Sat. [August] 22  played at ball self & son John vs. Messrs. Aitken & Anderson beat them four Games.
-The Journal of John Sevier
There is a whole lot going on with this source and a lot of information that I need to unpack for you. So let's get to it.
The first thing we need to do is talk about the source itself. The above quote comes from the journal of John Sevier. Sevier is an interesting guy and a rather significant figure in the early history of the Trans-Appalachian West (which, from this point forward, I will abbreviate as TAW, being the lazy sod that I am). He fought in the Revolutionary War, served in Congress, and was the first governor of Tennessee. Wikipedia describes him as a soldier, frontiersman, politician, and one of the founding fathers of Tennessee, which I think is a better description of him than the one I just gave you. Most interestingly, he was the governor of the state of Franklin. So that's kind of neat.
The journal, itself, I found online at a website run by a gentleman named Bill Thayer. The website has some pretty cool stuff on it and it's worth taking a look at but, of course, we're specifically interested in Sevier's journal. Thayer has included introductory material, commentary, and notes along with the text of the journal, which I greatly appreciate. He did a fantastic job presenting the source online. With regards to the journal, he wrote the following:
The text of Sevier's diary that I transcribe here is the one edited by John H. DeWitt and printed in the Tennessee Historical Magazine [THM], Vol. V, No. 3 (Oct. 1919), pp156‑194 and No. 4 (Jan. 1920), pp232‑266; Vol. VI, No. 1 (Apr. 1920), pp18‑68. Their publication date puts all three issues in the public domain…My own transcription is rigorously complete; but it is obvious that this is not the whole text of Sevier's journal: rather, as stated by DeWitt in his introduction, the text of a copy made from the original by the Hon. W. A. Henderson and presented to the Tennessee Historical Society, publishers of the THM.
So we know what the source is, where it came from, and where I found it. Great. What does it mean?
What we have here is the first, specific source documenting ball-playing in the TAW. I'm going to talk about the TAW and why I think that geographical construct is important when looking at the early history of ball-playing in the United States in a bit but let's stay focused on the specific information we find in the source and its significance first. Sevier tells us that he and his son were engaged in a ball game against two gentlemen on August 22, 1795. Sevier lived near Knoxville, TN, on an estate called Marble Springs, and he was at home during most of this period, so one assumes that the game took place there.
What kind of ball game was this? Like with the Gratiot source, we don't know. Thayer, who appears to have some understanding of early bat and ball games, speculates that it was possibly a game of cat and while that's a fair guess, it really doesn't tell us anything. "Cat," to me, is like "town ball." It's kind of a catch-all term used to describe ball games involving only a few people, whereas town ball is used to describe a ball game with a lot of people. Yes, there were specific games called cat or round cat or old cat or things like that but those games were specific to a time and place. Was there a specific game called cat played in eastern Tennessee in the late 18th century? I don't know and I don't think anyone else does either.
There are a couple of pieces of information that shed some light on this. Not a lot of light but some. For that we are going to turn to the Protoball Chronology. First, let's look at entry 1750s.2:
One biographer has estimated: "Of formalized games, choices for males [in NC] appear to have been 'town-ball, bull-pen,' 'cat,' and 'prisoner's base,' whatever exhibitions of dexterity they may have involved" Chalmers G. Davidson, Piedmont Partisan: The Life and Times of Brigadier-General William Lee Davidson (Davidson College, Davidson NC, 1951), page 20. Per Thomas L. Altherr, "Chucking the Old Apple: Recent Discoveries of Pre-1840 North American Ball Games," Base Ball, Volume 2, number 1 (Spring 2008), page 32.
Aha, you say. They played cat in North Carolina in the 1750s and a lot of people from North Carolina settled in eastern Tennessee. They brought their ball-playing culture with them into the TAW and, therefore, there very well may have been a game called cat played in Tennessee in 1795. QED and all that. Well...what can I say. I'm not a big fan of this source and I don't think it's telling us much. The biggest problem with this source is that we don't know what Davidson's source is. What this really is is Altherr quoting Davidson who's quoting a "biographer" who's using (one hopes) the original source material. I'm sorry but I want to see the original source material on this because this sounds really familiar to me. I've seen a hundred quotes like this and they all come from some old person talking about their childhood fifty or sixty years in the past. They all talk about town ball and cat and bullpen and games of that sort. These kind of quotes are a dime a dozen and the only thing they really tell us is that there was a ball-playing culture in the location where the person being quoted happened to have lived. That's great and that's useful information but it doesn't really tell us anything specific about the types of ball games being played. Saying we played town ball tells me almost nothing. Saying we played cat tells me almost nothing. I need specifics. I need to know how many players to a side. Did the game even have sides or was it a rotational game? Were there bases? Bats? Balls? How did you score?
Having said all of that, I have no problem accepting the idea that there was a ball-playing culture in North Carolina in the mid 18th century. I have no problem with the idea that that culture was transported to Tennessee. Not only do I not have a problem with it, I very much support that idea. But hold that thought and lets look at entry 1795.2 from the Protoball Chronology:
"Wrestling, jumping, running foot races, and playing at ball, are the common diversions." W. Winterbotham, An Historical Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical View of the American United States, Volume 3 (London, 1795), page 235. Per Thomas L. Altherr, "Chucking the Old Apple: Recent Discoveries of Pre-1840 North American Ball Games," Base Ball, Volume 2, number 1 (Spring 2008), page 30-31. Tom notes [ibid] that Winterbotham was writing about Federal territory south of the Ohio River.
Now this source I like. We're getting information specifically from 1795 stating that ball-playing was common in Kentucky and Tennessee. The Sevier reference fleshes this out and gives specifics to the general idea. One interesting thing to note is the common language that Winterbotham and Sevier use. They both speak of playing at ball. It's possible that the game Sevier was playing was simply called "Ball."
But why is any of this important? Why am I talking about some obscure, unknown ball game played near Knoxville in 1795? I'm supposed to be writing about St. Louis baseball in the 19th century, right? Well, in a way, I am. What really interests me is how baseball came to be played in St. Louis. Yes, I'm talking specifically about the New York or Regulation game of baseball. But there were forms of baseball being played in St. Louis prior to the introduction of that game. There was a St. Louis-specific baseball variant that existed prior to the introduction of the New York game in the city. We have several references to this game - which was referred to as both town ball and base ball - and we'll talk about that in due time. But the point is that to understand how these ball games came to be played in St. Louis, we need to see how they spread to other locations in the United States at earlier points in time.
The spread of the New York game is an area of study that many people are engaged in. You can go to Protoball and find all kinds of information about that. There are plenty of books out there that cover the subject to various degrees. We have a decent handle on how the game was introduced into St. Louis in 1859 and 1860, although we are missing a piece or two of rather important information that would really put a cap on it and end any lingering questions on the subject. I can tell you when the New York game was first played in Peoria or Louisville or Kansas City. That's all fairly well documented.
What's not been particularly well documented is the spread of earlier forms of ball play. The general idea is that ball-playing arrives in the New World with the first Europeans. There was a ball-playing culture in Europe that was exported or transported to Jamestown and Plymouth Colony and then spread west with the Anglo-Americans (and, of course, I'm leaving out the French colonies for the sake of simplicity). The folks in Virginia and North Carolina had a ball-playing culture in the 18th century that was transported to Kentucky and Tennessee in the later part of that century when those areas were settled. It was transported to Illinois and Missouri in the early parts of the 19th century when those areas were settled by folks from Kentucky and Tennessee (and as the northern and central parts of Illinois were settled by folks from western Pennsylvania and Ohio).
And this is why a study of the spread of ball-playing in the TAW is important. The settlement of the TAW is really the first push of western migration in American history (not counting that first push from the Atlantic coast to the Appalachians). It's where we really see the pattern establish itself. Europe to the New World is one data point and could be coincidence. From the Atlantic seaboard into the TAW is a second data point and establishes the pattern. Wherever these Anglo-Americans settle, they bring a ball-playing culture with them and, within a generation, we begin to find sources documenting the playing of ball games. We see it here in the Sevier source and, in the next few days, I'll show you the pattern extended into Illinois and Missouri.
The other reason I like the construct of the TAW and studying that (besides the regional biases that I have) is that it's easier to research than early ball-playing in the East. You have nothing prior to the coming of the Europeans in the middle part of the 18th century. It's a blank slate with a clear starting date, which makes it very easy to research. And I don't mean to denigrate the ball-playing culture of the Native population of the TAW, which is a fascinating subject and worthy of study. But Native American ball-playing, much like the ball-playing culture of the Creole population of St. Louis, didn't have an impact on the development of American baseball. American baseball develops out of the Anglo-American ball-playing culture so, if we're interested in the early history of baseball, that's what we need to be looking at. And the settlement of the TAW is just much easier to research than that of the Atlantic seaboard because we have more sources and they are easier to get your hands on. It's just much easier to look into the history of early ball-playing in Illinois than, say, Virginia.
I've gone on long enough about this and have (probably) made the points I wanted to but I want to mention one more thing. I think it's really interesting that the Gratiot source and the Sevier source are both describing ball-playing events from around the same time. Our two earliest sources that describe ball-playing in the TAW (and I extend the definition of the TAW to St. Louis on the technical reason that I want to) both come from the 1790s, about a generation after the areas in which they took place were settled. I'm not sure what that means and it may just be coincidence but it's interesting. I should also point out that while I describe the Sevier source as the earliest, specific reference we have to ball-playing in the TAW, there's the possibility that the Gratiot source may be describing ball-playing that took place earlier. It's possible to date the ball-playing that is described in the Gratiot source as having taken place in the 1780s but I think the more conservative estimate would place it sometime in the 1790s. The Gratiot source may be a reference to the first ball-playing activity that we know of in the TAW but it may not be. Due to the nature of the source, we simply don't know. We know that John Sevier was playing ball in August of 1795.
The Sevier source is really amazing and truly significant. It tells us a great deal about early ball-playing in America and about how a ball-playing culture spread across the country. It documents an important step in the history of the development and evolution of American baseball.
Note: I just reread this and want to make one more point without doing any real editing. We get two details about the game that Sevier was playing. There were two men per side (and all the people playing the game were grown men; Sevier's son was 27 in 1795) and the score was kept by "Game." I'm assuming that that there was some kind of scoring within each game. It may have been something like first team to 21 wins the game and you have to win four of seven games to win the match. That's total speculation and, off the top of my head, I don't know of any early American ball game like that but I can see some kind of bat and ball, safe haven, Cat-like game where you could score it like that. I could easily invent a game like that. And that's the whole deal with the early game. It was malleable. That's why you had all of these local variants. You could change the rules to fit any circumstances. Two players, three players, four players, 18 players, 150 players. It didn't matter. We can play with two bases or three or four or ten. We can have three outs and you switch sides or everybody on the team has to make an out before you switch. Doesn't matter. It's all American baseball and that's why we don't have to get hung up on what kind of game Sevier or Gratiot was playing. The important point is that they were playing. But I do think it's important to note the details about the game we are given. Collect enough of that kind of information and you may be on to something.