The tricky origins of the game of `base-ball' might well surprise you

Howard At Play

Recreation and local sports in Howard County

April 20, 2005|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

YOU MIGHT think, you parents introducing your early elementary school-age children to baseball this spring, that it is an American tradition you're passing along - a proud game a century or so old, descended, some say, from "rounders" in England.

You're right - in a limited way, though.

Columbia retiree Skip McAfee, 67, would enjoy seeing your expression as he tells you in a friendly, matter-of-fact voice that fathers and sons (and, more unexpectedly, mothers and daughters) have made a game of hitting thrown objects with sticks since, at least, ancient Egypt.

McAfee also would point out that "rounders" - still played in England, by the way - isn't the only old English game that contributed to what we call baseball (and softball). Did you ever hear, he might ask, of "stoolball," in which the object was for a pitcher to knock over a three-legged stool protected by a batter? It began in England in the 12th century. Or, did you ever hear of a group of "old cat" games from Colonial times that had hitting a ball and running to a base, if little else, in common with modern-day baseball?

McAfee, you see, is passionate about the diamond kind of sport. Besides umpiring softball games almost daily during the spring and summer, and serving for years as commissioner of the at-least-as-social-as-competitive Cindy La Rue Co-Rec Softball League and participating in an over-60 men's softball league, McAfee also is a ... mmmmm

"I'm a baseball researcher/historian/lexicographer," he said.

He is not into baseball statistics, per se. McAfee's pursuit is lore and language and terminology and baseball as sociology. He loves research and historical documentation and anecdotal evidence of the impact of baseball on American life.

To illustrate, McAfee has for years collected quotes about the sport from books, newspapers and other resources. He just compiled many of them in footnote-laden paper used in the new spring edition of Nine, A Journal of Baseball History and Culture published by the University of Nebraska Press. Three samples:

"I watch a lot of baseball on radio." That was former President Gerald Ford, 1983.

"Baseball is very big with my people. It figures. It's the only time we can get to shake a bat at a white man without starting a riot." From African-American comedian and social activist Dick Gregory, 1962.

And from 1994, Stephanie Moller, then 12, a French horn player from Baltimore County after performing at an Orioles game: "It was kind of neat to stand on the same field where all the players spit."

That quote collection will be handy, no doubt, as part of a new baseball-related work-in-progress by writer Paul Dickson, a Montgomery County author who has published 45 books.

One of those works, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, was published in 1989. Near the end of its compilation, McAfee became involved through his work as president of the Society for American Baseball Research. Since then, he and Dickson have developed what at times becomes daily collaboration.

A second edition of the dictionary, that one with McAfee's considerable assistance, was published in 1999. And in addition to a new volume about baseball quotes, a third edition of the dictionary with Dickson as author but McAfee as editor is being negotiated now.

Dictionaries being what they are, as documentation of language, are never finished, Dickson said. The current edition contains about 7,000 entries, ranging from "A," the scorecard abbreviation for an assist, to "zurdo," Spanish for "lefty," or a left-handed player. The third edition is expected to contain about 10,000 entries.

McAfee said that as SABR president, he had to try to find anyone who knew of a baseball dictionary - there was none - and was referred to Dickson, who had one in draft form. The two later discovered they were both alumni of Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

McAfee, said Dickson, has contributed countless hours to the dictionary, serving now as not only part-time researcher, but also as a compiler of new information with "unusual sensitivity" to how meanings of a term originate and change over time.

"Skip considers himself a baseball scholar," said Dickson, talking about the Columbian's value to his work. "He knows a phenomenal amount of stuff, and he has an intensity that many don't have. He's almost monastic in his approach."

All of which comes down to loving the history of baseball.

Lots of folks, for instance, still think Abner Doubleday invented the game, in Cooperstown, N.Y. But as a visit to the Hall of Fame in that tiny central New York town will prove, 'twasn't so. In fact, McAfee pointed out, "There's not a single thing written about Doubleday and baseball - well, there was one. About 1870, Doubleday, who was an Army officer, requisitioned some bats and balls for his troops."

Think the name "baseball" appeared post-Civil War - another widely held assumption?

"We know that's not true," said McAfee, noting an ordinance in Pittsfield, Mass., banning various sports from being played in the town limits, including "base-ball." That was in 1791, when the fear of "base-ball" was broken windows during a time when glass was rare, treasured and expensive.

Even more interestingly, McAfee then mentions a German book, published in 1796, that refers to "English base ball" - not rounders or one-cat or stoolball.

So, you see, you T-ball parents? You're passing a grand old game to your kids this spring. But there's lots more to the story.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail about anything to do with amateur sports in Howard County, lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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