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In Search of Baseball’s Holy Grail

How one man is rewriting the history of the game — one diary at a time.

Baseball Da Vinci Code Illo - Illustration by Nick Kastner

Do you think anybody will find this interesting?”

David Block was being painfully modest. I’d gone all the way to San Francisco to meet the Robert Langdon of baseball’s Da Vinci Code, and here was Block trying to suppress my interest. His wife, Barbara, knows the drill. David will flip through an old book and find a secret about the ancient game of baseball. At dinner, he’ll casually tell Barbara, “Oh, by the way, I found this interesting thing today … “

The Blocks live on the top two floors of a blue house in the Mission District of San Francisco. Block is 69 years old, with a bald head and neatly trimmed beard. One afternoon, Block was pulling old books off his shelf. They are volumes with disintegrating covers and foxed pages and the labels of long-dead booksellers. “I have tons of stuff,” Block said. “It literally takes hours to look at all my stuff. And I never have the opportunity to show it to people.”

This is our fault rather than his. In a just world, Block would be an archaeologist hero. What Bill James did for 20th-century baseball, Block is doing for 18th-century baseball. Eight years ago, Block came out with a book called Baseball Before We Knew It. Said Tom Shieber, the senior curator at the Baseball Hall of Fame: “Baseball Before We Knew It and its aftermath is to me probably the single most important baseball research of the last 50 years, if not more.”

“He definitely is on a mission,” said Block’s brother, Philip. “It is a passion. It is everything like those archaeological hunts, looking for whatever holy grail you want to be looking for.” Holy grail is the right term, at least in the Dan Brown sense, for with those old books Block is trying to solve a riddle: Who is the father of baseball?

Block has discovered a 245-year-old dictionary and a 258-year-old comic novel and other “interesting things” that point toward the answer. But that afternoon, he left the room and came back with a copy of his newest find: a 264-year-old English newspaper called the Whitehall Evening-Post. The paper has news of inmates attempting a jailbreak from Newgate Prison, and of a chestnut mare that disappeared from a local forest. On Page 3, there is a small item. It reads:

On Tuesday last his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and Lord Middlesex, played at Base-Ball, at Walton in Surry; and notwithstanding the Weather was extreme bad, they continued playing for several Hours.

The date of the game was September 12, 1749. That’s 90 years earlier than, and 3,500 miles away from, baseball’s alleged conception in Cooperstown, New York. The “Base-Ball” player is the heir to the British throne. Block is rewriting the prehistory of the game. He is exposing a century’s worth of lies. He has come up with a shocking answer to the riddle of baseball’s parentage.

Do you think anybody will find this interesting?

In the beginning, baseball didn’t have an obvious father. But that didn’t stop a bunch of people from suggesting one. Even if baseball’s history is a “lie from beginning to end” — a line from John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian — the paternity claims were particular whoppers.

In 1860, the journalist Henry Chadwick published Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player, the first baseball annual. Block pulled a first edition from his shelf. It is a small book with a burnt-orange cover, about the size of an Upper Room devotional. Block opened to the first page and pointed to a sentence:

… the English Game of Rounders, from which Base Ball is derived.

Rounders is a British bat and ball game in which someone runs the bases. It was referred to first in 1828, in a volume called The Boy’s Own Book. The theory that baseball developed from rounders made a certain kind of sense. Baseball, like America, would have been an improvement on the British original.

At the turn of the 20th century, Albert Goodwill Spalding, the ex-ballplayer and sporting-goods magnate, decided this wasn’t a very satisfying answer. Spalding chaired a committee tasked with finding baseball’s origins and asked for ideas. In 1905, a mining engineer named Abner Graves wrote a letter to the Akron Beacon-Journal that stated, “The American game of ‘Base Ball’ was invented by Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, New York …” Graves placed the invention sometime between 1839 and 1841 — he couldn’t remember. In a follow-up letter, Graves improved on his tale, saying he had been playing marbles when Doubleday sketched a diagram of the field in the dirt.

There was no evidence Doubleday, who had died more than a decade before Graves wrote his letter, had ever played baseball, or had even been to Cooperstown. But with that testimony, he became the father of baseball. The tale scratched different itches than the rounders theory. Doubleday was an American Civil War hero, locating the game’s origins on this side of the Atlantic. The tale had an Edenic neatness to it: And Abner said, let there be baselines … “We’re a nation given to precision, sometimes inappropriate precision, about origins,” said the writer George F. Will, who serves on Major League Baseball’s new origins committee. “The idea that young Abner Doubleday wandered into Farmer Phinney’s pasture in 1839 and that baseball sprang full blown from his brow is jolly fun. But I wish he’d done it closer to a major metropolitan area.”

Baseball history forked into two paths. Serious baseball historians thought the Doubleday story was nonsense. In 1939, a New York librarian named Robert W. Henderson laid waste to it in a paper. But the baseball establishment ignored the critics. The same year that Henderson’s paper was published, the Baseball Hall of Fame was dedicated in Cooperstown.

For the next several decades, few thought the question of baseball’s paternity was very interesting. Historians preferred to scrutinize the bar tabs left behind by Mickey Mantle. Even the Society for American Baseball Research, which was founded in 1971, didn’t get around to starting its committee on the 19th century for another dozen years. “When David started his work and I started my work, this was the dark side of the moon,” said Thorn.

David Block was born in Chicago in 1944. It was his bad luck to drop out of the University of Michigan in March of ’65, a few months before Lyndon Johnson ramped up the draft. During Vietnam, Block served on a heavy cruiser in the Gulf of Tonkin and wrote articles for the ship’s newspaper. He learned of the Doubleday fraud sometime during this period and marked it up as another disillusionment of the ’60s. After leaving the Navy, Block was a peace activist, drove a cab in New York City, and worked on the mayoral campaign of Norman Mailer.

Block moved to San Francisco, married Barbara, and worked as a systems analyst. He read mystery novels. Block never published an academic paper, which made the scholarly nature of Baseball Before We Knew It, with its 58 pages of bibliography and seven appendices, hard for his friends to fathom.

Block was coming to the subject of baseball’s paternity not as a historian but as a book collector. “Historians are driven by story and issue,” said Thorn. “David was driven by artifact.” As he scoured eBay in the late ’90s — back before anyone knew what their junk was worth — it was Block’s brainstorm to bypass books about baseball. He was looking for books that mentioned baseball, books historians might have missed. “I always liked to go where no one else was looking,” Block said. His collection grew big enough that he decided to write a bibliography of early texts. The bibliography became a proper book.

In 2001, Block got ahold of a copy of a 1796 German book with the ungainly title of Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden. His copy has green and white marbled boards and brown binder’s tape on the spine. An inside page carries the stamp “D. Schaller,” a previous owner. Block ran his finger down the table of contents when he saw a reference:

3. Ball mit Freystäten, das engl. Base-ball

A translation confirmed what Block suspected. Here was a reference to baseball 32 years before the first literary reference to rounders. And the German book, by J.C.F. Gutsmuths, wasn’t the only example. The 1744 A Little Pretty Pocket-Book mentioned baseball. So did a letter of one Lady Hervey of England, from 1748. Even Jane Austen included the word “baseball” in her novel Northanger Abbey, which was published in 1818. If baseball had descended from rounders, Block wondered, then why did baseball keep popping up in the historical record before rounders?

Block began to get a little nervous. The historian Thomas Altherr, who talked to Block during this period, said Block was worried he was imposing on the work of others. For Block had confirmed that both the Doubleday theory was bunk. But he had also discovered that the rounders theory was bunk. Everything we knew about baseball’s parentage was wrong.

There were no box scores in the 18th century. When Block goes searching for the word “baseball,” he’s looking for instances where someone happened to mention the word in a newspaper or a novel or a diary or a dictionary. Through these references — which Block has compared to snowflakes harvested from a blizzard — he hopes to have some sense of the prehistory of the game.

At first, Block did his snooping the old-fashioned way. He would go to libraries in Surrey and Hampshire and Suffolk, where he thought early forms of baseball might have been played. Block would ask if the library had any diaries by young men or women from the 18th century. And then you’d flip the pages in these musty libraries? I asked.

“Some of them aren’t that musty,” Block said.

About seven years ago, Block struck gold when libraries began scanning documents with optical character recognition software, called OCR. Block could search lots of old books and newspapers without flipping the pages and, in some cases, without leaving home. Problem was he couldn’t just type the word baseball into a search engine. In the 18th century, the sport was often spelled base-ball, with a hyphen. Or as two words: base ball. Occasionally, it was bass-ball. Or in one celebrated misspelling, baste-ball. Eighteenth-century Britons sometimes used the long s, which OCR tends to read as an f. So you might only find baseball by searching the word bafeball. It was a real pain in the afs.

In 2007, Block was on a computer terminal in the British Library in London. He came across a comic novel called The Card, by John Kidgell, which was published in 1755. He found this passage:

… the younger Part of the Family, perceiving Papa not inclined to enlarge upon the Matter, retired to an interrupted Party at Base-Ball, (an infant Game which as it advances in its Teens, improves into Fives, and in its State of Manhood, is called Tennis.)

Did you catch that? A mention of baseball nearly a century before Doubleday’s “invention”! The problem was, in The Card the precious word baseball ran up against the right-hand margin. Like this:

… Party at Base-

Ball, (an infant Game …)

The OCR software didn’t read it in its hyphenated form, base-ball. It read it as a single word, baseball, which had been hyphenated only because it ran off the page. Ask Ken Burns if he ever had to worry about stuff like that.

What was your first reaction when you found the reference in The Card? I asked.

Wow, 1755, are you kidding me?!” Block recalled. Then his smile disappeared and his modesty returned. “No, of course I was much more restrained, being in the reading room of the British Library.”

“He didn’t bother telling me about it for a few days,” Barbara said.

“So this,” Block said, reaching for another item, “let me you show you. This is a very interesting thing. This is a dictionary from 1768.” Block showed me the title page:


In the “B” section, after base-born (“born out of wedlock”) and base-minded (“mean spirited”), Block found an entry for baseball. It was defined as, “A rural game in which the person striking the ball must run to his base or goal.” The first dictionary definition of baseball. It would be another 80 years before there was another! The only problem was the authors had rendered the word like this:


That apostrophe nearly killed the search.

In 2007, Block was snooping around England when an film crew he was working with got a phone call from a woman in Surrey. The woman claimed to have in her possession a heretofore unknown treasure: a diary by one William Bray that mentioned baseball in an entry from 1755. The next day, Block and SABR’s Larry McCray and the film crew arrived at her cottage.

The diary was gone. The woman said she thought she’d left it in a Marks & Spencer bag. Her house was a mess. McCray wondered if maybe the woman realized the diary mentioned croquet, not baseball, and had panicked. The woman gave McCray and Block permission to search for the Bray diary. McCray took her computer — the woman had been transcribing passages — and Block scoured the rest of the house. “He was driven,” McCray said. “He was excited. It was holy grail material we were working on that day.”

They couldn’t find the diary. So Block left Surrey and went on vacation with Barbara. A week later, Block got an e-mail from the woman. She had found … photocopies of the diary. A few days later, Block was snooping around a library in Cornwall when he got another e-mail. The woman had found the diary. Block and Barbara raced to her cottage the day before they were scheduled to leave the U.K. In William Bray’s small, compact script, they read the following from Easter Monday, 1755:

After Dinner Went to Miss Seale’s to play at Base Ball, with her, the 3 Miss Whiteheads, Miss Billinghurst, Miss Molly Fluttor, Mr. Chandler, Mr. Ford, H. Parsons & Jolly. Drank tea and stayed till 8.

Did you catch those “Misses”? The Bray diary confirmed a theory Block had developed after reading the Hervey letter. In the 18th century, baseball was played by both men and women.

Back in San Francisco, Barbara spoke up. “Can I insert something?”

David and I looked at her. We’d been lost in the 18th century.

“I think you left the impression,” Barbara said to David, “that the reason you got so into this was because you had this field to yourself.”

Barbara turned to me. “The reason he’s so into it, as you can see, is because he’s so into it. He loves the chase. He loves the books. He loves the history and he loves the social history and he loves finding things. He is a detective.”

In the early 2000s, when he was writing Baseball Before We Knew It, Block didn’t have the Bray diary or the English dictionary or the comic novel. Instead, he took books and primary sources historians had been relying on for decades and poked at them. The Hall of Fame’s Tom Shieber said, “Instead of setting off from what we thought we knew, David almost decided, ‘I’m going to look at what the evidence is showing me and determine what we know and don’t know.'”

Block’s first target was Doubleday, the so-called “father” of baseball. It turned out that Abner Graves, the mining engineer who made the claim, was a crank. After Graves became a celebrity — fawning news articles referred to him as one of the first baseball players — he told more whoppers. Graves said he’d ridden with the Pony Express in 1852. The Pony Express was formed in 1860. No one ever confirmed Graves’s account of Doubleday drawing diagrams in the dirt in Cooperstown. Graves later killed his wife and died in an insane asylum.

But why would A.G. Spalding, who chaired the first origins commission, pick Doubleday? Block’s brother Philip added a fascinating chapter to Baseball Before We Knew It. Philip Block discovered that Doubleday and Spalding were devotees of the same spiritualist group: the Theosophical Society, which was founded by a Russian émigré named Madame Blavatsky. Block made a damning case that Spalding had tossed aside a proper search and tapped a co-religionist. In fact, after the Graves letters, the first assertion that Doubleday was the father of baseball was printed in a theosophical newsletter in California. Poor Doubleday. He had been the victim of a séance.

The rounders theory was a trickier matter. Block had already discovered the 1796 German book, with its reference to das englische Base-ball that came 32 years before the first literary reference to rounders. Other early mentions of baseball in England, like the one in Northanger Abbey, were well known. But the rounders associations of England had waved away this evidence. Sure, they said, old Britons might have written baseball, but the game they were referring to — the game that preceded baseball — was rounders. Block was incredulous. “If it looks like baseball,” he wrote, “and it is called baseball, what is it? Rounders?”

But why pick rounders? Here Block made another discovery. In San Francisco, he pulled his second edition of The Boy’s Own Book of 1828 off the shelf. He pointed to this sentence about rounders:

In the west of England this is one of the most favorite sports with bat and ball.

Henry Chadwick, the journalist who gave us the rounders theory, was born in western England four years before the book’s publication. That is, in one of the few places and times in world history in which rounders was ascendant. Chadwick had made a simple mistake. He had generalized from his own experience.

Block offered an alternative proposal for baseball’s paternity. It was both simpler and more complex than any previous theory. First, Block said that baseball had descended from … baseball. What the authors of the BA’SEBALL dictionary entry and John Kidgell and William Bray and Jane Austen were describing was a primitive version of the game played in English fields. Block calls this English baseball.

More than that, Block was offering a whole new way of approaching paternity. “Who is the father of baseball?” is the wrong question. As Thorn put it, “The game was not invented so much as it was accreted.”

That’s what Block is telling us. To put away the bedtime stories. To think of baseball as we would Homo sapiens, as something that crawled out of the primordial ooze at a hazy date in history and developed, slowly and mystifyingly, over the centuries. When you think like that, time spreads out before you like center field at the Polo Grounds. The first entry in Larry McCray’s Protoball chronology isn’t Doubleday. It’s “Overhand Throwing Evolves in Primates.”

The shocking truth is that baseball has no father. “If baseball had that inception moment, then everything after that moment is baseball and everything before it is darkness,” said Shieber. “But once you agree there is no inception moment — that baseball, just like anything else, is an evolutionary process — where do you start?”

Block is an Oakland A’s fan. He has sourced his allegiance to a 20th-century nobleman named Rickey Henderson. One night last month, Block and I took the BART to Coliseum and bought two seats behind the plate. The crowd was small enough that we could almost imagine we were sitting in clover on an English estate, watching the Prince of Wales play baseball in 1749.

What was English baseball like? I asked Block.

“I don’t know how it was played,” Block said, “but this is how I think it was played: There were bases of some unknown counting. The pitcher threw to the batter underhanded. The fielders tried to catch the ball on the fly or retrieve the ball and throw it and strike the runner when he was off base.”

“It was not sophisticated. The pitcher threw the ball and let the batter hit the ball, instead of trying to trick or fool the batter.” The Mariners’ Joe Saunders was a historical reenactor that night: He gave up four runs on 46 pitches in the first inning. Block continued, “I don’t know how score was kept or if it was competitive. It was more of a social game than an athletic competition.”

Block thinks English baseball players didn’t use a bat. Instead, they hit the ball with their hands. “But I can’t prove it,” he said. “Other than the German book, there’s no descriptive content in the 18th century or for much of the 19th century.” This is the great irony of English baseball. Historians once assumed it went unrecorded because it didn’t exist. But it’s just as likely the sport wasn’t written about because it was mostly the stuff of commoners. Baseball was everywhere. The newspapers didn’t cover it because it was so mundane.

What about the early players Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Lord Middlesex, I asked?

“Frederick was German-born,” Block said. “He didn’t come to England until he was 21. He was a guy who loved the good life, loved sports and music. Lord Middlesex was a music guy, too. Handel was living in England at the time, and he promoted concerts with Handel.”

Nick Franklin, the Mariners’ second baseman, flied out to deep center.

“What were these guys doing playing baseball?” Block asked. “We know they had been playing a lot of cricket. They sometimes played for wagers of £1,000 … But in 1749, baseball was a newer game. Lady Hervey said it was ‘known to all schoolboys,’ so if we take her at her word, it wasn’t that new.”

The Mariners’ Justin Smoak struck out looking.

Frederick died in 1751, less than two years after he played baseball on Lord Middlesex’s estate. There is a splendid but unproven theory that he died of a cricket injury. Frederick’s death allowed his son, George III, to succeed to the British throne, make war with the American colonies, and create an anti-British fervor in the States that was still thick enough, a century later, to get poor Abner Doubleday anointed as the father of baseball. After the Mariners went in order in the top of the seventh, Block and I stood with the crowd and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Did you know that Jane Austen’s cousin mentioned baseball in 1799?

“Ah!” says he, “no more cricket, no more base-ball, they are sending me to Geneva.”

OK, but did you know that Battleridge‘s author, Cassandra Cooke, was a correspondent of Jane Austen? That two 18th-century female novelists just happened to be writing about baseball at about the same time? Block discovered that, too.

I should note that Block is one of the only people looking for this stuff. Even for most SABRites, the study of old baseball is about finding unenshrined stars — e.g., the next Deacon White. There is less obvious joy, less frisson of connection, when you write about anonymous ballplayers in a fatherless epoch. Block is also left to wonder how much of his research has penetrated the masses. As of three years ago, Bud Selig still believed Abner Doubleday invented baseball.

“Everybody in SABR admires the proprietary find,” said John Thorn. “‘Oh, this is mine,’ or ‘Oh, this is his.’ That’s a lot of what drives us, these twisted childhoods that make us look for gratification in these minor crevices of history. I’m the one that found Joe DiMaggio had one extra RBI. Calling Dr. Freud!”

But Block, Thorn said, “is something of a national treasure. He’s not on Twitter. He’s not looking for likes on Facebook. He’s doing the thing for its own sake, which is not only the realm of history but the realm of art.”

“What do you do with a collection like this?” David Block asked.

In the presence of his old books, Block is being painfully modest again. Let me be immodest on his behalf. Block is a scholar on a lonely frontier. He is karate-chopping the wisdom of the ages. Block has done something, well, terribly modest. He has taken an answerless riddle and honored it by building a library.