The Canadian Roots of Modern Baseball

I am an absolute sucker for baseball history. Hours upon hours have been lost to deep dives into the SABR Bio Project or the spiraling wormhole that is Wikipedia. It’s amazing what little nuggets of strange-but-true ephemera you can unearth as you sink into over a hundred years of baseball. If you’ve watched Ken Burns: Baseball, you’ll know that even 10 episodes is not enough time to cover the breadth of what the sport is and what it has achieved.

Because the game’s history is so rich and expansive, there’s a habit, as with all history, to pick and choose the aspects of the historical record that best fit with the present tone. We may have even been convinced it started with Abner Doubleday, as popular myth has long-contended. But as it turns out not even Doubleday himself ever made any such claim, and in digging into the roots of where baseball really began, I found that the answer might fall much further north than previously believed, with a game in Ontario, Canada, that may just be the first game of baseball ever played in North America.

If you look at the origins of baseball, it is generally believed that the first game took place in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. An account from Abner Graves was the source for this claim, but there are a lot of issues when you approach it with any real historical method. For one, Abner Doubleday never visited Cooperstown and definitely did not do so in 1839, when he was attending West Point. Add to this that Abner Graves was only five years old in 1839, and that in his later years he was confined to a ward for the criminally insane after murdering his wife, and you might begin to understand why we perhaps should not take his version of history at face value.

As I researched Canadian baseball’s history for another piece, I came across a mention of a story about a game very similar to baseball, played in Beachville, Ontario. In an 1886 letter, Dr. Adam Enoch Ford recounted attending an event that “closely resembled our present national game” a full year before Doubleday was credited with inventing it. The game in question took place on June 4, 1838, and as you’ll see from the excerpts that follow, it may not be exactly baseball as we know it, but it’s definitely more like it than a game that never actually happened in Cooperstown in 1839.

The letter, sent to Sporting Life magazine, has been transcribed by John Thorn. It is worth noting, as Thorn does, that Ford is not necessarily a reliable narrator, much like Graves after him. He fled Ontario due in large part to a murder inquest in which he was suspected of poisoning a man, and while he was found not guilty, he didn’t stick around his home province once the inquest ended. There’s also the fact that Ford was born in 1832; he wasn’t even six at the time of the game he described, so you can certainly take what follows with a grain of salt. But he does offer a very detailed breakdown of the game, which is unique enough in its description that it lends some credence to it being a real event.

In Ford’s letter, he describes with almost excessive detail the event he witnessed that June day between the Beachville (which he spelled Beechville) team and a club called the Zorras. In an obvious attempt to lend conviction to his recollection, Ford named multiple players present, adding, “Were it not for taking up too much of your valuable space I could give you the names of many others who were there and incidents to confirm the accuracy of the day and the game.”

Here’s how Ford described the game:

“The ball was made of double and twisted woolen yarn, a little smaller than the regulation ball of to day and covered with good, honest calf skin, sewed with waxed ends by Edward McNamee, a shoemaker. The infield was a square, the base lines of which were twenty-one yards long, on which were placed five bags, thus: The distance from the thrower to the catcher was eighteen yards; the catcher standing three yards behind the home bye. From the home bye, or ‘knocker’s’ stone, to the first bye was six yards. The club (we had bats in cricket but we never used bats in playing base ball) was generally made of the best cedar, blocked out with an ax and finished on a shaving horse with a drawing knife. A wagon spoke, or any nice straight stick would do.

“We had fair and unfair balls. A fair ball was one thrown to the knocker at any height between the bend of his knee and the top of his head, near enough to him to be fairly within reach. All others were unfair. The strategic points for the thrower to aim at was to get it near his elbow or between his club and his ear. When a man struck at a ball it was a strike, and if a man struck at a ball three times and missed it he was out if the ball was caught every time either on the fly or on the first bound. If he struck at the ball and it was not so caught by the catcher that strike did not count. If a struck ball went anywhere within lines drawn straight back between home and the fourth bye, and between home and the first bye extended into the field the striker had to run. If it went outside of that he could not, and every man on the byes must stay where he was until the ball was in the thrower’s hands. Instead of calling foul the call was ‘no hit.'”

There’s a lot that stands out in those opening paragraphs, whether it’s knockers with clubs (instead of hitters with bats), or the way in which strikes were assessed; there is no doubt this is some iteration of baseball as we know it today. The diamond itself was smaller, with about 63 feet between each bag, but given that the men were hitting a calf skin ball with only wool inside and using the axe-hewn spoke of a wagon wheel, perhaps a smaller diamond was a necessity.

Ford’s remembrances continued with the game itself:

“There was no rule to compel a man to strike at a ball except the rule of honor, but a man would be dispised [sp] and guyed unmercifully if he would not hit at a fair ball. If the knocker hit a ball anywhere he was out if the ball was caught either before it struck the ground or on the first bound. Every struck ball that went within the lines mentioned above was a fair hit; everyone outside of them no-hit, and what you now call a foul tip was called a tick. A tick and a catch will always fetch was the rule given strikers out on foul tips. The same rule applies to forced runs that we have now. The bases were the lines between the byes and a base runner was out if hit by the ball when he was off of his bye. Three men out and the side out. And both sides out constituted a complete inning. The number of innings to be played was always a matter of agreement, but it was generally from 5 to 9 innings, 7 being most frequently played and when no number was agreed upon seven was supposed to be the number.”

The single best part of this, aside from the inclusion that seven-inning games were the most popular, is Ford’s statement regarding players who refused to swing at pitches. It stands out so splendidly, it’s worth repeating: “A man would be dispised [sp] and guyed unmercifully if he would not hit at a fair ball.” This was a game of strikes only, so the concept of a 3–0 count was not a factor, but it does seem safe to suggest that the Beachville crowd would not respond kindly to any player who didn’t try to hit a pitch he knew he could make contact on.

Toward the end of the letter, Ford details how this game evolved over time to become more like baseball, but still not entirely the same:

“I well remember when some fellows down at or near New York got up the game of base ball that had a ‘pitcher’ and ‘fouls,’ etc., and was played with a ball hard as a stick. India rubber had come into use, and they put so much into the balls to make them lively that when the fellow tossed it to you like a girl playing ‘one o’d cat,’ you could knock it so far that the fielders would be chasing it yet, like dogs hunting sheep, after you had gone clear around and scored — your tally.”

Setting aside the potentially suspect narrator (as most do when it comes to Graves crediting Doubleday), there is something engaging about this portrait of early Canadian baseball that Ford painted. The Beachville story is accepted as canon there to this day, and even the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame recognizes the story as part of history.

What we can take away from this is that baseball has a tenuous and difficult history, one whose roots are based on stories from children (and alleged murders), and perhaps there is far too much emphasis placed on the game as it was, rather than the game as it is. Baseball has a complicated legacy, one rooted in creating its own All-American mythology, which means it’s hard to know how much of the accepted history of the game is based in reality, or just something we have chosen to believe. But there are certainly bits of Ford’s letter that shine a light on baseball still being very much the game it was in 1838. After all, even as a six-year-old, he knew that a batter should always swing when there’s a pitch to hit.

Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at Fangraphs; Hardball Times; BPro Short Relief and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home, and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who's On Worst.

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2 years ago

Fine story, no doubt a useful contribution to our understanding of the early game. But how did it move from this situation in 1838 to the Elysian Fields game just a few years later? That evolution is what intrigues me…