Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Are you one of countless people tuned into the Red Sox/ Astros American League Series this week? Then perhaps you’ll enjoy these two easily overlooked relics of baseball's past.
Long part of our collection, two small, oddly-shaped, hand-sewn dark brown balls were objects without a story. No one in our group knew what they were. Then, as part of our Treasures in the Attic Series, local historian (and our go-to-guy on all of our “what is this?” questions)
Dennis Picard was able to shed light on them for us. We sure are glad he did. Treasures they truly are! Dennis identified them as two very early baseballs, likely dating between 1840 and 1860. We have no accession records indicating when they came into the historical society’s collection, so we are not sure how they came to be here. Perhaps they “came with the house” as they say?
Early baseballs c.1840-1860
Some credit a Stoughton, MA man named Ellis Drake (1839-1912) with creating the form of the baseball cover. His father was a boot manufacturer, so leather surely would have been readily available to him. Per a 1905 story in the Boston Journal Ellis Drake recalled, “During the decadence of round ball and the advent of baseball, my father, John E. Drake of Stoughton was a shoemaker. From his shop I secured all kinds of leather. My comrade and myself used it in covering balls in the old forms, known as the 'Lemon Peel' and 'Belt'. My experience revealed to me that the corners and joints give out first, and quick at that, and when we threw a ball at an opponent we could inflict a black and blue spot on him to emphasize a brilliant victory. ...One day in school when the teacher was not looking - it was a rare moment - I took a sheet of paper and made a diagram of a baseball cover in its present form. ...It was just a thought that came to me. Later I made sample covers out of paper and then cut up some of my father's leather, until at last I had a baseball cover that was serviceable. We boys used the baseball with the covers in the present form and they lasted well and gave us a chance to play the game with old-time enthusiasm and without injury.”
Examining the two balls in our collection, it would seem they are not of Ellis Drake’s design, but the earlier ”lemon peel” style. A strip of leather is hand-stitched together around a central core of an unknown, though lightweight, substance. Peeking through torn stitches on the larger of the two baseballs one can see a sort of bird’s nest-like cluster of thread and twine. The baseballs are much smaller and lighter than today’s standard issue ones.
According to 19th Century Baseball historian Eric Miklich, on his fascinating website all about the first century of the game, “Early baseballs were made simply by surrounding a core, which could be any solid substance, with hand wound yarn or string. Oftentimes the baseball would also contain some form of stuffing. The cover was a one piece cover, usually some form of brown leather, which was stitched in a fashion known as a "lemon peel" or "rose petal." The four sides of the single piece of leather were sewn to enclose the baseball's core and the stitching formed an "X" configuration. These early baseballs were extremely light and soft and prior to 1845 runners were allowed to be "soaked" or hit with a thrown ball as a way to be put out. With all baseballs being hand made by players and local merchants there was no standard size or weight. From 1845 - 1853 "unofficially" most balls were quite small as compared to today's model and were considerably lighter. The covers were now all made of leather and the shade varied from medium brown to dark brown.”
We sure hope some Longmeadow children had fun with them during recess and after school! Enjoy a glimpse of baseball from another era. Go Sox! To read more about 19th Century Baseball visit http://www.19cbaseball.com
Contributed by Melissa Cybulski, LHS Board Member
Originally published October 21, 2021