Laura Dean Bennett
Many Americans mark the passing of the year by the seasons of their favorite sporting events – football, hockey, basketball, baseball and soccer.
Sports have been a vital part of life in America, dating back at least to the 17th Century settlers.
The first American colonists didn’t have much time for playing games. Life was more about survival than sport.
But I guess humans have always had an instinct for play, even when they are near starvation and fighting for their lives.
Jamestown was one of the first colonies to record the playing of ball games.
They played an early form of a bat and ball game called pilka palantowa, or “bat ball.”
Baseball historians will argue about the official forerunner of baseball, but I’d say that the Polish immigrants who came to Jamestown as glassblowers, bringing their “bat ball” with them, could well have been the first Europeans to bring a bat and ball game to the American colonies.
In 1609, in the Jamestown Colony of Virginia, a colonist wrote in his journal about one of these ball games:
“Soon after the new year [we] initiated a ball game played with a bat…. We rolled rags to make balls…. Our game even attracted the savages who sat around the field, delighted with this Polish sport.”
There were several different ball games played in colonial America.
Stool ball was played all over the British Isles for generations before it made its way to America.
It was a favorite game in places like Colonial Williamsburg.
After doffing hats and coats, gentlemen players would form a circle around a stool.
In a easiest version of stool ball, the players, on offense, would try to hit the stool with a wooden ball. A defender would try to “bat” the ball away with his hand before it could hit the stool.
Players in the circle might pass the ball to others in the circle or again try to throw it at the stool. Whoever hit the stool would then become its defender and the game would continue.
There was a more sophisticated form of stool ball called “trap ball” which was played with several stools and several defenders.
Again, players took turns trying to hit a stool and a defender would try to bat away the ball.
When the batter connected, the defenders ran around the stools. The pitcher retrieved the ball and tried to hit a runner between stools. If he succeeded, he became a defender.
A defender who was struck then became the pitcher. Some variations of the game allowed defenders to use wooden sticks as bats.
If this isn’t an early form of baseball, I’ll eat my tri-cornered hat.
The first printed reference to what we’d have to call base-ball was published in 1744 in an English children’s book titled, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book:
“The ball once struck off,
Away flies the boy.
To the next destined post,
And then home with joy.”
But not all early American settlers were encouraged to play sports.
Pilgrims in the New England Colonies, disapproved of playing games and sports for religious reasons, and they were usually forbidden.
It was reported that Governor William Bradford was incensed when he saw a group of men in the Plymouth Colony playing what sounds like quoits (horseshoes) and stool ball on Christmas Day 1621.
The report said: “he found them in the streets at play, openly; some pitching the barr & some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements. . . .”
Although some colonists faced censure for participating in sports, many settlers still held onto the sporting ways that they had grown accustomed to in England and elsewhere in the old world.
Dutch colonists brought with them a game of bowling called ninepins, the English had their own form of bowling and Irish immigrants brought their road bowling.
Ninepins was, in most places, the most popular form of bowling.
It was played outdoors on a track or a long “green” of about 20 or 30 feet in length.
The bowlers would attempt to knock down three sets of three carved wooden pins with a ball made of wood or stone.
Virginia was apparently a hotbed of bowling enthusiasts, even as far back as the original settlement of Jamestown.
References to bowling can be found among the early records of John Smith, one of the founders of the Jamestown Colony.
In 1697, Smith wrote that although he daily assigned men to work, they often would, instead, rather spend their time bowling in the streets.
Shocking, I know!
In 1636 a Virginia herdsman was publicly punished for leaving his cows to wander as he played ninepins.
During the 18th Century, southern plantation owners and rich northern merchants built elaborate bowling greens on their private estates.
Ninepins was so addictive that it was often lamented by ladies and the clergy that gentlemen often abandoned good sense and propriety when it came to playing the game.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, bowling greens – often owned by tavern keepers and situated near, if not next door to, their public houses – had sprung up all over the American colonies.
Apparently, as sometimes happens at sporting events these days, what might start out as an easy-going nine-pin tournament, could sometimes degenerate into a drunken brawl, often on account of the accessibility of large quantities of ale.
Another favorite sport among the Dutch colonists was a game called kolven.
Kolven was a sort of combination of our modern games of golf and field or ice hockey played on a flat piece of ground in warm weather or on ice in the winter.
Participants carried a stick which resembled a golf club, and tried to move a ball across a “court” to strike a post.
Citizens in colonial America reveled in the few special days that would bring them to the excitement of town.
Market days, court sessions, public executions and militia musters would often gather hundreds or thousands of people together.
And naturally, when so many people would get together, they would play games and seek entertainment, often to the accompaniment of traveling musicians.
There would be footraces, wrestling matches and boxing with contestants using their bare fists.
There was a particularly rough sport called cudgeling, which was really just two men going after each other with heavy clubs.
Apparently, Americans have always been prone to a certain amount of excess in their sporting entertainment.
Cudgeling was often sponsored by taverns. No doubt it helped to be fortified by liquid refreshment before such a contest.
Using the cudgel to attack and parry, the fighters battered away at each other until only one was left standing.
One can easily imagine how many men must have limped home, or perhaps have been carried home, wrapped in bandages after an enjoyable, if bloody, day of sport.
Like the modern-day pairing of Thanksgiving dinner and football, sports were popular diversions during the holidays in the colonies.
Quoits, trap ball, stool ball, nine pins, quoits and fives were often paired with celebrations at people’s homes during Christmas and St. George’s Day, or even, in some more open-minded communities, on Sunday after church.
For gentlemen in the country, shooting sports, baiting bears and bulls and fox hunting were quite popular, as well.
Plantation owners enjoyed playing cricket, an English cousin of baseball.
William Byrd, a Virginia plantation owner, played often with his James River neighbors.
Some of the Founding Fathers felt that Americans should keep from all “luxurious” things, such as sports – that they should rather focus on education, hard work and civic duty.
John Adams, for one, was a firm believer in the Puritan ethic.
“I was not sent to this world to spend my days in sport, diversion and pleasure,” he wrote. “I was born for business; for both activity and study.”
If Adams decried ball games and sports, others embraced them.
Once the colonial militias were away from home risking their lives for the revolution, soldiers often blew off steam with all of the sports, which at home, might have been perceived by some as childish play.
George Washington not only allowed, but encouraged his men to play games like bowling, cricket, shinny and fives (handball), and a certain early form of football.
General Washington was even known to personally enjoy a game of catch with his staff whenever time permitted.
Ball games were so popular with Continental soldiers that records tell of troops walking miles to find a level playing field.
Diaries mention spirited games resulting in cut lips, dislocated jaws, and brawls.
“The day was so bad and with so much labor going on, that we had no exercise, but finally some ball play – at which some dispute arose among the officers, but was quelled without rising high,” a soldier wrote in September 1776.
Participating in sports allowed for a much needed respite from the deprivations and terrors faced by our ancestors.
Their enjoyment of sport laid the groundwork for our modern passion for and devotion to all sports.
We are a sporting people – always were, always will be.