Did Baseball Come to the US from Poland?
default, Did Baseball Come to
the US from Poland?, The cover of the 1938 book 'Palant - Technika, Taktyka, Przepisy' by Jan Jasiński, photo: Polona.pl, center, palant_palant-technika-taktyka-przepisy-gra-sportowa-dla-szkol-klubow-i-organizacyj-4.jpg
According to one line of research, the origins of baseball – the American national pastime – evolved from a Polish ball-and-bat game called ‘palant’.
Dating back to the Middle Ages and once highly popular, the game said to have been brought to the New World by 17th-century Polish immigrants. Culture.pl explores this daring claim, scrutinising its origins and credibility, while remembering the history and heritage linked to this now somewhat obscure Polish sport.
The Polish artisans of Jamestown
Baseball is one of the most popular sports in the world – even if it’s not as widespread as, say, football. It’s especially well-liked in the United States, where it holds the status of ‘national pastime’. But despite the sport’s prominence, its origins are somewhat obscure.
Many believe that baseball evolved from traditional European ball-and-bat games, like Germany’s schlagball, Romania’s oină, and cricket (which is said to be not only English, but Flemish in origin). Although this turn of events seems highly plausible, there is precious little hard proof of it. That’s why, on the website of the World Baseball Softball Confederation, you’ll find that ‘the origins of Baseball are uncertain’. There you have it – the once-popular tale that the American Abner Doubleday invented baseball in the 19th century has been debunked as myth.
Moreover, much like its origins, baseball’s time of birth is uncertain. In 2004, The New York Times quoted the prominent baseball historian John Thorn:
He also believes the game came into existence sometime during the late 18th century.
Settlers landing at the site of Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in America; ca. 1607; photo: MPI / Getty Images
Amidst this general uncertainty, a surprising Polish connection to baseball appears, which dates back to the 17th century. Here’s a quote from eminent historian Norman Davies’s 1981 history of Poland, God's Playground:
In October 1608, an emigrant ship, the Mary and Margaret, carried among its passengers the first Polish settlers into Jamestown, Virginia. […] The Polish artisans of Jamestown were said to be responsible for the continent’s first industrial strike and, in their game of palant, for the invention of Baseball.
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These Polish settlers are known to have been skilled craftsmen, specialising in glass-blowing and the manufacture of tar and soap. The mentioned ‘strike’ is interesting in itself, as the event has been dubbed ‘the first strike in the name of equal rights in America’. Through their protest, these Poles secured for themselves the same voting rights as the rest of their community.
As for the issue of baseball, an award-winning 2005 book from David Block sheds a little more light:
[…] One of the Polish settlers, Zbigniew Stefanski of Wrocław […] published his Jamestown experiences as a memoir in 1625. […] Of particular interest is a Stefanski entry from the year 1609: ‘Soon after the new year, I, Sadowski, Mata, Mientus, Stoika and Zrenica initiated a ball game played with a bat… Most often, we played this game on Sundays. We rolled rags to make the balls… Our game even attracted the savages who sat around the field, delighted with this Polish sport’.
The author goes on to say it’s possible that ‘true credit for introducing baseball to America’ should go to none other than these early Polish immigrants.
Kingdom & field
So, what is palant, anyway? Well, it’s a Polish ball-and-bat game said to go back all the way to the Middle Ages. Here’s how Rafał Sadownik, a contemporary expert on the sport, describes its rules in an interview in the Dec 2013 issue of ‘Pismo Folkowe’:
Generally, there are two teams that draw […] their place. This can be either the ‘kingdom’ or the ‘field’. The players of Team X standing in the kingdom take turns to strike the ball and run to the poles of the finish line, located 55 metres away in the field, and return to the kingdom, which gives their team a point. Team Y, playing in the field, tries to ‘hit’ or ‘starve’ the team in the kingdom. A hit is when you throw and hit a running member of Team X. Hitting or starving leads to the teams swapping their places, when the team from the field may begin earning points by playing from the kingdom.
Typically, the teams are eleven strong. It’s worth adding that ‘hitting’ is disallowed when a runner is touching one of the poles, and that ‘starvation’ occurs when no players still allowed to strike are left in the ‘kingdom’. There does seem to be plenty of similarity to baseball, what with all the bases and ball-striking.
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Interestingly, in palant, depending on the set of rules the players agree upon, the throw of the ball leading to the strike may be executed either by an opponent or by the striker himself. Overall, there are a number of varieties of the game – you can have, for instance, special kinds of players, or a ‘kingdom’ and ‘field’ called ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, respectively. Still, across the different versions, the basics of palant remain the same.
The sport’s variety is undoubtedly the result of palant’s historic role as a folk game. Enjoyed as a casual pastime and devoid of codified rules, the sport evolved differently in different regions of Poland. It seems that the first rulebooks for palant appeared only in the 19th century. One such book was titled Bawmy się: Gry na Wolnym Powietrzu (Let’s Play: Outdoor Games), published around 1870 by an author using the pseudonym Stary Maciej (Old Matthias).
A 15th-century note taken in the records of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków is believed to be the first-ever written mention of palant. It states that in the year 1427:
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Jan Brzuszek, a fisherman from outside of Kraków, came to the rector with a complaint about a certain Peter, known as Pkal, as well as Stanislas and August from Mazovia – students, he assumed, who had mugged him on Trinity Sunday and beat him up using ‘pylathiks’.
According to Eugeniusz Piasecki (1872-1947) – a noted propagator of physical education and palant – these ‘pylathiks’ were, in fact, palant bats. Thus, sadly, the oldest mention of the game appears to be in a rather unfortunate context.
The battle of light & darkness
It may come as a surprise that the original, formative context of ball-and-bat games like palant is often understood to have been religious. In his highly interesting 2004 book Rochwist & Palant, devoted to Polish folk games, Wojciech Łopiński explains that:
Already in its most primal stages, what we call sport today reflected, beyond any doubt, the ties between folklore and religion.
The author elaborates by saying:
In many pagan cultures, the ball was a solar symbol. The fight for the ball often symbolised the fight of light and darkness and, consequently, a contest between good and evil.
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When it comes to palant, its religious aspect can clearly be seen in the aforementioned varieties that refer to parts of the pitch as ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’. In the village of Grabów, which continues to take pride in its longstanding palant traditions, a Palant Fest is held annually the day after Easter Monday – linking the game to Christianity’s most important holiday. Last year, the event featured two palant matches, a concert and a dedicated Mass at the local church.
By contrast, other palant aficionados attribute a rather different symbolic sphere to the sport. In the foreword to his 1938 book Palant – Technika, Taktyka, Przepisy (Palant: Technique, Tactics, Rules), Jan Jasiński writes:
The author goes on to link this to tribal struggles:
The entire sport is clearly reminiscent of chasing game (the ball), which is accompanied by a fight for it (in times of hunger, it wasn’t uncommon for two tribes, or two groups of hunters, to fight for game).
A perplexing turn of events
Regardless of how you choose to interpret the workings of palant, the game was undeniably one of the most popular in 19th- and early 20th-century Poland:
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In those days, it was the most appealing team sport, commonly played in all squares and city gardens. Palant quickly became the plague of tenement-house courtyards, the very curse of their inhabitants – who were constantly subject to the expenses caused by excited palant players breaking windows at random.
From the book ‘Palant: Technika, Taktyka, Przepisy’ by Jan Jasiński, trans. MK
Palant was also quite popular in the countryside. The fact that it was a very inexpensive sport to pursue only added to its appeal. To play, all you actually need is a ball… You can easily find a bat (in the form of a stick) in any wooded area, and as for the pitch, you can mark it out on any flat space. With rules that are easy to grasp, it’s hard to imagine a more widely accessible sport.
In 1918, palant’s significance was reflected in its inclusion in the curriculum of Polish schools, as an element of physical education. Already before World War II, however, the game’s popularity had begun to fade. Football – considered by many to be more dynamic – was undermining its leading position.
After the war, the demise of palant only quickened, despite the attempts of the Soviet-imposed communist regime to promote ‘common people’s sports’. Or perhaps this occurred precisely because of those attempts – many Poles felt that opposing the regime and its aims was the right thing to do.
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A notable example of the unsupportive atmosphere that eventually arose around palant is the case of Zofia Dowgird’s 1966 doctoral dissertation Formy Gry w Palanta na Obszarze Polski (Forms of Palant In Poland), written at Wrocław’s Higher School of Physical Education. Her scientific work, today considered a sound ethnographic treatment of the topic, was ridiculed by the period press as ‘insignificant’ and a ‘waste of time’.
In his aforementioned book, Wojciech Łopiński credits the wave of undeserved criticism of Dowgird’s work with a new meaning of the word ‘palant’. Whereas up until this point, it was used to describe the game itself, or the bat used in it, it soon became a synonym for ‘jerk’ – which remains how the word is typically understood today.
Still, the first Polish Palant Association emerged as late as 1957; the Silesia club, from the town of Rybnik, became Poland’s first official palant champion. But the sport’s position continued to dwindle. Eventually, it fell into obscurity and was preserved only in a handful of places. By the late 1970s, the association had been renamed the Polish Baseball and Softball Association.
The disappearing book
Despite the undeniable similarities and intriguing ties between palant and baseball, the Polish game cannot definitively be claimed as the origin of the American one. The most important premise for this claim, the memoirs of the Jamestown settler Zbigniew Stefanski, are widely regarded as apocryphal:
‘Pamietnik Handlowca’ or ‘Memorialium Commercatoris’ (Merchant’s Memoirs) […] was offered for sale in 1977 to the then curator of the Polish Museum in Chicago. This is where Waldo [Artur Waldo, a Polonia publicist and promoter] examined the book, authored by Zbigniew Stefanski and printed in Amsterdam in 1625, and copied parts of it before it was returned to its owners. The book then disappeared […] Despite repeated attempts since then, not one copy of this book has been located.
From the website of Casimir Pulaski Museum in Warka, trans. MK
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The content of the purported memoirs is known only from Artur Waldo’s 1977 book The True Heroes of Jamestown, where selections from them are reprinted. The mysterious fate of the Stefanski journal has led researchers to believe that it is, in fact, non-existent – that its text was fabricated…
There’s no denying, however, that Polish artisans were in Jamestown in the early 17th century. This is firmly grounded in credible historical sources, such as court records of the Virginia Company of London dating to 1619, which pertain to the aforementioned industrial strike. It is entirely possible that these Polish immigrants brought their own ‘national pastime’ of palant to the US with them, playing it in the fields of the New World. This in turn, could have led to the rise of some form of proto-baseball on American soil.
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The curious story of palant is worth remembering – especially since, according to the 2004 Encyclopaedia of International Sport Studies (edited by Roger Bartlett, Chris Gratton and Christer Rolf), since the 1980s, an international trend of reviving folk sports has aimed to ‘celebrate local and ethnic identities as alternatives to the rigid identities expressed in conventional international sports’. An interesting example of this trend can be found in the town of Gerlev, Denmark. At its Historical Playpark, opened in 1993, you can play a number of traditional games and sports from around the world, such as the Flemish krulbol.
As for palant, it’s seeing its own revival in Poland. In recent years, the sport has been presented favourably in the media, and the Polish Palant Society – whose mission is to ‘resurrect’ the game –has been active since 2015. Last year, it organised an open, co-ed palant workout at Pole Mokotowskie, a large, public green space in Warsaw.
Let’s hope today’s palant players hit it out of the park.
ball and bat games
history of Poland
Written by Marek Kępa, Jan 2018