Rounders: Baseball's True Origin?

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by Bruce Allardice, February 2021

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Rounders---Baseball’s True Origin? Editors Note: Each issue we plan to highlight a bat-ball game that preceded baseball.

Several early bat-ball games bore resemblance to our modern baseball. These games (among them, Stool-ball, Pize-ball, Tut ball and Rounders) all featured striking a ball with a bat or one’s hand, then running in a circle around four markers. In 1828, Englishman William Clarke published the second edition of The Boy's Own Book, which included the rules of rounders and also the first printed description in English of a bat and ball base-running game played on a diamond.

Alice Gomme, in her 1894 work on British games,1 writes that Rounders was generally played by boys, with one side (called the ins) batting while the other side (called the outs) fielding. A batsman would try to hit the ball, with three swinging strikes producing an “out.” The batter ran on any hit, however light, or on his third strike. There were no called balls or called strikes. Instead of throwing this ball to a baseman it was thrown at the baserunner himself. If a hit was made by a thrower, the runner was out. The bases were usually posts or stakes, but sometimes stones. These had to be circled or touched by the runner, and if the batter/runner made it safely around the bases he was said to have scored a “rounder.” There were no fair or foul balls. The game was played between teams or sides of equal numbers, usually from seven to ten.

 Modern Rounders field

At first glance, Rounders bears a resemblance to baseball in its early stages, particularly the Massachusetts form of baseball that allowed “soaking” (being called out if hit by a thrown ball). This resemblance led early baseball chroniclers such as English-born Henry Chadwick (the pioneer baseball reporter and Hall of Famer) to suggest that the game of baseball was based on English immigrants who brought Rounders with them to the New World. Chadwick’s thesis met with strong reaction, by Americans who felt the game was distinctly American in origin. Prominent among these was Albert Spalding, another of baseball’s giants, who chaired Major League Baseball’s committee looking for the origins of the game. This committee concluded—on evidence that has been discredited by later historiographers—that baseball was invented in America, in 1839, in Cooperstown New York, with future General Abner Doubleday being instrumental in its founding. While the “Doubleday Myth” has been debunked, the Rounders-to-Baseball thesis can now also be labeled as unproven.

Historian David Block has written the most recent, and most authoritative, take on Rounders and Baseball. In his seminal Baseball Before We Knew it, Block devotes a whole chapter to the controversy, a chapter provocatively titled “Rounders, Schmounders.” Block acknowledges that Chadwick’s thesis “carried great weight” in the era in which it was advanced. However, Chadwick offered no definitive link between the two games, and instead relied “solely upon the apparent similarities between the two games: pitching, batting, fielding, and base running.” Further study by historian Robert Henderson backed up the Rounders-to-Baseball theory. But Block convincingly demonstrates that prior to 1828, the name “rounders” cannot be found in any contemporary account, whereas the term baseball (or variant) occurs often. As Block sees it, “rounders” only came into common usage as an alternate term for baseball, not vice-versa.2

If history can be decided by a consensus of historians, the modern consensus is that what we know today as Baseball evolved in the United States, from a number of bat-ball games,3 albeit with new rules that separated Baseball from those other bat-ball games. __________ 1 Alice Gomme, The Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (2 vols, New York Dover, 1964 reprint of 1894 original). 2 David Block, Baseball before we knew it. A search for the roots of the game (Lincoln, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2005). See also David Block, Pastime Lost: The Humble, Original, and Now Completely Forgotten Game of English Baseball (Lincoln, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2019). Ironically, Block is a winner of SABR’s Chadwick Award. 3 The Protoball website lists over 250 related ball and bat-ball games