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Meet baseball’s ancestor: England’s stoolball

MARESFIELD, England — The hour’s train ride from London, south through the English countryside, soon reveals a repetitive view of life in East Sussex. The rail journey becomes a blur of sheep in an open field . . . sheep in an open field . . . cricket game . . . sheep, sheep . . . cricket game . . . more sheep . . . an enduring tableau of livestock grazing in sun-dappled pastures, interspersed with men in formal cricket attire, smacking bat to ball, dashing frantically between wickets.

A far lesser-known bat-and-ball game, stoolball, is another centuries-old English sport played almost exclusively here across the villages that spread south toward the English Channel. Primarily played nowadays by women and school children, stoolball helped give birth to the English game of baseball in the early 1700s, which in turn, one noted US researcher/author believes, morphed into the sport that became America’s pastime.

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That’s right, our baseball, comprised today by multimillionaire players and dazzling state-of-the-art stadia (apologies, dear Fenway), can trace its ancestral roots out here among the sheep and high grass of the British countryside. English folklore, though possibly mythical, even holds that stoolball was created by Medieval milkmaidens, who whiled away idle hours by flipping over their wooden stools and using their arms to bat away balls or stones or pieces of fruit pitched at their upturned wickets.

“Stoolball was the ball sport in Britain for several centuries,’’ said David Block, a retired computer analyst from San Francisco, who last year was dubbed “baseball’s archaeologist’’ by ESPN. “The earliest references to it that I have been able to confirm have been the 15th century, but very likely there are earlier ones, be it to stoolball, or a similarly played game. Mostly [references] are in plays and poems. If you can imagine, there weren’t a lot of books written about games and sports in those eras.’’

According to Block, English baseball, with references dating to the early 1700s, evolved from a number of sports, but primarily stoolball. And though it was long accepted in the United States that the British game of rounders was the forefather of American baseball, Block is now “99 percent’’ convinced that English baseball was carried across the Atlantic by immigrants, possibly to some of the original Colonies, and then shaped over time into the game America embraced passionately beginning around the turn of the 20th century.

The players in white are playing for England Ladies, and the blues are the Stoolball England President's XI.

Rick Mason/Stoolball England

The players in white are playing for England Ladies, and the blues are the Stoolball England President's XI.

So if you are scoring at home, the 6-4-3 in hardball evolution is that stoolball passed its DNA directly to English baseball and that game — which Block says was played in Great Britain for some 200 years until approximately World War I — was the sport that ultimately became the apple pie of the USA sports menu.

“It’s pretty clear that this English game of baseball would be the immediate ancestor of the American game of baseball,’’ said Block, who nine years ago wrote his book, “Baseball Before We Knew It,’’ a detailed exploration of the game’s roots. “It would be too much of a coincidence for two games, both called baseball, both with fairly similar characteristics, to have emerged completely independent of each other. So even though I can’t prove it, it is pretty clear that this game of baseball that was played in these English counties, came across — just like other aspects of the English culture — and then took root in the New England and New York area and began an independent course of development in the United States. Now a lot of that is supposition, but there is no other logical explanation.

“It would be nice to have a letter from some English immigrant in Boston, writing back to a friend in England, saying, ‘Hey, I was having a great time . . . I brought this game of baseball here with me and my friends really liked playing it!’ It would be great to have that kind of evidence. We just don’t have it.”

Popularity push

According to Stoolball England, the sport’s governing body, there is no official figure on how many people in the country participate in the game today, although the approximate number of devoted players is but a few hundred, most of them women who play for village teams in East and West Sussex. Despite its centuries-long heritage and influence on a litany of outdoor games, stoolball only became officially recognized by Sport England, the national overseer of sports, in 2008.

“Yes, we’re now a sport,’’ said Anita Broad, Stoolball England’s education and research officer, musing over the game’s Medieval heritage during a tournament held last month here on the village’s recreation grounds. “Funny, isn’t it?’’

The sport has endured, explained Broad, yet it has been dwarfed in interest throughout the country by the far more popular likes of football (soccer) and cricket. Thus the sign on the tidy wood-sided pavilion (think: snack shack) here during a stoolball tournament that read, “No football boots to be worn in the clubhouse.’’

Annaliese West (Fordcombe, Kent), here playing for the Stoolball England President's XI.

Rick Mason/Stoolball England

Annaliese West of Fordcombe, Kent, plays for the Stoolball England President's XI.

The likes of Broad and Rick Mason, Stoolball England’s devoted web developer and media director, work diligently to stoke interest, their goal to expose it more to the general British public and make it more readily picked up by school children throughout the land.

The game was highly popular in Sussex, especially with Victorian-era women of the mid- and late 1800s, but interest lagged toward the start of the 20th century. It rebounded in the years following World War I when a high-profile devotee, Major W.W. Grantham, his son injured in the war, succeeded in encouraging hospitals to implement it as a means of physical therapy for wounded soldiers.

“Then World War II came,’’ noted Broad, “and all sports came a halt.’’

Interest didn’t revive again until the start of the 1970s when John and Kay Price, amateur sports enthusiasts from Horsham, West Sussex, became its lead advocates. With John as Stoolball England’s chairman, and wife Kay its secretary, the sport today is again on solid ground and showing signs of traction, noted Mason, especially among Sussex women.

Games typically are played throughout East and West Sussex villages on weekday evenings in spring and summer, with tournament play on Sunday (partly in deference to cricket-playing men who tie up the field on Saturdays). The recent tournament here brought seven women’s teams together from the villages of Stone Cross, Ashdown, Buxted Park, Newick, Chiddingly, Fletching, and host Maresfield. Upward of 100 women participated, most of them in their 30s and 40s, with 11-year-old Carys Summers the youngest of the bunch.

“This is better than rugby,’’ said a smiling Summers, who lives not far from the Maresfield grounds. “I like playing it more because I feel more involved.’’

Pitches are delivered underhand.

Rick Mason/Stoolball England

Pitches are delivered underhand.

It’s common for teams to be stocked with mothers and daughters. Sometimes even three generations of the same family will play on the same team, akin to the softball culture (absent the beer) that still exists in some parts of the United States. Mixed stoolball teams, comprised of men and women, are not as common, but they’ve become a growth sector, according to Broad.

“My mom played before I was born,’’ explained Jacqui Davidson, who played here in the tournament with Rebecca, her 10-year-old daughter, watching from the sidelines and eager to join her one day on the field. “My mom’s not playing now, but she played into her 60s, and she’ll still come now and then to watch. It makes for a nice evening.’’

Davidson noted that she plays most these days on mixed teams, usually twice a week, the games staged on a cricket field adjacent her local pub. She likes the camaraderie among the group, which she described as a “tight, local core.” With son Jake also taking up the game, Davidson envisions the day when she might be on the field with both of her children, leaving Harvey, their black lab, to fend for himself on the sidelines with the many other dogs, of varying breeds and sizes, in attendance.

“If I don’t get too old too quickly,’’ said the middle-aged Davidson, assessing the chances of playing stoolball on the same team with her kids, “I’d say that’s definitely a distinct possibility.’’

Young Rebecca is counting the days until she plays, to the point of reminding her mother at tournament’s end here that she’ll be making her debut next summer. Remember, Rebecca told her mother, they agreed on it.

“Uh, not exactly how Mom remembers it,’’ said Davidson, rolling her eyes ever so slightly, before recalling she played in her first tournament at age 9. “But . . . kids . . . we don’t like to put them off. We want to keep them going.’’

Technically speaking

Stoolball most resembles American baseball in the ball itself, its stitching identical, although its diameter is roughly three-quarters that of a baseball. The covering is traditionally kid leather rather baseball’s typical horsehide.

The bat is substantially different, more paddle-shaped, and is typically swung with only one hand. The head, or face, of the bat/paddle is made of willow, and its handle is bamboo, typically layered with bands of cork to give it whip-like flexibility.

Instead of bases or a home plate, there are two wickets, spaced 48 feet apart, forming the alley-like stoolball pitch in the center of a circular-shaped field. Rather than a diamond shape, the overall design of the full playing field is circular, but with all the bowling (ie. pitching) and striking (i.e. batting) of the ball, as well as the running between wickets, taking place in a rectangular-shaped area in the center of the field (envision that alley-like area as if placed from 12 to 6 on a clock’s face). The overall size of the circular field is 270 feet in diameter.

There is no mound, but instead two bowling creases, each one backed 10 yards off the respective wickets that define the 48-foot long, 3-foot wide rectangular bowling area.

The striker, with paddle-like bat in hand, stands directly in front of one of the two wickets, the face of each wicket a foot square. Each wicket is mounted on a pole, the top line of the wicket (its face a square foot in dimension) hoisted 56 inches above the ground. Think of each wicket as home plate, only raised more than 4 feet above the ground, the working interpretation being that it mimics a milkmaiden’s stool secured legs-first into a hedge of greenery.

“That’s the folklore, anyway,’’ said Broad, noting that the game’s origins, in both play and equipment, are wide open to interpretation. “It’s not unreasonable to think of it as a milking stool stuck in the hedge, is it?’’

Surely not to any number of American baseball fans who’ve never quite mastered the nuances of the infield fly rule.

The bowler, or pitcher, must release the ball underhanded, at a distance not less than 6 yards from the wicket. The bowled ball must always remain in the air on its way to the striker. Most strikers in the tournament here held their bats in one hand, the face all but fixed in front of the wicket, the chief aim of the striker being not to allow the bowled ball ever to hit the wicket. If so, the striker’s turn is finished.

Standard (non-tournament) play includes 11 players per team, 10 of whom usually spread out evenly around the circumference of the playing field for the defensive team.

Like American baseball, the fielders hope to catch the batted ball before it hits the ground. Otherwise, balls batted on the ground are in play, with the striker immediately dashing to the opposite wicket, where he or she must tap the “scored’’ wicket with the bat before deciding to stay there or attempt a dash back to the original wicket before the defensive team hits it with the fielded ball.

All the while, a non-striking batsman of the offensive team is racing back and forth between the wickets, essentially trading places with his/her teammate who has batted the ball in play.

A struck ball that flies beyond the field’s perimeter is scored six runs. If the striker were to hit a ball that one of the game’s two umpires deemed would not have struck the wicket out of the bowler’s hand (a non-ball), then the strike value is increased to 7 runs. Pity that baseball does not similarly award “bad-ball’’ hitters.

It’s a chore for an American to drop in on a game and grasp all the rules and scoring nuances in one afternoon, never mind interpret a rube Yank’s explanation of it in print. In the championship game here, Stone Cross won, 76-66, over Fletching. Everyone seemed happy, if not downright giddy, at day’s end.

The stoolball cognoscenti figure it’s the sport that spawned not only English and American baseball, but also the games of cricket and rounders. Yet no one knows for sure.

A US reporter here for the tournament could not help but note how the women on defense routinely, and meticulously, fielded ground balls by dropping to a knee before picking the ball up barehanded (no gloves allowed). It’s the very same method Little Leaguers learn their first day on the diamond: drop to a knee, front the ball.

In its original form, according to Block, stoolball was associated with springtime courtship rituals. His research, he said, turned up many earthy, sometimes bawdy references to the game. Shakespeare wrote of stoolball, said Block, as a metaphor for sex.

“If you believe the poets,” said Block, “stoolball games started out as games and kind of ended up with people pairing up and rolling around in the grass together.’’

All that, of course, is believed to be well before the Official Stoolball Guide and Record Book was shipped off to the Gutenberg press.

Official rules of stoolball

Consult Stoolball England’s website for the official rules, field dimensions, and equipment used in stoolball.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.
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