Play TOWN Ball! KU professor uses game to teach pre-Civil War history

Mon, 09/26/2011


Mary Jane Dunlap

LAWRENCE — Before Americans played baseball, they played Town Ball. Abraham Lincoln played it, and today pockets of Town Ball leagues dot the U.S. map.

In Kansas, the Lawrence Town Ball League was created by University of Kansas students who were introduced to the game by Jonathan Earle, KU associate professor of history.

For the past 10 years, Earle has used Town Ball to help teach about American culture before the Civil War.

The game helps students “grasp how people in the 19th century spent their leisure time, when few people paid money to be entertained and there was no such thing as a 'professional' ball-player," Earle says.

Earle points out that the Civil War helped bring some uniformity – not to mention written rules -- to a game that possibly led to baseball as we know it.

“Wars are not just about one side defeating another,” Earle notes. “Wars are also about cultural change.”

Baseball historians debate whether today’s game descended directly from Town Ball, but the similarities are overwhelming, Earle says. Both games were influenced by other bat-and-ball games from Europe, including Rounders, from England. Today’s baseball is more directly linked to the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club, whose rules were recorded in 1846. Earle’s students use an 1858 version of Town Ball played in Massachusetts.

During the Civil War, soldiers on either side turned to games to pass time in campgrounds. Town Ball was a game that soldiers from nearly any state had in common, but rules varied from village to village. Eventually a single set of rules evolved, and rules were recorded.

Earle speculates that Town Ball was appealing among the army camps in part because of the nostalgia associated with more carefree times in their hometowns. The game also involved the playful risk of being plugged or soaked (hit) with the ball as runners ran to each stake. A plugged runner would be out.

Town Ball is “goofy game that’s just fun. There’s no way to be really good at it,” Earle says.

In the 1850s children played alongside parents and grandparents, and in northern, racially mixed communities, whites played alongside blacks. Girls excelled as much as boys. Little equipment was needed.

A Town Ball field is square, not diamond-shaped. Broomsticks or stakes mark each corner, not bases. There are no uniforms, no gloves and no limit to the number of players on each team. The bat is a tapered stick, and the leathered-covered, rag-stuffed ball is about the size of today’s baseball but softer. Earle special-orders bats and balls from the Cooperstown (N.Y.) Bat Company.

Runners score by touching each stake as they run to the fourth (home) stake. They must yell “tally!” as they touch the home stake to score. Fans cheer, “Huzzah!”

Unlike baseball, runners don’t have to go directly to the next stake. This means “stake” runners can leave the base paths and lead fielders on a “wild weasel.” Other runners can then round the stakes and score a tally.

The Lawrence Town Ball league tends to play until one team reaches a score of 21. The amount of time involved is unpredictable.

In keeping with the pre-Civil War family game culture, no swearing is allowed. Players in the Lawrence League who slip up are fined 25 cents. They are free to taunt opposing team players with barbs common to the 1850s. A swing and a miss might be greeted with “I felt a breeze go by!” or “Your crops didn’t come in this year!”

Good sportsmanship is essential. Winning team members would take pride in hearing their captain give a congratulatory speech to the losing team on its performance. Earle encourages his students to be prepared to give speeches with an ear for the era.

The Lawrence Town Ball League uses Facebook to keep in touch, add members and post game schedules. Many use nicknames, a common practice among players of 1850s. Earle, for example, goes by “The Commish.”

Earle’s upper-level history class, American Culture 1600-1876, is offered every other spring, and the Town Ball game date is one lecture session. All students are required to attend the game, played out-of-doors. Students divide into teams and play for the hour.

“It’s always been the part of the class that the kids like the most,” Earle says.

Earle will lead a discussion and demonstration of Town Ball at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St. The event is sponsored by KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Lawrence Public Library and the Douglas County Senior Center.

For more information, contact Jessica Beeson at 785-864-1767 or

Mon, 09/26/2011


Mary Jane Dunlap

Media Contacts

Erin Curtis Dierks