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Image Massachusetts Sport Ways: The Puritan Idea of “Lawful Recreation”

On the subject of sport, Puritan attitudes were typically complex and carefully reasoned. Many sports were condemned in the Bay Colony, but others were permitted, and a few were actually required. Increase Mather wrote, “For a Christian to use recreation is very lawful, and in some cases a great duty.”1 John Winthrop explained the reason in his diary:

When I had some time abstained from such worldly delights as my heart most desire … I grew into a great dullness and discontent: which being at last perceived, I examined by heart, and finding it needful to recreate my mind with some outward recreation, I yielded unto it, and by a moderate exercise herein was much refreshed.

But here grew the mischief: I perceiving that God and mine own conscience did allow me so to do in my need, I afterwards took occasion from the benefit of Christian liberty to pretend need of recreation when there was none, and so by degrees I ensnared my heart so far in worldly delights as I cooled the graces of the spirit by them. Whereby I perceive that in all outward comforts, although God allow us the use of the things themselves, yet it must be in sobriety, and our hearts must be kept free, for he is jealous of our love.2

For John Winthrop, as for other New England Puritans, “outward recreation” was not merely permissible but “needful” as long as it was done in “sobriety” and good restraint. Moderate exercise was thought to be necessary for the refreshment of the spirit. The Puritans believed that sport was not merely a matter of idle play. For them, even games became a serious business, which they approached with their usual high degree of purpose and organization.3

The military units of Massachusetts were not merely encouraged to engage in regular sports, but actually required to do so. As early as 1639 the militia companies of Massachusetts sponsored formal athletic competitions and physical exercises on their training days. This practice persisted through the seventeenth century.4 The faculty of Harvard College also required students to engage in “lawful recreations,” and after 1655, a special period of the day was set aside for games.5 In 1696, when two undergraduates were drowned in a skating accident on Fresh Pond, President Increase Mather consoled their parents with the thought that “although death found them using recreations (which students need for their health’s sake) they were lawful recreations.”6

In seventeenth-century New England, Puritan ministers and magistrates actively encouraged “lawful recreations,” and also sternly suppressed sports which they believed to be “unwarrantable” in one way or another. Sports on Sunday were rigorously punished. The clergyman Thomas Shepard, in a sermon long famous in New England, painted an image of Satan “with a ball at his foot,” ready “to kick and carry God’s precious sabbaths out of the world.” This was a complaint not against sport itself, but against sport on Sunday.7

The builders of the Bay Colony also specially disliked games that were associated with gambling and drinking. The General Court of Massachusetts often legislated against “unlawful games as cards, dice, etc.,” and county courts fined tavernkeepers who permitted these pastimes.8 Shuffle-board was banned; the Essex County court punished a wayward saint for “his misuse of time shuffle-boarding.”9 Gambling was forbidden even in homes. The General Court decreed in 1631 that “all persons whatsoever that have cards, dice or tables in their houses shall make away with them before the next Court, under pain of punishment.”10

Horse racing was actively discouraged. In the town of Ipswich it was ordered that anyone “convicted of running races upon horses or jades in the streets of Ipswich, or for abetting and encouraging others of laying wagers on any side should pay 40 shillings,” an exceptionally heavy fine. Horses were raced even so; by the eighteenth century, purses were openly advertised in the Boston gazettes. But this was the invasion of an alien spirit.11

At the same time that these entertainments were discouraged, other forms of lawful recreation flourished. Within the first few years, a distinctive set of games developed in Massachusetts, from the interaction of Puritan ideals and English customs. Chief among them were two amusements. One of them came to be known as the Boston game; the other was variously called the New England game, the Massachusetts game, town ball or round ball. We know them today as American football and baseball, respectively.

The Boston game or American football was descended from a large family of English folk games which involved the kicking of a ball. In many English neighborhoods, a game of football was an annual event on Christmas, or New Year’s Day, or Shrove Tuesday or Easter Monday, often with a handsome leather ball spedaily made for the occasion by the village cobbler. At Derby, for example, a football match was played every year between the parishes of All Saints and St. Peters. The ball was ceremoniously put in play at the town hall. In the old settlement of Chester-Le-Street, it was “up-streeters” against “down-streeters,” each trying to move the ball to the opposite ends of the town. These great games were played by entire communities—old and young, rich and poor, male and female. For one local contest, the men stripped away their coats and waistcoats, whilst the women took off their dresses and even petticoats. Many a kick and blow were exchanged before the match was done.12

These rough village games of old England were brought to Massachusetts, where they tended to be regulated by local officials and played in a more orderly manner. In the town of Rowley, one English visitor witnessed a game of football which surprised him by its restraint: “There was that day a great game of football,” he wrote, “to be played with their feet, which I thought was very odd; but it was upon a broad sandy shore, free from stones, which made it more easy. Neither were they so apt to trip up one another’s heels and quarrel, as I have seen ‘em in England.”13

Football became a controversial question in New England. Many moralists did not hold it in high repute. William Bentley observed in his diary that “the bruising of shins has rendered it rather disgraceful to [illeg] of better education.” But in the eighteenth century, it gradually came to be associated with people of better education. An engraving of Yale College in 1807 showed students in beaver hats and swallow-tailed coats playing football on New Haven Common, while an elder who closely resembled college president Timothy Dwight looked on with an air of disapproval.14

Classical American football slowly took shape in New England during the eighteenth century as an elaborately rationalized and rule-bound version of an old English folk sport. Football contests between schools were common by the early nineteenth century in eastern Massachusetts, where teams from academies and town schools played each other on a regular basis. A marble monument on Boston Common quietly commemorates the “first football organization in America,” which played there long before the intercollegiate contest between Princeton and Rutgers.

Another rule-bound version of an English folk sport was called town ball, the Massachusetts game or the New England game. It was played with a bat, a ball and four bases on a field sixty feet square, by eight to twenty players, each of whom kept his own individual tally. The New England game was also descended from a family of English traditional games, of which perhaps the nearest equivalent was called bittle-battle. Its rules were remarkably similar to modern baseball. Bittle-battle was played with four bases (each about a foot square) 48 feet apart. The pitcher stood 24 feet from home base, and each batter was out if the ball was caught, or if it touched a base before the batter reached it. The game of bittle-battle was played in southeastern England, particularly in Kent. It was brought to Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century, and became so common that by the eighteenth century it bore the name of the region.15

The New England game became very popular in schools and towns throughout Massachusetts. A children’s book published in Worcester, Massachusetts, included an illustration of this diversion as early as 1787.16 It was also widely played in New England colleges during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. A classical description came from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who played it as a Harvard undergraduate in 1829.17

Gradually, the New England game spread beyond the region of its origin into New York and northern New Jersey, and began to be called baseball in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It was played by soldiers at Valley Forge in 1778, and the diary of a Princeton undergraduate mentioned a sport called “baste ball” in 1786.18 A variant called the New York game was played by Yankee emigrants in that state during the 1820s. Thurlow Weed belonged to a baseball club with fifty members at Rochester in 1825.19In yet another community of transplanted Yankees, Abner Doubleday appears to have codified one of many sets of rules before 1840.20

During the first two centuries of American history, ball games were not common in the southern colonies. What is now the American national game was originally a New England folk sport. It still preserves a combination of order and action, reason and emotion, individuality and collective effort which was characteristic of Puritan culture.21

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