The first documented game of baseball was played in Ashley Park, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey in 1749, and in a summer when the London Series will give baseball its highest-ever UK profile, BaseballSoftballUK will be supporting a festival on Sunday 7 July in Walton to celebrate the fact that “Baseball’s Coming Home”.
That first documented baseball game was played on the estate belonging to the wife of Charles Sackville, Earl of Middlesex, who played in the match, and another of the players was his friend Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of George II.
The event, forgotten until now, was unearthed in 2013 in an 18th-century newspaper, The Whitehall Evening Post, by historian David Block, who has now written a book about the discovery entitled Pastime Lost: The Humble, Original, and Now Completely Forgotten Game of English Baseball.
Ashley Park is now home to Walton Cricket Club, where a Blue Plaque will be unveiled on 7 July to mark the spot. The wording on the plaque will read: “The Prince of Wales played in the world’s first recorded game of baseball on 12th September 1749 here in Ashley Park.”
Key supporters of the event, which is expected to attract over 2,000 people, are the Walton Cricket Club, the British Plaque Trust, the Walton-on-Thames Trading Alliance (WoTTA) and BaseballSoftballUK.
The day will include a demonstration baseball game featuring members of GB Baseball National Teams, a celebrity softball game, performances by local choirs and cheerleaders, a batting cage and speed gun for spectators to have a go at batting and throwing, children’s games and American-themed food, the Blue Plaque unveiling by Blue Plaque Trust Chair Mike Read and a talk and book signing by David Block. It should be a great day out and everyone is welcome!
Robert Sackville-West, the 7th Baron Sackville, has said: “I am so sorry to miss the unveiling of the Blue Plaque commemorating the world’s first recorded game of baseball. I was aware that the Sackville family were among the earliest patrons of the game of cricket, and that Charles Sackville and his brother John regularly hosted ‘county’ matches at Knole, where I live, and in London, which drew crowds of up to 10,000 people. But I am thrilled to learn that he was also responsible for the first game of baseball, cricket’s equally successful transatlantic cousin, held here at Ashley Park on his wife’s estate.”
BaseballSoftballUK CEO John Boyd added, “To misquote Paul Revere: ‘The Yankees are coming!’ There is so much excitement in the UK at the moment about the first-ever Major League Baseball games taking place at the London Stadium over the weekend of 29-30 June between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. We are delighted to be part of this momentous historical event in Walton-on-Thames, creating a legacy for baseball fans across the world here in the UK”.
“We have been aware for a while that Walton played a huge part in the origins of baseball,” said Joanna Gordon, Managing Director of the Walton-on-Thames Trading Alliance. “When Mike Read and the Blue Plaque Trust approached Walton Cricket Club about creating an event, they came to WoTTA and we jumped at the chance. We really hope that, with sponsorship and local support, we will be able to fund a baseball statue to reside in Ashley Park so baseball fans can come and visit this historic baseball location for years to come.”
Baseball then and now
Baseball in mid-18th-century England would have looked very different than modern American baseball. David Block’s analysis of dozens of references to English baseball from the 18th and 19th centuries suggests that the game would have been played on a smaller scale than the modern pastime, with shorter distances between the bases and with the pitcher standing much closer to the batter.
It was also a game that required less athleticism. The ball was much softer than today’s, and instead of a bat, the palm of the batter’s hand was used to strike the ball. After hitting a ball, a batter could be retired if a fielder was able to catch the ball on the fly or retrieve it and strike a runner with it before the latter reached base. Yet despite these differences, the basic elements of 18th-century English baseball — pitching, batting, baserunning and fielding — were comparable to those found in its later American namesake, and Block believes there is little doubt that the English game was the forerunner of the modern American pastime.
According to Block, the issue of The Whitehall Evening Post in which he found the article about the Prince of Wales can be found in the collections of several libraries in the US and the UK. These may, in fact, be the oldest documents to mention the game of baseball that still actually exist. Two earlier references to the game, including the aforementioned 1748 letter by Lady Hervey, are not known to have survived in their original form. Block found a handwritten copy of Lady Hervey’s letter, probably made later in the 18th century, in an archive in Suffolk, England, and her collected letters, including the one mentioning baseball, were published in 1821.
An even earlier reference to baseball probably appeared in a children’s book, A Little Pretty Pocket-book, that was first published in 1744. However, the earliest-known surviving copy of that book is a 1760 edition in the British Library.
In 2013, Surrey County Council stated, “Baseball is an integral part of American life and this news about a national obsession in the US, where home-grown sports have traditionally dominated, will reverberate far and wide. It is a game steeped in history and now the Surrey County Council's History Centre and the inquisitive historians David Block, Tricia St. John Barry and Julian Pooley have provided the earliest manuscript proof that the game the Americans gave to the world came from England.”