Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Old Ball Game: Ontario crossroads site of historic backwoods matchup

Players recreate the 1838 game between Beachville and Zorra as described by Adam Ford. Photo from the Beachville (Ont.) District Museum. 

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 4, 1988

NO ONE REMEMBERS how old Old Ned Dolson was when they started calling him Old. All that is known is that Old Ned hailed from Zorra Township and was about as fine a baseball player as had ever been seen in those parts.
So when the hard-working farmers of the area, near London, Ont., took a break from their chores on the King's birthday 150 years ago today, Old Ned was asked to bring his team, The Zorras, down to nearby Beachville for a game against the locals.
Among the spectators was a 7-year-old boy named Adam Ford, who was so impressed by this new sport that he never forgot it. Years later, Ford, a medical doctor and dipsomaniac, penned his reminiscences of the game.
The account he wrote stands today as the first recorded evidence of baseball being played.
That historic game will be replayed tomorrow, when Beachville residents challenge their neighbors from Zorra to a rematch under the primitive rules of 1838.
As if to make up for decades of neglect, this lost chapter in Canada's sporting history is being celebrated with a full lineup of commemorative events this weekend, including the induction of five players into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at a banquet in Ingersoll tonight. Old Ned and all the other players from those two pioneer teams also will be inducted.
All this fuss is the result of a letter written by Ford to Sporting Life, a Philadelphia publication, in 1886. The correspondence describes in detail the players and rules of that early Beachville game.
Ford also included a drawing of the playing field with its knocker's stone (home plate) and five byes (bases).
But because he wrote the account almost 50 years after having seen the game as a child, some doubted the accuracy of his recollection.
A pair of academic detectives from the University of Western Ontario, however, have traced the names cited by Ford through land records and tombstones.
"This is beyond hearsay," says professor Bob Barney. "It's the oldest recorded validation. It fits another picture in the puzzle of baseball's opaque history."
Barney, who worked with graduate student Nancy Bouchier, says Canada's claim to the American game leaves some of his fellow academics in a dither.
"The reaction is one sometimes of disbelief, sometimes of scoffing," he said.
The New York village of Cooperstown was identified earlier in this century as the site of the first recorded game of baseball. Abner Doubleday, who would go on to become a Civil War hero, supposedly organized the first baseball game there in 1839.
Latter-day research has debunked that notion. It is now generally agreed that the Doubleday myth was fostered by baseball entrepreneur A.G. Spalding, a founder of the National League and of the sporting goods business that still bears his name. Spalding was keen on creating a suitably patriotic beginning for America's national pastime.
Ford descries the Beachville game being played on a smooth pasture behind Enoch Burdick's carpentry shops. No one knows the score, or even who won, and it probably didn't matter much at the time. The game was simply a pleasant diversion from long hours of labor.
It was Militia Muster Day, and a company of Scottish volunteers, raised to fight the rebellion of the previous year, stopped to watch. They saw George Burdick, Adam Karn, and William Hutchinson from Beachville take on Old Ned Dolson, Nathaniel McNames, and Harry and Daniel Karn from Zorra.
Dolson was so good it was said he could "catch the ball right away from the front of the club if you didn't keep him back so far that he couldn't reach it."
They played with a calfskin ball made of double and twisted woolen yarn fashioned by a shoemaker. Bats were rough-hewn blocks of cedar, although some used a wagon spoke.
The field was square, with the first bye only 18 feet from the knocker's stone. The idea was to allow runners on the bases, because it was considered fun to put them out. A runner was out if he was soaked — hit by a ball thrown by the fielding team.
Players dressed in their work clothes and wore no gloves. A striker (batter) was out even if his hit was caught on the first bounce. A game could last from six to nine innings, and teams fielded from seven to 12 players at a time. Sometimes, games ended when one side scored 18 (or 21) tallies (runs), which were recorded by cutting a notch into a stick.
It was while verifying Ford's account that Barney and Bouchier learned that Canada's first baseball chronicler led a life so rich in baseball and scandal it might have come from the pen of William Kennedy.
Ford seemed a paragon of Victorian virtue. He had a successful practice and was involved in both civic and sporting affairs. He was even elected mayor of St. Marys, Ont., in the 1870s. But the mayor had a weakness for alcohol, and it was his undoing.
St. Marys had an active temperance movement at the time, and the doctor was known to use a drug to lessen the effects of his drinking. (Which drug he took remains unknown.) At a party in his office, the doctor administered the drug to his drinking partner. The man suffered a violent reaction and died. As luck would have it, the man was secretary of the local temperance union.
Charges were eventually dropped, although an inquest revealed that a young woman was also involved in the now notorious drinking party.
"The entire town was scandalized," Barney says, "even though it never went to trial."
Ford abandoned his wife and a son in St. Marys to flee to Denver with his other son. He organized the first curling bonspiel west of the Missouri River there, and wrote his letter to Sporting Life.
Unfortunately, he descended into alcoholism and died penniless. He had spent his days caring for his son, who had become addicted to morphine.
The site of the game he described is now home to homes and a church. The re-enactment is being played on a nearby school ground.
As well, Tom Heitz, librarian with the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is bringing his Leatherstocking Base Ball Club to Beachville for an 1838-style game this afternoon.
The Leatherstockings, who count an innkeeper and several students on their roster, are in their fourth season of playing baseball under old rules. They wear plain red workshirts and Amish-style twill pants to better resemble their predecessors. They play about seven road games a year, and today's match marks their longest journey yet.
"You really feel at times that you've stepped back into another century," Heitz said. "The form of baseball we will play (today) is a more primitive form than even we're used to."
A practice game played last month surprised organizer Bill Riddick of Ingersoll, who stepped up to the knocker's stone wielding a big stick.
"It was like a Hydro pole," he said of a hand-made bat that was more than four feet long. "It would have taken a mighty big man to swing that. And the ball was so soft, it was like a Nerf ball."
Still, Heitz says his Leatherstockings are ready.
"You don't need a great deal of skill," he says. "You just have to think a little differently. All this game really requires is unbridled enthusiasm and joy. Enthusiasm and joy, that's baseball."

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