first game.  In the November 1888 Hobart Herald newspaper, William Ashley, class of 1863, shared his earliest memories of baseball at the college. He wrote, “The first matched game of base ball as now played, that took place in Geneva, was on the grounds of the ‘Walnut Hill School’…in 1856 or ’57.” (Walnut Hill was on the site of the modern-day Houghton House of Hobart & William Smith.) Soon after, there were 120 boys playing baseball and some started a team when they entered Hobart. By 1860 there were class baseball teams and a college club that played teams from other towns.

lithograph of a school building in a field

Walnut Hill School

Cricket is sometimes mentioned as a forerunner of baseball. If you’ve watched a cricket match, it’s hard to see the connection beyond a bat and ball. Nonetheless, cricket was popular in New York State from the 1830s until around 1920. It was played briefly in Geneva, beginning in 1873. In that year, the Geneva Courier reported, “A game of ‘cricket,’ nine on each side, was played in the afternoon of July 4th on the grounds of T.C. Maxwell & Bros. [nursery], near the junction of North Main and Jackson Sts. The cricketers were composed mainly of Englishmen, who retain a passionate fondness for their national and exciting game…We learn that a club has been organized, and further matches will come off.”

Through 1873 and 1874, the newspapers reported a number of matches, all played between Geneva and the Syracuse Cricket Club. Syracuse played teams from Palmyra to Utica, but it’s unknown if Geneva faced other clubs than Syracuse. The papers may have assumed their readers’ knowledge of the game, as they reported results in great detail. They supported the club and encourage people to do likewise: “A match game will be played on the grounds of the club on North Main Street…A good deal of sport and fine playing may confidently be looked for.” Although the cricket club only lasted two years, the grounds continued to be used by village baseball teams.


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