Dr. D. E. Bostwick, father of noted librarian and author Arthur E. Bostwick, was crossing the village green in Litchfield, Conn. sometime in 1870. A hot liner from a nearby baseball game struck him in the eye, knocking him to the ground. While Dr. Bostwick recovered from the injury, his son Arthur wrote in 1930 that his father “might have been killed by it.”(1) The accident, he believed, may have resulted in the game of baseball being banned on the Litchfield town green. By the 1870s, baseball had taken hold in America, with sports journals already touting the game as “America’s pastime.” Luckily for the residents of Litchfield, there was always wicket.
Wicket, or wicket ball, was one of a number of bat-and-ball games played by Americans in the era before baseball. New England was the heart of wicket country, with Western Massachusetts and especially Connecticut serving as strongholds of the game. There is little definitive history on the origin of the game. Most historians agree that wicket began as an early form of cricket imported to New England by English settlers sometime in the late seventeenth century. (2) Some speculate that the cricket “savored so much of the English aristocracy” that the settlers of New England gradually changed the game’s features, shaping a primitive version of England’s national pastime into a uniquely American sport. (3) Wicket utilized a larger and lighter ball than cricket, and was played with low-standing wickets of greater width and as many as 30 players a side. So far, no documented variation of cricket played before the mid-eighteenth century (when English players began codifying and regulating cricket play) has contained these traits, leading wicket scholars to surmise that whatever the form of the game that arrived in America, “wicket most likely evolved markedly once it had set down American roots.” (4)
Reward of Merit engraved by John Cheney, c.1821, depicting an early game of wicket. Courtesy of John Thorn, “The Oldest Wicket Game, Newly Found” on Our Game, http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/02/05/the-oldest-wicket-game-newly-found/The earliest recorded games of wicket date from the late-colonial period, although later wicketers recalled the game being a favorite pastime “long prior to the Revolution.” (5) Project Protoball contains numerous entries for the game, the earliest specific mention of wicket being a game played on the Boston Common sometime around 1725. (6) On two occasions in May, 1778, soldiers stationed at Valley Forge recall playing wicket. The latter game involved George Washington himself, who played wicket with his men after dining with General Henry Knox. (7) It is likely that wicket play in the eighteenth century was largely unorganized and played without written rules or officiating. By the 1800s, however, organized wicket clubs and village teams began appearing in New England, though most (if not all) lacked formal club constitutions or officers. While the sport never attained the professional organization of baseball, wicket games were often accompanied by official rules and officiated by up to three umpires or judges. Diaries, memoirs, and newspaper articles also attest to the fact that wicket was a spectator sport: when the wicketers of New Britain, CT, headed to Bristol in 1859 to play for the state championship, the following occurred:
“Interest had also grown in Hartford to such an extent that a special train was made up in that city for the event. The train left Hartford at 7:30 A.M., with one carload of Hartford people and when it reached New Britain, four cars were quickly filled with excited people. Every car was trimmed with flags and bunting and as the train reached the local station about nine o’clock it presented a grand appearance. The visitors had a band with them and the crown that greeted them at the station was a large one. It is estimated that when the game commenced there were fully 4,000 people in and around the grounds.” (8)