Stoolball: America’s Game! Baseball’s Medieval Origins

Baseball is America’s game, right? Well, not really. I guess you could say that baseball is Medieval Europe’s sport. After all, versions of the game can be traced back a hundreds and hundreds of years. Just imagine — in merry old England, peasants would come in from the fields, pick up a stick, and play what we today call baseball! Heck, they say that football is the sport of kings, but in terms of actual, Medieval kings, baseball wins the title. Let’s take a look at stoolball, the Medieval precursor to our modern, beloved baseball, and see why it caught on and never stopped.

Alright, so stoolball was a bit more like cricket than like American baseball, but we know for a fact that baseball came from cricket, so they are all definitely in the same family. Stoolball, mentioned in many historical manuscripts and depicted in some Medieval drawings, used actual stools as bases. Since there were different versions in different places, there is no single set of rules, but there is a trend that we can look at.

First, the batter stood a few feet in front of his stool, his home plate, if you would. His job was to use his stick or bat to keep the pitcher from hitting the stool with the ball. This idea of guarding the base seems to have been lost in modern baseball, where the goal is to try to get the batter to swing and miss. But in stoolball, there were no strikes or balls: pitches were repeated for as long as it took for the batter to hit the ball. The pitcher threw underhand, and if he managed to hit the home stool, thus getting the ball past the hitter, then the hitter was out. There was a marked line from the batter’s stool, through the pitcher’s place, to another stool several yards behind the pitcher, sort of like a modern cricket setup.

When the batter hit the ball, then his goal was to run counterclockwise around the far stool, and back to his home stool. This earned him a point. But if the pitcher, or any fielder, hit the home stool with the ball before the batter-runner returned home then he was out, much like our modern game. Like the modern game, there were two teams. The field team would spread out and all be fielders, except for the pitcher. There was no official catcher — they probably had a local boy stand behind the home stool to fetch balls that went too far. Finally, every player on each team got one at-bat per inning. Again, like our modern baseball, once everyone had been at-bat once, the teams switched places.

What about the equipment? The ball was made from three pieces of soft leather, and stuffed with wool, making a very soft ball. The bat was either just a stick, or a form of wooden bat that looked a bit like a modern canoe oar, not too far from a modern cricket bat. The stool bases were, well, stools, probably taken from the milking area on the farm. In fact, most games were just that — farm workers relaxing after a hard day’s work.

These ancient but simple origins of modern baseball seem to well fit the game we know. After all, baseball is relaxing game, a game of strategy and simplicity, a game where the wholesomeness of the players still matters a bit. Unlike the hard-hitting violence and punctuated warfare of American football, baseball seems just at home in a farmer’s field as it does in an enormous urban stadium. And I believe that it is just this sort of humble, common origins that really make baseball America’s game.

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