This article was written by Andy McCue
This article was published in the Spring 2015 Baseball Research Journal
David Block revolutionized the study of early baseball and the assumptions behind it. For decades, dating back to Henry Chadwick and the Mills Commission, baseball’s roots were thought to be either in the English children’s game of rounders or in the creativity of Abner Doubleday and his Cooperstown playmates. The Doubleday myth was shattered as researchers focused on its improbabilities, and on the Knickerbocker rules of 1845. Researchers found references to base ball or similar games decades before the Knickerbockers.
Block’s path to undermining these assumptions was circuitous. Born in Chicago in 1944 and with a career in Information Technology, Block had been a collector of baseball ephemera and memorabilia. At first it was cards and other standard material, but then he began to branch into things that were more difficult to find.
There were nineteenth-century prints from Harpers Magazine and then photographs. Block said he was interested in depictions of college, high school, and sandlot baseball rather than the professionals. From there, he transitioned to early books and, with retirement, set out to do an annotated bibliography of them. Of necessity, he felt, the introduction to this book would have to discuss the origins of the game. But when he went to do his research, he was surprised to find how little was available, and how vague the available was. It was mostly rounders, and when he went to research rounders, he couldn’t find anything.
He was traveling to some of the most heralded libraries in the U.S. — Berkeley, Stanford, San Francisco Public, UCLA, the American Antiquarian Society, the Library of Congress and New York Public. He worked with SABR members in the Bobby Thomson Chapter in England. He was looking in old dictionaries, booksellers catalogs and all kinds of books about sports.
His key discovery came in a 1796 German review of children’s games — Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden (“Games for the Exercise and Recreation of Body and Spirit for the Youth and His Educator and All Friends of Innocent Joys of Youth”). It included a short description of “Englische base-ball,” with one player throwing a pitch to another, who had three chances to hit it. If he did hit it, he then ran counterclockwise around the bases attempting to score a run. Further research confirmed to Block that Chadwick’s insistence on rounders as the foundation game was misplaced. Rounders was the name of base-ball when played in Devon, the western English county where Chadwick lived before emigrating to America.
The bibliography had been overtaken by the introduction. When Block’s Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game was published in 2005, it overturned the thinking about rounders and about who baseball’s father was. It was clear baseball had no father. It had evolved.
Block’s research in the wake of the book has been greatly aided by the spread of digitized databases of old newspapers and other materials. It has also been aided by the publicity his work has received, notably in England. He has made seven trips to the U.K. since the book, working at libraries in London, Oxford, and other cities, and making extensive use of the search capabilities of the British Newspaper Archive, a digitized collection of local and regional newspaper from around the island.
He calculates he has turned up about 250 references to base ball dating back to the middle of the eighteenth century, and including such notables as the Prince of Wales (1755). His next step is to turn all of these fragmentary mentions into some kind of narrative or annotated tool for future researchers.
To learn more about the Henry Chadwick Award, click here.