- Pastime Lost: The Humble, Original, and Now Completely Forgotten Game of English Baseball by David Block
Ken Burns's award-winning 1994 documentary traces baseball's roots to the two British games of cricket and rounders. Historian David Block argues that baseball's family tree should be reconsidered. Rather, Block contends, English baseball was the immediate ancestor to both rounders and American baseball (253). In ways, his recent book offers a sequel to his 2005 work Baseball before We Knew It. In short, English baseball was widely played for nearly two centuries, and somehow the memory of the game has vanished (xix).
English baseball's disappearing act might be traced to the scant historical record, as only ten references to the game exist from the eighteenth century (79). Despite the lack of sources, Block relays a compelling history of the evolution and diffusion of the earliest form of baseball. With its origins in the early 1700s, English baseball existed as a social game enjoyed by both adults and children, men and women (3). While played by a wide demographic, the game's geography remained limited to rural areas in southeastern England. No records or box scores remain from English baseball, yet its history contains several famous names—Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as Frederick, Prince of Wales (the father of George III) all make appearances in Pastime Lost. In Chapter 16, Block regales the reader with how English baseball was played. Most notably, the bat was optional—participants usually swatted at a soft ball with an open hand. While "baseball remained ingrained in the rural social life of mid-nineteenth-century England" (122), it escaped standardization so typical of other sports during that period. Instead, contemporaries viewed English baseball as a simple amusement, and, as a result, the sport never saw any formal club organization or codified rules (253).
Block's research for the book centers on mentions of baseball in a wide variety of sources, from the literary and artistic to newspapers and dictionaries. The inclusion of baseball in such sources demonstrates the game's presence in English culture a full century before the famous Abner Doubleday myth. In the course of the work, Block sifts through various related games—stool-ball, trap-ball, tut-ball, pize-ball, cricket, and rounders—and discusses where English baseball fits into this litany of leisurely pursuits. Elsewhere, he explores the different spellings and stylizations of the more familiar game: baseball as one word, base ball as two words, the hyphenated base-ball, bass-ball (pronounced like the string instrument), and other variations baste-ball and ba'seball. To add to the confusion, rounders went through a name change in the late nineteenth century "motivated by pretentiousness born of male ego and sexism" (219). In short, working-class men did not want their fast and physical sport (baseball) confused with the one played by girls in the schoolyard. While a thorough discussion of "when is baseball baseball?" runs throughout the book, clear and decisive answers remain somewhat elusive.
The reader might be surprised to see how much the author has injected himself into Pastime Lost, as historical narrative is interwoven with research anecdotes. In bringing the reader along his archival journeys, Block exhaustively analyzes each primary source and [End Page 163] openly discusses possible interpretations. While the choice to write in the first person may annoy some, graduate students and early-career scholars would do well to focus on Block's research techniques and analysis strategies. Beyond entertaining the baseball fan with the game's early history, this book offers a valuable contribution to leisure culture of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England.