I had ever been devoted to athletic sports - riding on horse-back, boxing, hunting, fishing, gunning, jumping, scuffling, wrestling, playing base-ball, bandy, foot-ball, and all that - so I had some confidence in my prowess. I was then in my thirteenth year.
-The Life of Cassius Marcellus Clay, p 35
Cassius Marcellus Clay was an abolitionist, Kentucky politician, and the ambassador to Russia during the Civil War. The quote above comes from his memoirs, which were published in 1886.
Now, Clay was specifically talking about his time at the Jesuit College of St. Joseph, which was located in Nelson County, Kentucky, and, if he was thirteen at the time, that would put him there in 1823. Parsing the quote, it doesn't appear to me that he was specifically talking about ball-playing at the college, although ball-playing certainly could have went on there, but, rather, that "playing base-ball" was something that he had engaged in by he time he had gotten to the college. He was born in Madison County, Kentucky, and spent some time at school in Garrard County, Kentucky. So I think it's possible that his ball-playing experiences could have taken place in those places. Obviously, I don't know for certain but I think it's safe to say that Clay had played some form of early American baseball in central Kentucky prior to 1823.
This is not the greatest source. Clay was writing sixty years after the fact and trying to recall details of his early youth. As I mentioned yesterday, I have a lot of sources like this - the recollections of old men, written late in the 19th/early 20th century - that mention ball-playing in the first half of the 19th century. I think there's something to these sources, simply because there are so many of them, but they're problematic. They're vague and, I think, somewhat influenced by the later popularity of baseball. I would rather have a newspaper account or a letter or an entry from a diary rather than sixty year old memories but I take what I can get.
To be honest, I really don't have a lot of good sources from Kentucky. It's possible that I haven't researched early Kentucky ball-playing well enough but I just don't have much in my notes. If the general operating theory on how early American ball games spread across the country holds, I would expect to find something about ball-playing in Kentucky from around 1810, at the latest. But I don't have that. The Clay reference seems to be the closest thing I have. And that's a bit problematic and vague.
Having said that, there is entry 1818.4 in Protoball Chronology:
It is not unreasonable to speculate that as the immigrants came down the Ohio River . . . they brought with them the leisure activities hat had already developed in the cities along the Atlantic coast. There are reports of a form of cricket being played in [Louisville] as early at 1818.
Sources: Bailey, Bob, "Beginnings; From Amateur Teams to Disgrace in the National League," , page 1. Bob (email, 1/27/2013), further quotes Dean Sullivan's master's thesis, Ball-oriented Sport in a Southern City: A Study of the Organizational Evolution of Baseball in Louisville (George Mason University): "Ball-oriented sports had been reported in Kentucky as early as 1818, when travelers stumbled upon a primitive game of cricket."
The problem with this source is that Bailey is quoting Sullivan who is quoting Harold Peterson, who doesn't give a source for his information. So we don't know where the idea that there was some kind of ball-playing going on in Kentucky in 1818 comes from. Do I believe that this was going on in Kentucky in 1818? Yes, I do. But I have nothing to back it up. I have no source to give you that proves it. The Clay reference gets us at least to 1823 and I think there's a strong argument to make that Clay was really referring to a time before that. If that's the case, the Clay reference, along with this extremely sketchy reference to cricket in 1818, at least gives some kind of idea of a ball-playing culture in Kentucky in the early 19th century. It is absolutely what I would expect to find and, while it's not a lot to hang our hats on, it's something. It certainly encourages me to take another and deeper look into early Kentucky ball-playing.
Tomorrow, we'll get into Southern Illinois.