BrooklynFans Of Books: English Baseball A “Pastime Lost”

Pastime Lost: The Humble, Original, and Now Completely Forgotten Game of English Baseball

By David Block

University of Nebraska Press; 328 pages; hardcover & eBook, $29.95 

Next month, the Yankees and Boston Red Sox will play two games in London, the first time Major League Baseball will play regular season games in the country.

England is arguably the birthplace of the sport, as its citizens of all ages, genders, and classes of society were playing a game called baseball long before the sport became America’s national pastime.

English baseball had the same basic elements as modern American baseball, such as pitching and striking the ball, running bases, and fielding, but was played with a soft ball on a smaller playing field and, instead of a bat, the ball was typically struck by the palm of the hand.

In the new book Pastime Lost ,David Block unearths baseball’s buried history and brings it back to life. He illustrates how English baseball was embraced by all sectors of English society, while exploring some of the personalities, such as Jane Austen and King George III, who played the game in their childhoods.

While rigorously documenting his sources, Block also brings a light touch to his story, inviting us to follow him on some of the adventures that led to his most important discoveries.

There is no doubt, however, that this simpler English version of baseball was the original form of the pastime and was the immediate forerunner of its better-known American offspring. Strictly a social game, English baseball was played for nearly two hundred years before fading away at the beginning of the twentieth century. Despite its longevity and its important role in baseball’s evolution, it has been completely forgotten.

Block writes of looking into Jane Austen’s connection to baseball, “It was raining like crazy when I stepped off the bus from Basingstoke. I looked around and tried to orient myself. It wasn’t much of a village. There weren’t any shops in view, not even a pub where I might nurse a pint and cozy up before a warming fire. The steady downpour made it difficult to maneuver my wheelie bag along the muddy verge, so I looked for somewhere to park it. A kindly woman allowed me to tuck it under her porch in exchange for my promise not to forget I had left it there.

“It was late February 2007, and I was wandering about southern England on my second research trip to the UK since Baseball before We Knew It went to press two years earlier. My book had examined the broad topic of American baseball’s origins, but now I was on a narrower mission. I had become intrigued by the largely unknown original game of English baseball, and determined to learn everything I could about it. And on this rainy day, in between visits to archives and history centers, I had taken a detour to the place where the best-known reference to English baseball had first flowed from quill to paper. The venue was the village of Steventon in the county of Hampshire, and the author was Jane Austen.

“Freed of my luggage, I wandered east out of the village toward a wide green field on the right side of the road. This was the site of the long vanished rectory where Jane was born in 1775. Nothing marked the hallowed ground save for remains of an old water pump that pushed up through the grass. Standing in the downpour and gazing out at the field, I wondered, not for the first time, why I had taken the trouble to be here, traveling well out of my way by train from the town of Reading to Basingstoke and onward to Steventon by bus. No historical mystery demanded my presence, and the village certainly offered nothing in the way of archival records for me to pore over. Deep down I knew it was the pull of the Austen mystique that drew me, flavored by my own particular curiosity about her attachment to baseball.

“In the first chapter of Jane’s novel Northanger Abbey she offered she offered a mild reproof of her heroine, Catherine Morland: ‘It was not very wonderful that Catherine…should prefer cricket, base-ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books.’ Those words are old news and have populated discussions of baseball’s origins since the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, they always captivated me. The novel was not published until December 1817 in the wake of Jane’s death earlier that year, although Austen scholars agree she composed its earliest draft between 1798 and 1799 while still living in the rectory whose aura hovered before me. Some have speculated that Jane herself may have played baseball, reasoning that only an intimate familiarity with the game would have led to its mention in Northanger Abbey. If these musings are accurate, she may well have taken part in long ago contests in the very green meadow I now gazed upon. It wasn’t difficult standing there in the rain to imagine the shouts of the Austen boys and girls as they chased the ball and ran the bases.”

Pastime Lost is one of the best baseball books, as well as world history works, you will ever read, and will give you a greater appreciation of why the Yankees are going over there.

 

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