Protoball:About

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Origins

Project Protoball was conceived about ten years ago when it became clear that interesting new finds were still being added to our store of knowledge about the origins of baseball… and about earliest forms of ballplaying.

A few years earlier, John Thorn and Tom Heitz assembled a helpful chronology of early baseball, one that listed about 70 key documented events from 2000 BC to the Civil War. In 2000, Tom Altherr published a prize-winning paper in Nine that included scores of new citations to “baseball-like” games from 1621 to 1830. Our project began as an attempt to build, and to maintain, a comprehensive tabulation of such evidence, adding bibliographic sources for each.

Primary Aims: Our central objective was to provide a wide range of primary and secondary information on the evolution of ballplaying to today’s researchers, so that they can identify interesting patterns readily -- and do so without chasing after elusive texts stored in libraries and personal collections around the globe.

We also note that this website provides a way to remove unsupported claims and outdated speculation from the body of origins literature. Some early histories included plain errors, and some included generalizations that were not to be supported by evidence that came to light in later years.

Project Protoball's document collection is housed in the Lexington MA home of Larry McCray, at 125 Vine Street, Lexington 02420.

The Project has close ties to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Many of the individuals whose names appear on this site are SABR members, and SABR’s Nineteenth Century Baseball [19CBB] listserve is a primary venue for our discussions of the early evolution of ballplaying. From 2007 to 2012, Larry served as Chair of the SABR Committee on the Origins of Base Ball.

Protoball’s expenses are met, in part, by funds received from the late Vernon [Buzz] McCray, who loved Mets baseball and, for a below-average future BR/TL college centerfielder, was a patient and proficient fungo-hitter. And a lot more.

Many experts assisted in the creation and operation of Project Protoball, but the broadest and longest support has always come from John Thorn. Priscilla Astifan, David Block, Tom Ruane, and Skip McAfee also provided generous advice in the launch of the project.

Protoball survived its awkward early years only because of the decision of Dave Smith and the Retrosheet Project to host early versions of the Protoball Chronology. Retrosheet's Tom Ruane did a lot of handholding in those seven years.

This new website was built by the always patient, always-imaginative Dave Anderson.

Protoball's Advisory Committee

In October 2013, Protoball announced an advisory committee to help look after the site, to consider changes needed to improve the site, and to give management advice on future Protoball initiatives. Members include Bruce Allardice, whose extensive recent research has added information on well over 1000 early clubs and games to the site, Jan Finkel, a highly respected editor and analyst who has contributed to many major SABR activities, including the recent Base Ball Founders(2013) and Base Ball Pioneers(2013), and John Thorn who is Official Historian of Major League Baseball and who provided very early advice on whether and how to build the Protoball site.

Complaints or Suggestions?

If you have ideas for improving the Protoball site, contact Larry McCray and/or members of the Advisory Committee

The Chronologies

Our central online document is the main ProtoballChronology, a listing of primary sources on known events in ballplaying. Owing to recent finds in (most importantly)David Block’s stunning 2005 book, Baseball Before We Knew It, in John Thorn’s recent research, and in a fresh scouring of the research notes of Harold Seymour and the 1905 Mills Commission files, the collection exceeded 1000 entries a couple of years ago. More recently, about 30 “sub-chronologies" have been added on topical areas – ballplaying on campus, in the military, by African Americans, town ball references, etc.

The primary focus of the chronology, like the Protoball effort itself, is on what some have called “bat-and-ball” games, but which are called “safe-haven” games at this site. (The desire is to understand the evolution of ballgames that involve bases − spots where baserunners are magically immune from harm − and not to spotlight the many other games that employ striking clubs, such as golf, hurling, lawn tennis and other racquet sports, croquet, field hockey, lacrosse, nor such ancient non-base games as soule, trap ball, bandy, kingball, ballstock, and northern spel.) The site’s current time range is from Antiquity to 1862, with information now being collected for the years 1863-1871 for later inclusion. The idea is that 1871 represents the beginning of the Pro Era, and the end of the Protoball era.

The Project collects information on the early history of that other famous safe haven game, cricket, but does not stand as a primary source of data on that sport.

Source Materials

The Project’s files include a (often sparsely filled) folder for each entry in the chronology, and about fifteen shelf-feet of baseball histories, each of which has at least nominal coverage of ballplaying prior to the advent of the Pro Era.

Need a Hand?

We are happy to consult with site visitors about these assembled sources to help answer questions, to supply current Word versions of our documents upon request, send images requested file materials at cost, and to look up material held in the Buzz McCray Collection on Early Ballplaying.

Conditions of Use

Users are encouraged to freely use information on this web site. When that information is found to be useful in drafting published work, we ask that they acknowledge the Protoball Project in their writing, and supply the site's URL -- http://protoball.org -- when possible, in their citations.

A Few Other Special Contributions

John Thorn offered enabling encouragements, access to his rich personal files, and many key strategic design ideas; Dave Smith, impresario of the amazing Retrosheet data base, offered substantial practical assistance; Tom Ruane provided hours of painstaking assistance, in organizing Retrosheet web space for the Project; Paul Wendt, former chair of SABR’s Nineteenth Century Research Committee, made innumerable helpful bibliographic and other practical suggestions; SABR's 19CBB listserve has been a continuous wellspring of new data and perspectives on the evolution of ballplaying; David Block has been extremely generous in providing both information and advice based on his prodigious new finds on early ballgames; Phil McCray provided often patient advice and always savvy assistance in use of the Seymour Collection at Cornell University and baseball coverage in Syracuse newspapers; Tim Wiles provided broad early encouragement and help in searching the files of the Giamatti Research Center at the Baseball Hall of Fame; the late Craig Waff conceived created the Protoball Games Tabulation of known games up to 1860; cartographer Gregory Christiano has started an ambitious Protoball effort to document the early spread of base ball in Greater New York City; and Jeff Kittel's interest in the larger class of baseball-like games is an inspiration.

Contact Us

To contact the Protoball Project by email, write to lmccray@mit.edu.

The mailing address:

The Protoball Project
125 Vine Street
Lexington, MA 02420
USA
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