I am so glad the question was asked about the seniority of JA’s reference to Catherine playing baseball in Northanger Abbey, because this is a perfect illustration of how the answers to a thousand questions about JA are out there like one of the low-hanging apricots at the Mansfield parsonage, just waiting to be picked----and it isn't "insipid" fruit, either!:
Take a peek at this:
I don’t know how long the folks at SABR have known about the 1751 Newbery book description of baseball being played in England (perhaps they got the info from a guy named Barry Baldwin, who addressed the Calgary JASNA branch in 2006 and mentioned the Newbery book) , but what is clear is that the baseball mavens at SABR have not talking to Janeites at large, or vice versa, and, as a result, this very interesting connection has not previously been made between our two otherwise entirely unconnected worlds, even though Janeites are every bit as interested, I think.
My point is that all it takes is the mental awareness that a Google search often can help find connections that render the OED and similar pre-Google resources nearly completely useless. It is not at all surprising to me that the OED still has that incorrect information, because the OED is a dinosaur.
I can't count how many discoveries I have made about various aspects of JA scholarship, just by being curious and proactive, and searching online, and by NOT assuming that "someone has already checked". The truth is that most of the interesting questions about JA have NEVER been checked online--it's an intellectual Wild West, completely virgin territory for "fruitful" investigation! Remember, Google Books did not even exist until 3 years ago, and they keep adding newly scanned texts at a breathtaking rate, so that searches you may have done a year ago are now out of date!
Anyway, I did another 30 seconds of searching and was thrilled to find a digitized copy of Newbery's little book, and another minute of patient virtual thumbing through the pages led me to this image of the actual page, with a drawing depicting the playing of baseball:
For those who for some reason can't open that URL, here is the text on that page under the drawing of kids playing 18th century English base-ball:
The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin'd Post,
And then Home with Joy.
Thus Seamen, for Lucre
Fly over the Main,
But, with Pleasure transported
Return back again.
I imagine that JA, with her two sailor brothers, would, if she had read that little poem as a girl, have found the message very touching, and it leads me to wonder whether a small piece of the inspiration for the great climactic scene of Persuasion, when Anne and Harville discuss the constancy of sailors like Benwick, who go off in search of “lucre” (and of course also Wentworth), and the women, like Fanny Harville (and of course also Anne), who wait at home for them.
When you think about it, perhaps the Newbery poem is a clue to a nautical metaphorical origin of the peculiar terminology of baseball. After all, sailors did go out across the world, stopping here and there at “bases”, making daring “runs” in their journeys in defense of England and in search of wealth, but always the ultimate goal was to return “home” “SAFELY”!
And, by the way, even Wikipedia is way ahead of the OED, as it cites the SABR website for the Newbery reference, and it also adds an additional bit of info that takes us very close to the environs of Emma in Surrey (and not that far from Hampshire):
“English lawyer William Bray recorded a game of baseball on Easter Monday 1755 in Guildford, Surrey; Bray's diary was verified as authentic in September 2008.”
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