An Interview with David Block

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"The book came about almost by accident."

by Protoball Functionary, February 2013

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Protoball: I understand that, before focusing on where modern ballplaying came from, you made your living as a computer analyst. How did you end up writing a book on the origins of base ball?

David Block: The book came about almost by accident. It was an unexpected by-product of my decades-old interest in collecting baseball memorabilia. My collecting tastes eventually tilted towards printed works and ephemera from the 19th-century. After having had the good fortune to take an early retirement, I embarked on a small project related to my hobby. My objective was to compile a bibliography covering the type of early baseball-related books in my collection, as these books that had not been included in any of the existing baseball bibliographies. As I moved forward with this modest undertaking, it occurred to me that I should write an introduction to the bibliography that spelled out a brief history of how baseball began. My cursory investigation into the subject revealed that, even beyond the Doubleday Myth, much of what had been written about baseball's origins was based upon unproven assertions. This piqued my curiosity, and ultimately what began as a bibliographic introduction turned into a full-blown book.

Protoball: The book, Baseball Before We Knew It, won SABR’s Seymour Award for 2006 as the best book on baseball history or biography. Did you feel a bit isolated as you did your research on it? Compared to today, there hadn’t been a lot of famous work on origins for a long while.

David Block: While this field has never attracted many researchers or historians, I was far from alone when I entered it. Tom Altherr, a history professor and SABR member in Colorado, had already made some significant progress uncovering evidence of early baseball in North America. And several members of the SABR chapter in the United Kingdom had begun exploring and writing about early baseball and related games in England. Today the picture is a little different, and I am a bit disappointed by it. In no way am I minimizing the importance of the considerable research currently being pursued by a number of members of SABR's Origins Committee. However, their efforts are heavily focused on the mid-19th-century era of amateur baseball clubs. By contrast, with the notable exception of steadfast Tom Altherr, no other researchers working today that I know of are prioritizing the years before then, before the rise of organized ball, which is the time period that most interests me. So, to answer your question, in some ways I feel a bit more isolated now than I did when I first began tinkering in this area of study.

Protoball: Good point: relatively few recent entries in the Protoball Chronology are for years prior to 1850, and a good fraction of those are Tom’s. Could it be that US diggers think that you and Tom have already found everything of value?

David Block: No, I suspect there are two principal reasons why few baseball researchers study the earlier era. For one, the nature of the game in those earlier years may not hold as much interest to them. There were no standardized rules, no organized teams, and certainly no identified players. I believe most 19th-century aficionados regard the proto-baseball era as a quaint prelim to the meatier developments of the 1840's and onward. Secondly, I think research time spent in the earlier era yields less bang for the buck. It is harder to dig out new evidence of baseball from the early 19th century, or late 18th century, because there is less of it to find, and because there are fewer sources to probe. In regard to early baseball clues in North America, much of what may still remain undiscovered is probably buried in hand-written documents, such as letters, diaries and the like. Searching through those requires great amounts of time, patience and dedication, and Tom Altherr is the only one I know of who has made that type of commitment.

Protoball: What are you working on now?

David Block: Since my book was released eight years ago, my research has narrowed to the game of English baseball. It was a pastime that never made much of a mark in England, but was the very first form of baseball and the immediate ancestor of our American game. For years I've been intrigued by this game, and have been beating the bushes in search of new evidence about it. I've been somewhat successful at this, and my next challenge is deciding how to make the information accessible to others. It is possible that there might be another book in the making here, but it is also possible that I will make my findings known through some other, as yet to be determined, medium. Protoball: You played a prominent part, on screen and off, in Sam Marchiano’s fine documentary Base Ball Discovered, which has been shown on the MLB channel and can be seen at http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?topic_id=7823662 . That film included the new find of diarist William Bray’s one-sentence report of his playing base ball in 1755 just south of London, which came to light when the crew was filming (see Protoball entry 1755.3). Were you in on that find? David Block: Yes, I had the good fortune to play a small role in the serendipitous discovery of the William Bray diary. One day in 2007 when the MLB film crew was obtaining footage of a rounders match in Sussex, a local BBC television sports reporter showed up as well. As part of his coverage he interviewed me on camera, and in my comments I mentioned that Jane Austen wrote about baseball nearly 200 years ago. A woman who lived locally happened to catch my interview on that evening's news broadcast. She had the diary in her possession and recalled that William Bray mentioned baseball in one of his entries written many years before Jane Austen. She contacted the BBC station which in turn contacted the MLB film crew, and that's how the historic discovery came to light.

Protoball: How many research trips to England did you make to gather material for the book?

David Block: In fact, I never visited Britain while doing my research for Baseball before We Knew It. I carried out all my legwork for the book at American libraries. Once the book was completed, however, I undertook a series of follow-up research visits to England. My upcoming trip there planned for this spring will be my seventh. Protoball: So internet searches conducted from your den weren’t a major source at that stage?

David Block: When I was researching my book more than a decade ago there were few full-text digital databases available. However, Worldcat, the centralized electronic library catalog of OCLC, was already well developed and provided me immeasurable help in locating hard-to-find books and other resources.

Protoball: What specific new find surprised and pleased you the most in your BBWKI digs?

David Block: Undoubtedly, my most unexpected and satisfying experience while working on BBWKI was discovering the seven-page description of "das Englische base-ball" in the 1796 German book written by J.C.F. Gutsmuths. Ironically, a decade later my interpretation of that discovery has changed and I now believe it reveals less about English baseball than I originally thought. My further study of the game has persuaded me that Gutsmuths, notwithstanding his use of the term "base-ball," was actually describing a related but different game that was then in its infancy, a spin-off of baseball that would shortly thereafter become known as rounders. The revealing piece of evidence, one that I didn't appreciate a decade ago, was that Gutsmuths described "das Englische base-ball" as having been played with a bat. My subsequent examination of 160 references to English baseball, all from English sources, strongly suggest that it was not played with a bat, at least not in its pure original form. Instead, the striker would hit the ball with her or his bare hand. While the Gutsmuths find remains a significant one, I no longer feel completely comfortable trumpeting it as "the first rules of baseball."

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