Thomas Robbins

I am currently reading a published diary of a minister named Thomas Robbins who lived from 1777-1856. Insight into people’s lives and how they lived can be readily gained through diaries and journals. And I really like to pry in to people’s personal lives!  But to be fair, I wait at least a century or so after they die before opening their diaries. I also like to read them because, as a member of the Society of American Baseball Research,  I am associated with the origins committee of SABR. The Origins people are studying the early history of the game and looking at  pre-baseball type gamesfor clues as to where our current game originates. Through journals and archival material , I look for references to bat and ball games such as trap ball or phrases such as “played at ball” or “game of ball”.

But back to Robbins. He began his diary in 1796 and more or less kept it day in and out until 1854. He began the diary the year he graduated from Yale College and spent the next few years after college teaching, preaching and studying theology. In 1803 he went to Ohio which had just entered in to statehood to organize churches for the Connecticut Missionary Society. A few years after that he preached in a few towns in his home state of Connecticut before coming to the South Coast to replace his uncle as Congregational minister in Mattapoisett in 1831.

What does Robbins have to do with baseball? He wasn’t a ball player, at least I haven’t read any diary entries about his engaging in ball playing activities. But he does provide some evidence that people were playing ball prior to the mid-nineteenth century popularization of baseball playing. Though Robbins does not say what type of ball game was being played, he does note such activity in Mattapoisett:

  • December 21, 1826: “The boys play ball in the streets… Warm and languid weather…”
  • April 4, 1833: “Fast. Meetings well attended… A part of the people were off playing ball, according to their usual practice here.”
  • March 28, 1839: “Fast… Some playing ball… Thermometer rose to 70”.

Fast is referring to Fast Day. It was a public holiday consisting of fasting and prayer. In Massachusetts it was replaced by Patriots Day in 1894.

In 1858 there were several baseball clubs that had formed in New Bedford. Some had played games on Thanksgiving Day that was reported on by the local press. The Evening Standard began their report on the game “From time Immemorial Thanksgiving and Fast days have been set apart for ball playing…”  Not only does Robbins’ diary support the Evening Standard’s statement about ball playing having long been part of fast day activities, it suggests that it could have been baseball the people were playing in Mattapoisett. Then again it could have been Wicket which was popular in Robbins’ home state or some other ball game.

For fun here are some random non-ball playing entries from the diary while he was in Mattapoisett:

  • 9/28/1831: “Rode to Fairhaven… That town is much improving.”
  • 6/1/1832: “Walked to Dr. Robbins… His two sons are theological students, and I fear will be Unitarians.”
  • 9/27/1832: “Dined out. Attended the funeral of a young colored child.”
  • 10/1/1832: “My ill health continues. Have a bad diarrhea.”
  • 12/12/1832: “I hope God will save the country from civil war.”
  • 2/26/1833: “… attended the annual meeting of the Bristol County Temperance Society. I became a member.”
  • 3/6/1833: “My wine in a chamber without fire, is frozen.”
  • 5/14/1833: “Attended the Bible class… My people are very stupid.”
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