What Was Rounders, Anyway?

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Jeffrey Kittel|By Larry McCray
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A Source-Based Description of Rounders Play

by Larry McCray, Jeffrey Kittel, November 2012

Note: this an initial December 2012 draft. Send us information on omissions and errors for a second draft.

This note summarizes what we know about the way that rounders was played in England up to 1860. It draws on 12 independent “how to play” accounts of the game from 1828 to 1860. The attached bibliography includes those 12 and many additional accounts, but several are derivative -– or outright reprints -- of earlier accounts, and thus add little to our understanding.

These early accounts are typically brief and leave many details unclear -- or unaddressed altogether. Most are simply long paragraphs, and fall far short of even the notably incomplete rules written by the Knickerbockers in New York for base ball in 1845 and in Dedham MA for the Massachusetts Game in 1858. It was not until 1884 that an official set of rounders rules appeared. One cannot rule out the idea that early rounders rules and practices varied widely, both by regional or locality and by time, over those three-plus decades

To those whose interest in rounders is mainly in assessing the game’s contribution to early American baseball, this collection is anything but ideal. Philadelphia Town Ball was first played around 1830, and the Knickerbocker rules appeared 15 years later. Our central question, however, is how rounders was played before those times but, as of now, we have only one account before 1830 [“Clarke 1828”], and only two other accounts prior to 1845. That means that most of the 12 accounts may include features that were added to the English game of rounders after American ballplaying was already developing in the US. While aspects of the game that appear in the 1828-1860 accounts may have been present in England before American ballgames took shape, we can not know that for certain based upon current knowledge.

Therefore, we know very little about rounders play prior to 1828. Ironically, there seem to be many more references to English “base ball” than to “rounders” in the period of 1744-1828. At this point, we know of neither formal accounts of rounders rules nor everyday references to rounders play in letters, stories, diaries, etc., prior to “Clarke 1828.” See, for example, the Protoball subchronology of 41 currently-known rounders references in the Chronology Rounders topic page.

Before presenting a general survey of rounders play, it’s important to briefly mention the game of feeders. Writers often list feeders as an alternative safe-haven ball game in the early years. Only a few accounts of rounders mention feeder as a distinct game. In all but one of these cases, feeder is simply described as the non-team form of rounders. It is a game with a single feeder [pitcher] instead of a full “out” team, and when an “in” player was put out, he then became the feeder. Thus, feeder seems to have been seen mainly as the scrub form of rounders, a form that was likely played when too few players were available to make up two teams.

Rounders, based upon the source material, appears to have been a game played by boys. The 12 accounts include no indication that girls or adults played rounders. Four indicate they boys were the players, and several others were found in books written explicitly for boys. We do find several other incidental reports of adult play in the 1850s and 1860, but these 12 instructional accounts do not reflect that.

The game was set up as a competition between teams but there was no set size for these teams. Four accounts said that teams of five or more are needed, and one indicates that having eight-player teams was best. Eight accounts do not address team size at all.

Rounders was a bat and ball game and many of the 12 accounts characterize the bat, most of them calling it a round stick, or a little bat, about two feet in length. In contrast, one account describes the bat as a 3-foot cudgel, or “large and heavy,” or a battledore [check meaning of term]. Little attention was paid to the nature of the ball. One source refers to an “ordinary” ball, and one describes a ball with a core wound with yarn.

It was also a safe-haven games and most accounts call for five bases [including home], most of them specifying a generally regular pentagon shape for their deployment. A few accounts condone four bases, one prescribes six, and one calls from 4 to 8 bases, depending on the number of players.

Baserunning was shown as clockwise in most accounts; the earliest account, from 1828, specified clockwise baserunning.

A majority of the accounts describe the distance between bases, with a central tendency of 15 or 16 yards, a figure specified in 4 accounts. Twelve yards is the smallest distance mentioned, and twenty yards the largest. None countenance non-uniform distances, as is later found in the Massachusetts game rules of 1858, and also in 20th Century rounders.

Several accounts admit to a choice of types of bases; “stones or stakes” is a common formulation. A few accounts mention stakes or pegs [sometimes topped with flags or pieces of paper]; most refer to stones as well as posts, three call for holes, one has wickets, and one simply mentions “markers.”

Several accounts agree that the player who delivered the ball to a batter was known as the “feeder.” Several accounts place the feeder at the center of the infield, but one put the feeder within two yards of the batter, and another allows the batter to position the feeder. About half of the accounts said that the delivery was a soft one, noted as a “toss” or a “gentle” or “slow” delivery.

None of the accounts suggests that the batter had the option, available in cricket, of declining to run on a weakly hit ball, during regular play. One accounts mention that declining to swing at an unappealing delivery was permitted, during the “hit a rounder” phase of play when most batters were removed from play.

Base-stealing and leading may have been an integral part of rounders. No rule banning them is found. Some accounts appear to sanction stealing, and one other permits base advancement only after the ball was delivered. Several accounts specifically mention that the feeder could feint a delivery in hopes of catching an unwary runner off his base. One account specifies that [unlike ballstock in Germany and lapta in Russia] only one runner can occupy a base. None of the accounts gives any rules for running or tagging up on fly outs, or the concept of force-outs.

A clear signature of rounders was what we would [later] call the “plugging” of baserunners; a majority accounts say that a thrown ball hitting a runner between bases put him out. There was no special term given for this type of out – like plugging, “burning,” “stinging,” and “patching” came later, probably in the United States.

Most accounts imply that caught flies put the runner out [one of which says they also put the side out], and only one of the accounts cites the bound rule.

Several accounts specify that any batter who swings and misses is out. Two others said that two strikes out the batter, and another specifies a three-strike rule.

Several accounts mention “grounding” as a way that outs were made. This evidently could be done by throwing the ball into the home area – sometimes the home “base” surrounded by a larger circle, or a hole in the ground – when a runner was between bases.

A few accounts said that a tipped ball – a “foul ball” to us now – put the batter out. Two accounts imply that it was deemed to be in play, with the catcher charged to plug a runner if that happened. One has it both ways.

It is clear from several accounts that an All-Out-Side-Out rule was in effect. No other method is mentioned.

One has the impression that a cricket-style rule was used to allow the batter to continue to cycle through the batting order until his side was put out, while batters who were put out sat by.


Few accounts mention scoring. One specifies that when a runner reaches home a count is added to his team -- No noun like “runs” was employed. Two accounts call for a count for each base attained. And one account refers to the modern rounders rule that a count is added only when a batter completes a full circuit of the bases – what we would call a home run in baseball. One account suggests that winning 3 of 5 games, or 2 of three -- determines the victorious side.

But mostly, we are left to ponder how the winning side of a match was determined, leaving us to ponder whether it lasted a set number of innings, to a pre-set number of counts, or just when the players decided to stop.

There was a [unnamed] “resuscitation ploy” available to the in-team. Sometimes this was referred to as “playing for a rounder (which we might call a home run) when only one or two batter-runners were left to play. Details vary, but the central idea was that when the in-team had nearly depleted its outs, a remaining batter could in effect revive all team members by managing to hit a ball that allowed him to make a full circuit of bases.

We find no significant trends when we compare the 6 earliest accounts of rounders play with the six accounts from the later 1850s. The later accounts were a bit more likely to specify five or more players per team, but there is no palpable shifts for the ways outs were made, the number or nature or separation of the bases, the effects of tipped [“foul,” to us] hits, or the mention of resuscitation plays.

In summary, rounders, with some notable exceptions, is generally described as a team game of five or more youthful male players on a team, in which a ball was tossed by a feeder to a batter armed with a small round bat, perhaps swung with one hand. A batter who hit the ball ran counterclockwise among five bases [stakes or stones or even holes] perhaps arranged in a regular pentagon or square and about 15 yards [minimum of 12 yards, maximum of 20 yards apart. The batter-runner could be put out if hit by a thrown ball between bases or if his hit was caught on the fly. Tipped balls and whiffs were also often outs. An All-Out-Side-Out rule prevailed, but there was often a resuscitation mechanism for nullifying the in-teams outs near the end of a half-inning.


Summary of the description of rounders play found in the source material

Size and make-up of the teams

Several sources mention that the competing teams must be made up of an equal number of players [1][2][3][4]. Teams of five [5][6][7], six[8][6] and eight[4] players per side are mentioned. On source specifically states that a team could not have fewer than five players[7].


Bases and the shape of the field

A game played with four [1][2][9][10][11][4] or five [1][2][9][11][6][4][7] bases is mentioned in the sources and several of the sources [2][9][11][4] state that either four or five could be used. Also, one source states that the number of bases depended on the number of players per side and could vary from four to eight[12].

The bases were marked by stones [1][10][11][3][6][4][7] or posts [1][5][10][11][3][7]. One source mentions pegs marked by flags[8], one mentions stumps[9] and two mention holes[6][7] used as bases.

The bases were set anywhere from twelve to twenty yards apart [1][5][2][9][11][6][4][7]. Several sources mention that they were arranged in pentagonal form [5][6][7] and two state that they were arranged in a circle[10][3].


Batting

Several specific game-play variants relating to batting are mentioned in the sources. One source mentions that which team got to bat first was left to some form of chance[1]. Another mentions that the batter took up a position that was separate from any of the bases[3] and one stated that, after refusing three pitches, a batter had to attempt to strike the fourth pitch offered to him[6]. There appears to have been a rounders variant in which the batter defended a hole in the ground, in which the pitcher tried to toss the ball[8].


Pitching

The position of the pitcher, according to the source material, was a variable in rounders game-play. Two sources mention that the pitcher stood in the center of the infield [5][6], one mentions that he stood about two yards in front of the batter[2] and another that the distance between the pitcher and batter was chosen by the batter[8]. Several sources mention that the pitcher tossed the ball gently to the batter [1][11][3] and that the pitcher could fake a throw to the batter in an attempt to lure runners off of their bases[10][6][7]. One rounders variant had the pitcher join the batting side after recording an out[2] and another, as mentioned, had the pitcher attempting to toss the ball in a hole that was defended by the batter[8].


Outs

There are numerous descriptions in the sources of how outs were recorded. Plugging a runner is mentioned more than any other [1][5][2][12][9][11][3][6][4][7]. Both fly-outs [5][2][9][3][6] and bound-outs[6] were mentioned. An out recorded by crossing the runner with the ball is implied in one source[12]. Outs could also be recorded by a batter swinging and missing[11][3][6][4][7] and several sources state that a batter had to specifically swing and miss a ball twice[8] or three times [1][8] to record an out. Also, it appears that any ball that was tipped backwards was counted in an out [1][11][6][4][7]. One source mentions that an out was made if a batted ball struck a base[9] or if a batter failed to strike a ball within a set number of pitches[6] or, specifically, missed the third pitch[7]. Again, as mentioned, there was a rounders variant in which an out was recorded if a pitcher tossed the ball into a hole defended by the batter[8]. There was also a variant in which a base-runner was put out for failing to touch all the bases in their attempt to run home[7].


How the in-side was retired

One source specifically mentions that the all-out/all-out rule was used[1] while another mentioned that a batter continued to hit until he was retired, implying some variation of cricket rules[5]. A Lazarus rule was mentioned by several sources [2][9][10][11][3][8][6][7] and this may imply a more prevalent usage of the all-out/all-out rule. While the in-side could use variations of the Lazarus rule to extend their inning, it is noted that the out-side had specific plays they could make to end the inning[10][11][7].

Organization of the Out-Side

There is an implication in the sources that specific players were chosen to pitch [1][5] and catch [1][2]. The rest of the players were scattered about the field at random[1].

Base-running

Sources note that the bases were run in a clockwise direction[1] and that only one runner at a time was allowed to occupy a base[1][2]. Runners could advance as soon as a ball was pitched[1][2], when a ball was hit[2] or when a ball was tipped[2]. As previously noted, a pitcher could fake a pitch to the hitter, in an attempt to lure the runner off his base[10][6][7], implying the use of deception by the out-side to counter the advantage the runner gained by their ability to run on any pitched ball.

Scoring

The sources indicate two different ways the in-side could tally a score. The first way a team could score was if they had a runner complete the circuit of bases[8][4]. The second was that a team scored any time one of their players reached or gained a base [12][6]. There was also a rule that stated that only four bases could be taken on a lost ball, limiting the number of scores that resulted from such an incident[6].

Equipment

Several sources note the use of a short bat [5][10][11][3][8][6][7] and several others note that a round bat was used[2][10][11][3][13]. One specific source stated that the bat resembled a common rolling pin[6]. It appears that these short, round bats were often swung with only one hand [5][2][7]. However, one source stated that a large, heavy, flat bat was used[9].

The ball used in rounders has been described as small[9] and hard[10]. One source noted how a ball was made and stated that it had a center of cork[6].

How a game was won

There is little information about how games were specifically decided. One source, however, states that a side had to win a majority of smaller games to win a match[4].

Sources describing rounders play

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 “Clarke 1828” -- The Boy’s Own Book; A Complete Encyclopedia of All the Diversions, Athletic, Scientific, and Recreative, of Boyhood and Youth, 4th Edition(Vizetelly, Branston, and Co., London, 1829) Note: I assume that the first edition appeared in 1828, and I presume that the rounders text was the same there.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 “EveryBoy 1846” – Every Boy’s Book of Games, Sports, and Diversions (Vickers, London, 1846. Note: Source Unseen; BBWKI’s selected text is analyzed here.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 “Uncle John 1854” – Uncle John [pseudo.], The Boy’s Book of Sports and Games (Leavitt, New York, [1854?].
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 “Pycroft 1859” – J. Pycroft, The Cricket Field: or, the History and the Science of Cricket (Mayhew and Baker, Boston, 1859). This book has a fleeting reference to contemporary rounders on page 66.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 “JWilliams 1841” – J. L. Williams, The Every Boy’s Book, a Compendium of All the Sports and Recreations of Youth (Dean and Munday, London, 1841). Note: Source Unseen. Analysis here based on selected text in BBWKI, pp. 284-285.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 6.18 6.19 6.20 6.21 6.22 “Games 1859” – Games and Sports for Young Boys (Warne and Routledge, London, 1859). Note: Source Unseen. Block reports that the material on rounders and other sports was taken from “JWilliams 1849.”
  7. 7.00 7.01 7.02 7.03 7.04 7.05 7.06 7.07 7.08 7.09 7.10 7.11 7.12 7.13 7.14 7.15 7.16 7.17 7.18 “Stonehenge 1859” – “Stonehenge,” Manual of British Rural Sports, Fourth edition (Routledge, Warnes and Routledge, London, 1859), pp 500-501. Note: BBWKI reports the pub. year as 1855 – presumably for the first edition.
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 “Forrest 1858” – George Forrest, The Playground; or, The Boy’s Book of Games (Routledge, London, 1858).
  9. 9.00 9.01 9.02 9.03 9.04 9.05 9.06 9.07 9.08 9.09 9.10 “Mallary 1850” – Charles D. Mallary, The Little Boy’s Own Book; Consisting of Games and Pastimes . . . (Allman, London, 1850). Note: Source Unseen. Block reports that this book has a shortened version of the “Clarke 1828” section on rounders.
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 “Uncle-John 1851” – Uncle John, The Boy’s Book of Sports and Games (Appleton, New York, 1851), pp. 20-21. Appeared also as pub’d by Geo. A. Leavitt, New York in 1854.
  11. 11.00 11.01 11.02 11.03 11.04 11.05 11.06 11.07 11.08 11.09 11.10 11.11 11.12 11.13 “BoysOwn 1852” – The Boy’s Own Book: A Complete Encyclopedia of All the Diversions, Athletic, Scientific, and Recreative, of Boyhood and Youth (D. Bogue, London, 1852).
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 “BoysOwn 1848” – Boy’s Own Book of Sports, Birds, and Animals (Leavitt and Allen, New York, 1848). Is this related to “Uncle John 1854 below?
  13. “Henderson 1947” – Robert W. Henderson, Bat, Ball, and Bishop” The Origin of Ball Games (Rockport Press, New York, 1947).
  14. “Carver 1834” – Robin Carver, The Book of Sports (Lilly, Wait, Colman, and Holden, Boston, 18354. Note: This book’s repeat of BoysOwn 1828 text on rounders is put under the heading “Base, or Goal Ball” [pages 37-39].
  15. “SatMag 1839” – The Saturday Magazine (London), number 430, March 16, 1839. This article describes stool ball, and then observes that it is similar to rounders. It has no separate entry on rounders
  16. “Kingston 1840” – William H. G. Kingston, “Ernest Bracebridge; or, Schoolboy Days,” (Samson Low, Son and Company, London, 1840).
  17. “SWilliams 1844” – Samuel Williams, The Boy’s Treasury of Sports, Pastimes, and Recreations (D. Bogue, London, 1844). Block reports that this is a clone of “JWilliams 1841” above.
  18. “Richardson 1848” – H. D. Richardson, Holiday Sports and Pastimes for Boys (Wm S. Orr, London, 1848).
  19. “SWilliams 1850” – Samuel Williams, The Boy’s Treasury of Sports, Pastimes, and Recreations (Clark, Austin and Co, New York, 1850.)
  20. “Dutch 1853” – Dongens! Wat zal er gespeld worden (Boys! What Shall We Play?) (Leeuwarden and Suringar, 1853). Source Unexamined 9/12. Block reports that this book includes a translation of “BoysOwn 1828’s” rules for rounders.
  21. “Cassell 1860” – Cassell’s Sixpenny Hand-books: Hand-Book of Out-Door Games (Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, London), pp. 24-25. MCC copy annotated as “c. 1860.”
  22. “Ball Games 1860” – Ball Games with Illustrations (Routledge, London), pp. 57-58. MCC copy annotated as “c. 1860.
  23. ”HandyBook 1863” – The Boy’s Handy Book of Sports, Pastimes, Games, and Amusements (Ward and Lock, London), pp 15-16. The MCC’s copy is undated, and annotated “1863?” Other sources specify 1863.
  24. “Dick 1864” – The American Boy’s Book of Sport and Games (Dick and Fitzgerald, New York, 1864), pp 111-112.
  25. “Peverelly 1866” – Charles Peverelly, The Book of American Pastimes (Peverelly, New York 1866), pp 338-339
  26. “Chadwick 1867” – Henry Chadwick, ed., Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player (Beadle, New York, 1867). pp 7-8. [Chadwick uses the same [unknown] British source as Peverelly 1866.]
  27. “Elliott 1868” -- Alfred Ellliott, The Playground and the Parlor (T. Nelson and Sons, London, 1868), pp. 53-54.
  28. “Gomme 1898” – A. B. Gomme, The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland, volume 2 (1898?), pp 145-146.
  29. “Francis 1951” – The Rev. P. H. Francis, A Study of Targets in Games (Mitre Press, London, 1951).
  30. “NRA 1988” – Rounders (Black, London, 1988).
  31. “SportsRules 2002” – Rounders, http://www.sportsrules.50g.com/rounders.htm, accessed December 12, 2002.
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