The First Literary Baseball Game

A short extract from James Fenimore Cooper, Home as Found (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1838).

From the Otsego Herald, June 6, 1816:

Be it ordained, by the Trustees of the Village of Cooperstown, That no person shall play at Ball in Second or West street, in this village, under a penalty of one dollar, for each and every offence.

Note: Second Street is today called Main Street; West Street is today called Pioneer Street.

Excerpt from Home as Found, Chapter XI

Note: The conversation is between Edward Effingham, descendant of Oliver Edward Effingham and Elizabeth Temple of The Pioneers, who has returned to Templeton (Cooperstown) with his daughter and cousin after 14 years spent in Europe, and his local agent, a New England man-of-all-trades named Aristabulus Bragg.      

Effingham and his family have refurbished the Mansion House of The Pioneers, and call it “the Wigwam.”

In all probability this incident in Cooper’s novel reflects a real event when James Fenimore Cooper, having bought back and remodelled Otsego Hall in Cooperstown (which, with its grounds, had lain vacant since 1817), moved in about 1835. It thus come before the supposed 1839 date of Abner Doubleday’s “invention.”

— Hugh C. MacDougall

As [the Effingham family] came in front of the hall windows, a party of apprentice-boys were seen coolly making their arrangements to amuse themselves with a game of ball, on the lawn directly in front of the house.

“Surely, Mr. Bragg,” said the owner of the wigwam ... , “you do not countenance this liberty?”

“ ... Do you refer to the young men on the lawn, Mr. Effingham?”

“Certainly to them, sir; and permit me to say, I think they might have chosen a more suitable spot for their sports. They are mistaking liberties for liberty, I fear.”

“Why, sir, I believe they have always played ball in that precise locality.”

“ ... Well may this house be termed a Wigwam if this whooping is to be tolerated before its door. ... I beg, Mr. Bragg, that you will, at once, desire these young men to pursue their sports somewhere else.”

Aristabulus received this commission with a very ill grace, ... for ... he too well knew ... that the order would do violence to all the apprentices’ preconceived notions of their immunities. ... In passing the ball-players, he called out in a wheedling tone to their ringleader, a notorious street brawler

“A fine time for sport, Dickey; don’t you think there would be more room in the broad street than on this crowded lawn, where you lose your ball so often in the shrubbery?”

“This place will do, on a pinch,” bawled Dickey, “though it might be better. If it warn’t for the plagued house, we couldn’t ask for a better ball-ground. ... “

“Well, Dickey ... , there is no accounting for tastes; but in my opinion, the street would be a much better place to play ball in than this lawn. ... There are so many fences hereabouts. ... It’s true the village trustees say there shall be no ball- playing in the street, but I conclude you don’t much mind what they think or threaten.”

“Let them sue for that, if they like,” bawled a particularly amiable blackguard, called Peter, who struck his ball as he spoke, quite into the principal street of the village. “Who’s a trustee, that he should tell gentlemen where they are to play ball.”

The bait took; for what apprentice — American apprentice, in particular — can resist an opportunity of showing how much he considers himself superior to the law? ... The lawn was now evacuated, en masse.

[Thus did baseball makes its literary debut, if not its debut as a game, on the site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Like the street games of youths today, it originally attracted public notice only when it became a nuisance to grownups. But that was soon to change. ... ]