Thomas Jefferson and… Baseball?
In June, 1791, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison rode into Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on a break—from work and their nemesis Alexander Hamilton, who was regularly besting Jefferson in cabinet debates. The vacationing Founders stopped to catch speckled trout, hunt red squirrels, and even kill rattlesnakes on the shores of a lake, gathering up strength for the political battles to come.
Could they also have seen one of the very first baseball games?
Just a few months after Jefferson and Madison’s visit, the town of Pittsfield issued an edict banning the new sport of “base ball” near their new meeting house—the first recorded use of the name of the sport in American history. For the game to have upset the town fathers so much by the end of summer, there must have been plenty of base hits (if not broken windows) that June. Pittsfield wasn’t the only Massachusetts village clamping down on “base ball” that year—nearby Northampton, which Jefferson and Madison also visited, similarly banned “bat and ball” games in 1791.
Of all the leads I found in my research for my book In Pursuit of Jefferson, this was one of the most tantalizing. Could I possibly find a direct connection between two of my great passions, Jefferson and baseball? Unlikely, but it’s spring, a time for hope to bloom. Today, on Opening Day, even my Orioles are proudly tied for first (at 0-0). Why not swing for the fences?
Contrary to the old, discredited myth, Abner Doubleday did not singlehandedly invent baseball in 1839. Instead, the sport evolved from a variety of games played with a bat and ball, some stretching back to medieval times. Some Founders played variations of these early games. George Washington (a brooding slugger, no doubt) tried his hand at “wicket,” an offshoot of cricket. The squat, cantankerous John Adams (the ancestor of all catchers to come) played what he called “bat and ball.”
The game played in Pittsfield in 1791 might have been a predecessor of what would later be called the “Massachusetts game.” Pitchers threw overhand and there were three outs. But the bases were laid out in a square, not a diamond, and there was no foul territory; contact always resulted in a live play. And, most disturbingly of all, fielders didn’t have to tag runners—they could peg them with the ball, a practice called “soaking.”
Other games thrived as well. As the country prospered in the 18th century, sport wasn’t something just reserved for the elites. Yeoman farmers and artisans, too, found time for leisure, with boxing matches and horse races drawing large crowds. Despite the crushing constrictions of their lives, some enslaved people, too, found joy in activities like wrestling, racing, hunting, and fishing during the limited time they found for themselves. Baseball would ultimately prove to be a game that brought people together.
How did Jefferson participate in this 18th century renaissance of sport? As much as he prized reading books, he also loved to get outdoors and “take a great deal of exercise,” he wrote. He fished with George Washington. He was an excellent horseman, loved to hunt, played and bet on “pitchers” (similar to horseshoes), and walked every day until he was an old man at the brisk pace of 14 1/2 minutes per mile (faster than Pablo Sandoval). He even owned a 4 ½ pound dumbbell to work out his wrists (à la Hank Aaron). “A strong body makes the mind strong,” he wrote.
My own mind started off strong but weakened after fruitless hours in the archives; I couldn’t find any further evidence placing Jefferson at the field in Pittston. No engravings of him eating peanuts with Madison and keeping score; no family stories of the sage of Monticello dodging foul balls or errant attempts at “soaking.”
Instead, what I did find horrified me: on another occasion, Jefferson did witness ball games of some kind… but didn’t like them. “Games played with the ball … are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind,” he wrote to a nephew.
My research wasn’t a home run after all. More like a pop out.
But baseball marched on, as it always does, and others found the sport to be a happy pursuit even if Jefferson didn’t. On July 4, 1826, the town of Troy, Michigan celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. None in the crowd were yet aware that both Jefferson and Adams had died that day. Instead, folks celebrated with fusillades and a dinner of pork and beans. Then two teams took the field, starting a Fourth of July tradition, to play that new American pastime: “a game of base-ball.”