Stoolball – The Great-Great-Grandmother of Baseball and Cricket
By Ruth Tendulkar
Sarah, the milkmaid stuck her head in the barn door. “Oi, Rosie, coming out to Potter’s field for a whack at the old stool?” she asked.
The year was 1393. The place was Sussex in Southern England. While the first English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote his Canterbury Tales and outlaws like Robin Hood were terrorizing rich travelers, the lowly milkmaids were doing something that would last just as long and become just as well-known as
the exploits of their famous countrymen: they were inventing a game that would, over time, give birth to both cricket and baseball.
The game was called stoolball, which was probably a direct descendant of stumpball (where the target was a tree-stump). Stumpball itself probably grew out of an even older game called Cat and Dog, where someone with a bat tried to stop his opponent from throwing a stick into a hole in the ground.
Modern stoolball is still played in parts of England. It has 11 players per side and involves bowling underarm to a batsman who is defending a stool-shaped wicket with a bat that’s shaped like a frying pan.
Perhaps the medieval milkmaids used real frying pans with root vegetables for balls. No one really knows. But we do know that many variations of this folk game developed over the centuries, with names like poison ball, goal ball and town ball.
Some believe that the word “cricket” came from the Flemish word, “krickstoel”, which refers to a type of stool used in old churches.
While the most well-known version of stoolball involves running back and forth between two stools, it is a good bet that other versions involved a number of stools, with points scored by running around them. This would be the version that turned into baseball.
Isn’t it interesting to think that cricket legends like Rahul “the Wall” Dravid – or baseball players like Frank “the Big Hurt” Thomas (now playing for the Toronto Blue Jays) owe a debt of gratitude to Rosie the milkmaid and the wicked stroke of her frying pan?
Perhaps famous hurlers like The ‘Rawalpindi Express’ and Toronto’s Roy “Doc” Halliday were following in the tradition of Sarah the milkmaid (who may have been nicknamed “the Hot Potato”).
At least modern players don’t have to run in long dresses. Sports have come a long way since the knights of the round table invented ping pong. But then85 that’s a whole other story.
Please note: the history of stoolball is based on known facts, but there is no record of King Arthur even being aware of ping pong.