While perusing the September 19, 1882 issue of Harper’s Young People, I came across an article on race-ball. If you search for race-ball or race-ball in 2023, you can expect to find some opinion pieces (and possibly some hot-takes) about baseball. But the Harper’s piece covered a different sort of race-ball, an indoor sport that made use of lacrosse sticks.

1882 diagram showing a race-ball field. The rectangular field dimensions are apx 100 yards by 50-80 yards. The bottom of the field shows two dens and lines, each labeled with letters. The top of the field is split down the middle with two separate home partitions.
Race-ball field diagram. See larger version below.

Having covered the 1891-92 genesis of basketball, which made the rounds in late 19th century YMCAs, I thought it would be fun to highlight Harper’s look at a late 19th century indoor sport that did not quite take off.

Introduction Race-Ball: A New Game

The Harper’s Young People article described race-ball in detail and even presented a visual aid in the form of a diagram. Since I could hardly hope to describe a sport I knew nothing about prior to reading this article better than the author, I will work through the original 1882 article in its entirety while supplementing it with my own commentary. First, let us begin with the original race-ball diagram, blown up slightly for your viewing convenience:

1882 diagram showing a race-ball field. The rectangular field dimensions are apx 100 yards by 50-80 yards. The bottom of the field shows two dens and lines, each labeled with letters. The top of the field is split down the middle with two separate home partitions.
Expanded from original. Note bottom numbers are 50 and 80.

The diagram provides approximate ranges for the size of a race-ball field, suggesting that there was no universal standard. This is not too surprising for an indoor sport that was likely played in YMCAs and other athletic clubs with different facilities. The approximate field dimensions indicated by the diagram are 100 yards by 50 or 80 yards. The use of or as a modifier on the lesser dimension is interesting. It suggests that fields were either about 50 or 80 yards on the shorter axis instead of 50 to 80 yards as a range. I assume the choice of or instead of to was intentional.

I will leave the explanation of game mechanics to the article itself. But as we will see, each team has a den on opposite sides of the shorter axis: C and D. Each den is fronted by a line, F for den C and E for den D. About 100 yards away on the other side of the court, we have Home B and Home A. As we will see, each den will be trying to deposit the ball in the opposite home while on offense. Thus, the members of C Den need to score in Home A while the members of D Den need to score in Home B.

Harper’s made matters needlessly complicated by insisting on using separate letters to denote each den, line, and home instead of simply using consistent notation for teams. Fortunately, I have untangled the mess and made things a bit simpler: Race-ball has two teams. In accordance with the diagram, we will call one team Left and the other team Right. Team Left is assigned Den C and Line Fand must score in Home A and defend Home B. Team Right is assigned Den D and Line E and must score in Home B and defend Home A.

Now let us proceed to the article itself.

Race-ball is a highly interesting game, combining the best points of lacrosse and chevy.

I am vaguely familiar with lacrosse, not so with chevy. My efforts to learn about chevy the sport have been largely thwarted by by the existence of Chevrolet. But perhaps we can learn more from the description of race-ball.

The game is played with five men on a side, each armed with a lacrosse bat.

It is a stick-ball sport. Each team has five players, although as we will learn shortly, only six players are ever on the field at any one time.

The sides congregate in their respective dens, and the captains toss for innings. Let us suppose the captain of C den wins the toss…

Similarly to modern football, the game begins with a coin toss. C den corresponds to the Left Team, so here the Left Team wins the coin toss and the Right Team loses the coin toss.

[T]he D den side then range themselves in a row on the line E, and the first man in on the line F, the latter having a lacrosse ball on his bat, and with this, directly the umpire cries “play,” he tears off in the direction of the “Home” A, and the D side give chase, the object of the man in being to drop the ball in his “Home” while part of his foot, at least, is over the “home line”; the object of the others, to deprive him of the ball and take it to their den.

This passage highlights why the author of the piece should have used a single symbol for the teams rather than using separate letters to denote the dens. Fortunately, I already provided the framework for this shift. See my re-written version of the above passage:

  • Team Right lost the coin toss. Its five members line up in a row outside their den.
  • Team Left won the coin toss. One of the five members of Team Left stands with the ball just outside his den, directly across from the five members of Team Right.
  • When the referee gives the signal, the ball-carrying member of Team Left begins running toward his goal, which is across the field and opposite from him. His goal is to drop the ball in his goal – Home A on the diagram – with at least one foot over his goal line.
  • The five members of Team Right give chase. Their goal is to take the ball away from Team Left and deposit the ball back in their own Den. Note their goal while on defense is to take the ball to their den, not to their goal.

The article then explains what happens if the player on offense scores, is tagged out, or otherwise abandons the turn:

If he get home, he waits till all his side get their innings, and then starts again; if not, he is out. Each man home counts one point, and the inning lasts till all are out, when the total is made up, and the other side go in, the highest score, of course, winning. When a man finds he can not get home, he may get the ball back to his den, and then wait his next inning, but without counting anything for his “failed inning.” None of the in side may help the man in; one minute is given to the out side to get ready between each man, and three minutes between each inning. The usual rules as to umpires, etc., will hold good, and the man in may not run into his opponents’ ground or out of bounds, or he is out, and if he unintentionally run into his own den he counts a “failed inning” as above.

There are three outcomes for the player with the ball:

  • He scores, giving his team a point, and returns to his den to wait for his next turn on offense
  • He loses the ball and is out, giving his team an out with only 4 remaining players on offense
  • He returns to his den without scoring or being tagged out, and waits for his next turn to try again

First, let us clarify how the article is using innings – because it is one sense similar to baseball and in another sense a bit different. Inning, broadly, refers to a team’s turn on offense. That is, the inning is the entire team’s turn on offense. The article also refers to individual players as having innings. However, here it means the individual player’s turn during an inning. If the ball runner scores or returns to his den voluntarily without scoring or being tagged out, he will have another turn in the inning. However, if he is put out, his role on offense is over for the inning.

Another point that is important to clarify is how an inning ends. An inning ends only when all five players on offense are tagged out. If a player scores, he will get another turn. If he scores again, he gets another turn. The only way an inning ends is when all five offensive players are out. In this sense, race-ball was similar to baseball, wherein an inning ends after three outs, regardless of how many at bats there were. The only difference is that in baseball the three outs are not tied to specific players whereas in race-ball each out was necessarily tied to a specific player.

The article notes that “one minute is given to the out side to get ready between each man.” The out side is the team on defense – initially the team which loses the coin toss. That they get one minute of rest between offensive runners makes sense since they would have been scrambling on defense. In theory, this seems to present some advantage to the offense since each runner is fresh – at least initially – while the defense has to exert itself chasing each runner and cannot swap out. I assume that “three minutes between each inning” refers to when the teams switch roles from offense to defense.

The description makes clear that none of the four players on the offensive team may help their teammate when he is running the ball. As for the runner himself, he “may not run into his opponents’ ground or out of bounds” – both of those result in an out. There is one odd point: “if [the ball runner] unintentionally runs into his own den he counts a ‘failed inning’…” This seems odd. So if the runner intentionally returns to his own den, it is explicitly not a “failed inning.” However, if he unintentionally returns to his own den, it is an out and a failed inning. It is not entirely clear how this would be adjudicated in practice.

Race-Ball Thoughts

The article leaves a few unanswered questions about race-ball. In addition to the ones I noted above about how innings work or how a referee would determine the manner in which an offensive player returns home…

  • Is the offensive player permitted to begin running with the ball before the defense may initiate pursuit? If they start at the same time, the defense would have a significant advantage for two reasons. Firstly, there are five players on defense against one on offense. Secondly, the defense has a shorter distance to the goal it is defending than the offensive player has to that goal to score.
  • What means is the defense permitted to use to stop the offensive player from scoring? Can they tackle the offensive player? Do they whack the ball out of the offensive players stick? This is unclear. Lest anyone thinks the answer is obvious, recall that some early versions of basketball bore an uncomfortable resemblance to tackle football.
  • The article noted in passing that the defense “may deposit the ball back in their own Den.” Does this mean that the offensive player has an opportunity to recover the ball and score?

In addition to clarifying these issues, I would make a change to rosters and innings. The structure presented in the article puts the defense at a distinct disadvantage as an inning wears on (one could argue this is fair since the game seems to structurally favor defense, but I would balance out those aspects as well – see bullet points above). I would be inclined to expand the rosters from 5 players on each side to 7 and have 4 players on defense at one time instead of 5. An “inning” would end after 3 outs. Outs would not be tied to specific players (think baseball). The defense would have the option to make substitutions after every X runner (I will pass on fine-tuning it for now). In theory, this would also work with different numbers of players on each team, for example five-on-five. My structure assumes that there will be multiple innings, so there is no danger of players not getting a turn. It adds some element of strategy by encouraging the offensive team to put its strongest runners at the top of the order.

There are many long-forgotten games like race-ball that could readily be dusted off and played today. I personally think that games like these could have a place in gym classes – giving kids new games to play along with a little history lesson. Race-ball, however, would need some tweaks to be amenable to playing indoors and to strip the potential for unnecessary violence which I suspect may have existed in the nineteenth century version. But if you are looking for a new sport to try (or invent), there are worse places to start than with this 1882 description of race-ball.