Deconstructing Beachville & first game

* Is Beachville being the site of Canada's first recorded ball game in 1838 a tall tale. Canada's leading baseball historian William Humber goes in depth on the subject. ....

Deconstructing Beachville!
By William Humber


The 4 June 1838 baseball-type game in Beachville, Upper Canada (today’s Ontario) described in stunningly fulsome detail by Dr. Adam Ford in a letter to the Sporting Life of Philadelphia in 1886 continues to befuddle historians. Two noted Canadian academics, (Robert Barney of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, and Nancy Bouchier, today a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton), in their 1988 analysis in the Journal of Sport History are generally sympathetic to the authenticity of Ford’s account despite Ford being six at the time. (He turned seven two months later).

David Block is skeptical suggesting the account may fall into the Abner Graves file of discredited origins and that in the absence of additional authentication one should be leery about its integrity.

Most recently Brian “Chip” Martin’s Baseball’s Creation Myth describes the surprising overlap between Ford and Graves’s lives not only in the Denver Colorado of the late 19th century, but in other personal ways. He speculates, because a smoking gun could not be found, that Graves and Ford being at the very least drinking buddies, shared a love of baseball and possibly as well, tall tales, one of which flowed from Ford’s recollection of a childhood game in Beachville into Graves’s head. We’ll never know. 

Tall tales of course aren’t history except in the widest margins of their telling and it is those wide margins of the Ford account which have the greatest plausibility. Many aspects of his description while truthful, are more likely ascribing styles of play from one era to other moments in time. His account from my perspective effectively describes three time periods. The first is his world of 1886 in which the New York game has long been dominant and for many is the only form of the game ever known to its players and spectators. Ford could not have been completely disinterested in his world of 1886 to not have had it influence some aspects of his storytelling recall. The second is the 1848 to 1855 period when he was in his athletic prime, and engaged in playing the game with distinct characteristics, rules, and organization. And the third obviously is the recollection of the events of 4 June 1838. 

Adam Ford’s story is therefore problematic, though one we would be wise not to discard. We recognize that memories of events from one’s early years can often be more profound than those of a few days ago, but also we can all recall times when we have unwittingly combined events from different periods as if it were one remembrance. Having said this it beggars credulity 46 years after the fact to believe he would have recalled, or even known in 1838, distances between bases, much less the identity of the players.  This seems so obvious it is a wonder so many are prepared to accept the literalness of his story.

On the other hand at least some aspects ring true for the time in question and at least argue for Ford’s ability to confirm its place in the historic calendar with an accuracy attuned to its moment. The 4th of June was a significant date in the Anglo-Canadian calendar marking the traditional spring holiday in celebration of George III’s birthday (yup the mad king!). 75 years before on this very holiday drunken British soldiers had been massacred at Fort Michilmackinac by lacrosse-playing Ojibwe warriors.

The volunteers Ford describes as being in attendance were associated with well-documented regiments sent out to sweep up the last combatants of the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion. One of those was an American-born Beachville wagon-maker Cornelius Cunningham who was captured and hung for his role in the Rebellion.  These were dangerous times in what is today’s Ontario, and such anxiety and fear would percolate downwards to even a near seven year old boy, sharpening his memory of even the most trivial of pursuits. 

Suspicion fell on any who promoted American ideas of governance, free expression, and separation of church and state. These were not times in other words for playing a recreation with an avowed American identity. This argues for the game’s primary importance. This informal bat and ball play did not have a national profile at this time and so if it is valid, and I argue it is, it speaks to the role of Canadians, or at least those in southwestern Ontario, as being amongst its earliest regional adherents, and thus our picture of the game as being a solely American evolution is in need of revision. 

In accepting, without too much historic alarm, the validity of this early baseball-type game on 4 June 1838 I have to ask - why would Ford have made it up? After all he never made any claims for an invention of baseball as later Cooperstown proponents would make for their “first” game - a game which according to Graves “supposedly” occurred one to three years after this one. As well we have a variety of still expanding sources of early baseball-type forms in this era not only in nearby parts of Ontario but from other parts of this immense British realm. Most had no connection to each other. They show how pervasive baseball-type sport was in North America, and include:

_ Newspaper accounts such as an 1841 Nova Scotian news reference to ball and bat,

_ The uncertain meaning of local ordinances such as an 1845 Upper Canada Lord’s Day proclamation against “ball”, 
Ambiguous diary entries such as an 1803 account from York (today’s Toronto), 

_ Games with connections to early styles of ball playing such as one-old-cat and two-old-cat in Whitby, Ontario and London Ontario, 

_ Bat in the Manitoba’s Selkirk Settlement ,

_ Rounders in London, Ontario and Victoria, British Columbia

_ Multiple references to old country sports, games of ball (one of which was in Beachville’s near neighbour Woodstock), as well as unnamed sports and games.

There are more including Robert Sellar’s interviews with the early settlers of the western Quebec region describing a death associated with a baseball-type game gone bad in 1837, one year before Ford’s remembrance, though it too was the product of interviews conducted long after the fact.

These early types of play were either direct English imports or were passed on by Americans settling in, or passing through, regions of Canada. Fred Landon’s Western Ontario and the American Frontier published in 1941, and M.L. (Marcus Lee) Hansen’s The Mingling of the Canadian and American Peoples, published posthumously the year before, both covered in exhaustive academic detail the cross border connections between the United States and Canada in the 19th century. Unfortunately neither mentioned the obvious example of baseball. 
As to their ultimate origin, even those from the American states may have been barely regurgitated interpretations of activities with roots in old English games of which we have only partial, though increasing, knowledge. As these early forms of baseball found fertile soil throughout all parts of Canada they were played with a gusto matching the enthusiasm south of the border. As argued it was a time when the game, unlike cricket in England, had no, or only limited, national identity. Different parts of Canada, as in the United States, were regional participants in the game’s spread, growing popularity, and experimentation with varying rules. 
Eventually all of these places became the ground in which one definitive interpretation (the New York style we know today) would complete the game’s evolution into a popular national and international entertainment. Canada’s geographic size and sparse population in large measure precluded significant baseball interaction between its various parts and so the flow of baseball contact and influence was generally with adjacent American regions. There are some small exceptions to this rule in the case of the Canadian prairies (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba) where ball playing settlers from eastern Canada brought the game along with their meager possessions, though even here contact with American regions to the south was probably the prevailing influence.  
One area however, southwestern Ontario, became the place in which a brief but somewhat distinct local interpretation of the game occurred such that it could, in its day, be called the “Canadian game”. What we know about “the game played in Canada” or this “Canadian game”, as described in the New York Clipper,  is largely based on accounts from two games between Ingersoll  and Woodstock in 1860, though additional clues are provided by deconstructing Adam Ford’s memory, as well from an early organization in London, Canada West. 
The lower case rendering of “game” in the Clipper account is telling, suggesting its tentative position in the minds of contemporary reporters as to its baseball identity. Today we can give full merit to the Canadian Game as a distinct though relatively brief entity. It is rendered hereafter with a large “G”.  Accepting the high degree of likelihood therefore of ball playing in Beachville in 1838, what are we to make of Ford’s detailed description? 
Adam Enoch Ford was born on his father’s farm in Zorra Township, Oxford County, Ontario in August 1831. In his boyhood he developed an avid interest in the sports played in and around his locale, including cricket, baseball, curling, and shooting. Ford apparently went off to University in 1848 and eventually graduated as a doctor in 1855 from Victoria College in Cobourg, about 150 miles east of Beachville.

I am convinced that the style of play Ford ascribed to the 1838 Beachville game was more likely based on his experience of playing the Canadian interpretation of baseball between 1848 and 1855. Accordingly the significant part of Ford’s description requiring deconstruction is that account from his days as a young man, in which he writes:

When I got older I played myself, for the game never died out. I well remember when some fellows down at or near New York got up the game of base ball that had a “pitcher” and “fouls,” etc., and was played with a ball hard as a stick. India rubber had come into use, and they put so much into the balls to make them lively that when the fellow tossed it to you like a girl playing “one o’d cat,” you could knock it so far that the fielders would be chasing it yet, like dogs hunting sheep, after you had gone clear around and scored–your tally. Neil McTaggart, Henry Cruttenden, Gordon Cook, Henry Taylor, James Piper, Almon Burch, Wm. Herrington and others told me of it when I came home from the University. We, with a “lot of good fellows more,” went out and played it one day. The next day we felt as if we had been on an overland trip to the moon.

While Ford is somewhat unclear as to when he played this game, one of two possibilities present themselves – it was either during a summer return from university while still a student (between 1848 and 1855), or after his university days had concluded and after which he “went out and played it one day”. It can be assumed despite his somewhat ambiguous account that this was close in time to his university days, not years later. 

By 1857 for instance he was living in nearby St. Marys, had married, and was practicing medicine. The players he names appear however through genealogical examination more likely to have been residents of Beachville not St. Marys, thus his memory of playing the New York game would have pre-dated 1857. 

In describing his playing of the New York style of play however he was relying too much on his 1886 understanding of what that New York game had become, but which in the 1848 to 1855 period was still in its formative stages, and almost certainly unknown beyond the immediate Gotham hinterland, much less within that city itself. There’s no likelihood that it could have been known or played in the 1848 to 1855 period in Canada West (today’s Ontario). All evidence suggests that the ultimately successful New York interpretation was not played in Canada West until the end of the 1850s. 

On the other hand Ford’s drawing and description of the 1838 baseball field matches in many aspects what limited knowledge we have of a Canadian interpretation of early formal baseball (by formal I mean understood rules, some level of structured club organization, and the beginning of play with those outside one’s club). Ford’s baseball “infield” has features conforming to the Canadian game, for whose existence and partial character we are fortunate to have those two New York Clipper accounts of games between Woodstock and Ingersoll in 1860 with teams of 11 aside and four bases (fourth baseman and backstop behind the catcher). 

The diaries of a young Ingersoll school teacher John Wells, (in fragile condition in the Public Archives of Ontario), offer disappointingly limited, but nonetheless, additional corroboration of at least one of these games. On page 296 of his diary from 25 July 1860, he writes: “John and I drove to Woodstock; got my government money; Saw a game of Base Ball between the Ingersoll and Woodstock Clubs; home to tea; I had a letter from Mr. Whittaker.”

There was, as well, a London, Canada West organization of 1856 with 22 members consistent with two internal teams of 11 aside. They played a team from the nearby village of Delaware in a two inning match in which it seems all had to be retired before the other team came to bat. 

From these sources it appears this Canadian Game has the following features:

_ Four bases plus a home plate

_ Each team had 11 players (the additional positions included a backstop and a fourth baseman)

_ The ball was thrown by the pitcher not pitched (which we assume  means it was thrown overhand rather than pitched underhand)
_ Games lasted two innings, and

_ Games followed cricket’s practice in which all had to retired before the other team batted.

What about the practice, common in other places, of throwing the ball at a player off base and connecting (plugging) to “retire” him? Our best source is Ford. Though he attributes it to the 1838 game it’s more likely to have been a remembrance from the game he played in the 1850s.

The bases were the lines between the byes and a base runner was out if hit by the ball when he was off of his bye….The object in having the first bye so near the home was to get the runners on the base lines so as to have the fun of putting them out or enjoying the mistakes of the fielders when some fleet-footed fellow would dodge the ball and come in home.

It is a game whose play, John Thorn says, may have been more fun than the New York style which eventually triumphed. Runners scrambling to avoid being hit by the ball thrown at them and fielders engaged in such pursuit must have made for an occasionally chaotic but humorous scene. Thus we can thank Adam Ford for perhaps unwittingly filling in some of the missing pieces of the Canadian game even while recognizing that aspects of his description are tainted by his later knowledge of baseball.

So features of Ford’s description that likely supplement our understanding of the Canadian game are:

_ Throwing the ball at, and having it connect with, an offensive player  while he was off base resulted in his being “out”, and 

_ The distances between bases he cites likely conformed to those in the Canadian game.

There’s nothing extraordinary or unique about this Canadian game. It resembles aspects of the Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and townball styles of play with, however, some local tweaks, and which if given time, and had the “plugging” game succeeded, might have evolved in the fashion of gridiron football with two distinct American and Canadian versions of baseball. 

In large measure this Canadian Game owed much to, and was an example of, what came to be referred to in varied accounts as the, old fashioned, old style, or old time game. The latter description appeared many years later in reminiscence by J. Henry Brown in the Woodstock Sentinel review of 12 April 1915. In describing the passage of the Canadian game to the New York style he states:

“Later [1861] a man named Wood [Charles L. Wood, an American-born innkeeper] came to the city [Woodstock] and through him the old style game was given up and the regulation American game adopted.”
The field layout provided by Adam Ford for his Sporting Life article in 1886 is remarkably similar to that which George Moreland showed in his early baseball encyclopedia Balldom (1914). It’s less important which came first though Moreland attributes his to 1842. 

In its relatively short life however the Canadian game had a robust organizational character. The first place in which the modern organized structure of baseball appeared in Canada was Hamilton, Canada West in 1854 with the establishment of the Young Canadian base ball organization. They were followed a year later by the Burlington club also in Hamilton. A recording of their foundation does not appear until a listing in the Hamilton Directory of 1862. Our first newspaper account of the Young Canadians (at least to date) is from 1858 with names of their club executive headed by a tobacconist Richard Thorn. Later that summer their game with the Burlingtons is noted. We can accept the 1854 date however with a high degree of confidence given the later commentary of their likely founder William Shuttleworth, born c. 1834 and employed as a clerk in Hamilton.  

But how do we know they played the Canadian Game? Once again Henry Brown’s memory helps. He says Woodstock’s baseball origins date from the arrival of James Shuttleworth, the younger brother by six years of William. Though uncertain of the exact year, a severe Hamilton financial depression in 1857 had caused James, a shoemaker, to seek opportunities in Woodstock. He is still listed as living there when the 1861 census was undertaken. The Young Canadians of Woodstock played the Rough and Ready of Ingersoll at least twice in 1860 using the Canadian game rules. It was a product of James influence, and in turn the game he had learned from his older brother’s play in Hamilton.

Beyond our knowledge of the Canadian game’s resilience until the early 1860s and our confidence the New York game arrived later than Ford says, is the New York Clipper account of 11 June 1859. It describes the first such game on 24 May 1859. We can be fairly confident as to its accuracy given the arrival of the New York game in Buffalo and area around the same time.

Who were these players? For years I remained somewhat skeptical as they appeared neither before nor afterwards in my research. Gradually however the doubts have been overcome. 

Rival pitchers Shrader (sic) and Curtis we now know quite well as their manufacturing advertisements for leaf tobacco and cigars appear in Hamilton directories throughout the 1860s. Shrader was in fact Frederick J. Schrader (also spelled Schraeder), born in Germany in 1832 and living till 1918. He no doubt played for the Toronto team owing to its lack of sufficient players even for the New York mandated nine aside. W. Curtis was William Curtis listed in the Hamilton Directory as a cigar maker. The other Hamilton players still remain largely anonymous. 

The Toronto players however are somewhat better defined.  Caverhill’s Toronto City Directory for 1859-60 lists J.F. Jameson (centre field) as a cigar maker, A. Simons (1st base) as a cigar maker, William Klopp (2nd base) as a cigar maker, A. Williams (left field), another cigar maker. 

The game got no mention in the two leading local papers of the day, the Toronto Globe and Hamilton Spectator, and only a brief mention in the 24 May 1859 Hamilton Times. Then two days later, after a public holiday, the Times reported: “BASE BALL – The Toronto Club carried off the prize yesterday.”

The Hamilton Times’ description of the encounter as one between “brethren” is telling. It’s a curious early workingmen’s description of allied trades and independent artisanal craftspeople in an age before they had become part of an industrial and factory-based labouring class. Many of these trades would eventually decline or disappear. We can be fairly certain, despite knowing only the working identity of six of the 18 players, that the brethren in this case were largely, if exclusively, a guild or artisan comradeship of cigar makers!

Possibly frustrated that their encounter got so little local recognition they fired off its box score and other details to the prominent New York Clipper. If so it’s our good fortune they did. 

Nor were they the only cigar makers/tobacconists in local baseball. As noted above a year before in 1858 the Young Canadian Base Ball Club of Hamilton had been led by Richard W. Thorn, a tobacconist at the corner of Hughson and King streets in Hamilton. Thorn’s team no doubt played the Canadian Game version. We can only speculate as to what caused other cigar makers to adopt the New York game.

At least two of the players in the 24 May 1859 game had small continuing roles in the game’s evolution. The Toronto Globe newspaper of 9 August 1859, listed centre fielder J.F. Jameson, as the President of a new Toronto organization, the Canadian Pioneer Base Ball Club. Thomas Keen (probably Keene) was a clerk, while P.A. O’Neill (Patrick A. O’Neil) was proprietor of the Toronto Mirror newspaper.  

Unfortunately this is the last we hear of the Young Pioneers who no doubt would have played the New York style, at a time when others were only debating the merits of switching to it. A year later likewise Frederick Schrader appeared in the lineup of the Young Canadians of Hamilton who, whatever their misgivings, had come over to the New York style by 1860. Barney and Bouchier, in their Adam Ford account in the Journal of Sport History, remark that they could find no mention after reviewing local papers from several towns of any debate as to the merits of either game, though their survey of Hamilton papers was less thorough. An early Canadian baseball researcher, Eves Raja, over 30 years ago said William Shuttleworth, and Alfred Feast, a local marble cutter, refused to have anything to do the New York game. So far no confirmation for this point of view has been found and it may be speculation on Raja’s part. His description “refuse to have anything to do with” is a curious one as well, since such points of view are generally absent from Canadian news accounts about baseball in this period. 

Buffalo had embraced the New York game shortly before its arrival north of the border and now teams from both sides of the border looked forward avidly to international matches. Such encounters were no doubt the impetus for both the Young Canadians and the Burlingtons of Hamilton switching to the New York game by 1860. Their first international game from mid-August 1860 featuring the Burlingtons and Queen Cities of Buffalo was a close affair, as recorded in the Buffalo Morning Express.

The only caution in describing this as the first ever international baseball game was the previous year’s mixture  of English cricketers, Americans and one Canadian playing what Porter’s 19 November 1859 Spirit of the Times described as an international baseball match in Rochester, New York.

Pre- game commentary in the 29 August 1860 Buffalo Daily Courier was modest in expectations for the next cross border game between the Niagara club and William Shuttleworth’s Young Canadians. Niagara was missing several players. The Hamilton team was the oldest in Canada and thus was experienced. Perhaps most notably they had bat and ball skills refined from playing cricket. The latter point is questionable; I’ve found no evidence to support this contention. The 30 August 1860 Hamilton Spectator underplayed the crushing nature of Hamilton’s loss stating, “The game resulted in the victory of the former [Niagara] by a large majority of runs.” Buffalo’s paper was more fulsome.

How does one explain this slaughter (for what other word describes an 87-13 win by an away team lacking many of its starting nine!)? The only reasonable explanation is that the Hamilton team was until this contest playing the Canadian interpretation of the game with the very likely practice of plugging a player between bases (as suggested in Ford’s account), and thus using a much softer ball. The New York game with its harder ball and faster pace of play (something Ford also documents though likely confusing the time periods when he saw/played such a game) must have been overwhelming, despite the Canadian players long participation in baseball-type activity.  Improvement however was forthcoming as the teams met again near the end of September as reported in the Buffalo Daily Courier on 1 October 1860, by now however Frederick (F.J.) Schrader had disappeared from their lineup.
As noted Woodstock made the switch from the Canadian Game to the New York style in 1861. It appears that when Guelph opted for baseball over cricket in the early 1860s (accounts range between 1861 and 1863), the instigator Alfred Feast had no qualms about the New York game he brought, if he ever did!

Remnants of a fading old style of baseball continued however. The New England Game was featured in an 1862 account from Moncton in the distant British Atlantic provinces. In its Ontario home there were occasional hints that the old game was still the standard. A 13 July 1861 Hamilton Spectator story says a game lasted “one innings”, however the listing of hands lost (27 out in total) shows this was a New York style nine innings game. A 1934 Ontario book, William Perkins Bull’s From Rattlesnake Hunt to Hockey: The history of sports in Canada and the sportsmen of Peel, 1798 to 1934, says a version of the “plugging” game was still popular in the 1880s, though his accounts (he believed the Doubleday myth) and the book’s appearance so many years after the fact, cause one to question its reliability. 

Finally as late as the 13 July 1877 issue of the Canadian Gentleman’s Journal and Sporting Times, the following description of a local ball game notes, “The “best” game of base ball ever played in Canada, was on the Dominion Day, between the Mutuals of West Lorne and the Champions of Rodney, resulting in the defeat of the latter by a score of 115 to 105.” There are several possibilities for its meaning. The word “best” appearing in italics could be the writer’s sarcastic jab, but possibly it also signifies an editorial evaluation of this particular game’s prominence as the best game of the many forms of baseball available. A 115 to 105 result certainly looks like a typical Canadian Game score. 

So Adam Ford despite the inconsistencies and problematic nature of his 1886 description of a 4 June 1838 has done us an invaluable service. He has expanded our appreciation for the dual nation regional development of baseball from a kind of underground, childish, and informal play thing to its prominence today as played in those two countries. He has provided additional details on the nature of what the New York Clipper itself called, the Canadian Game. And he has helped us understand the troubling but eventual triumph of the faster and heavier ball New York game.

Baseball flourished in Canada during the Civil War and allowed its players to make up some of the ground lost with the earlier adoption of the New York game south of the border. Still its best amateurs were no match in 1864 for America’s best team when they met in Rochester. 

The artisanal nature of early Canadian baseball players as reflected in their diversity of occupations was no better represented than in the person of Jim Shuttleworth, whose sudden death in late August 1869 brought out his working comrades and teammates in a last march to an unmarked grave. It’s an ending seemingly without explanation until this small item was discovered in a Bowmanville-based newspaper east of Toronto and dated 2 September 1869. 

“A Shoemaker, doing a small business in Dundas, committed suicide because of dull trade and a bad wife.”

Dundas is a reasonable walk from Hamilton. The item’s timing, its location, the occupation of the victim, and the mystery surrounding  James’s death don’t add up to an absolute conclusion but they are as close as we might ever get. In a troubled and uncertain era which we can only mildly enter with any confidence, James’s life and fate and that of Dr. Adam Ford allow at least a brief glimpse into a world in which baseball passed from a casual almost unrecognized identity into fully-fledged prosperity. It wasn’t our world and in looking back into it we must be tempered by this perspective.