Before the rise of baseball, early Americans played a host of ball and bat games, with names like rounders, stool ball and tip-cat. One of these games, wicket, was by far the most popular of them, especially in Connecticut, where for a few decades in the 1800s the sport was even more popular than baseball.
"Wicket was the game of our forefathers," said John Thorn, the official Historian for major league baseball. "Wicket was the game George Washington played at Valley Forge."
As far as historians can tell, wicket is an early form of cricket that was imported to the new world from England, and took on a life of its own, according to Thorn. "As the rules of cricket became formalized," he said, "and many of the variations on stumps and pitches changed, we had an odd, Galapagos island kind of preserved cricket in America."
Indeed, wicket has plenty of similarities to its sports cousin, cricket. Jayesh Patel dedicated a chapter of his forthcoming book on the history of cricket in the Americas to wicket. Patel said, "There are a lot of similarities to the way wicket was played, and then when you look at the cricket rules, they are more or less similar. The actual playing area was 75 feet long."
Here is video of Patel swinging one of the wicket bats at Bristol's Manross Library:
Compare that to baseball, where the distance between the pitcher and home plate is 60.5 feet. Unlike baseball, where hitters round bases on a triangle field, in cricket and wicket, hitters run back and forth between the wickets set in the middle of a round playing field, making for much higher scoring games than baseball.
But there are big differences between cricket and wicket, starting with the wicket itself. In the game of wicket, the wicket was long: six feet, and low, only inches above the ground, making it easy for the bowler or pitcher to knock the wicket off its stumps. But the wicket batsmen had an answer to the long exposed wicket: a big paddle-like bat that resembled an oversized spoon.
Another big difference was the duration of the game. With as many as 30 people fielding the ball, and only three innings, a wicket game can wrap up in an afternoon, unlike cricket matches that can last for days.
Based on vague references to the game in personal journals and diaries, wicket probably came to the new world sometime in the late 17th century. The game flourished in New England through the 1700s, but in an informal way. "There were no associations," Thorn said. "There were no printed rules. There seem to be ex post facto rules. There's more of a riotous feature to it."
But by the early 1800s, that all changed. Wicket clubs began popping up in New England, especially in Connecticut. These clubs followed official rules, games were officiated by an umpire. The sport had spectators and fans, and wicket flourished. Almost every town in Connecticut had a wicket team, and competition was fierce to earn a spot on the local club.
Perhaps the zenith of the sport came on July 18, 1859, when New Britain and Bristol -- the two best wicket teams in the state, perhaps in the country -- faced off at Federal Hill in Bristol for the state championship, with thousands of people watching. "It was more like a holiday that day,'" said Patel. "A train started from Hartford, and they added four more cabs to it, and by the time they reached New Britain, they were all full. There was a huge crowd around Federal Hill." Bristol won that game 190 to 152.
But while wicket was having its heyday in Connecticut, another game, the quicker, livelier game of baseball was gaining popularity. By the end of the Civil War, wicket was considered an old timers' game. "After the Civil War, we had a romance with science," said Thorn. "We had a romance with organization and form and progress, and wicket seemed primitive, like a game well worth dispensing of." By the 1890s, wicket games were few and far between, and by the turn of the 20th century, wicket was practically extinct.
That is, until a few weeks ago. Students from North Andover High School in Massachusetts have been playing wicket this fall as part of Brian Sheehy's "Sports of the Past" class. Sheehy was surprised by the skill involved in playing the old game. "The fielders are all spread out all over the field," Sheehy said. "So if you can hit it far enough in a direction where there aren't any fielders, you can score runs. But if you get up there and just try to kill it, you'll probably hit it back to the pitcher, or you'll miss it completely."
By today's standards, wicket is a crude, clumsy game. But it is perhaps the only American sport that evolved from a vigorous diversion, frowned upon by the Puritans in the early colonial times, to a full-fledged spectator sport during the industrial revolution. Sadly, unlike civil war encampments, or vintage baseball clubs, wicket nostalgia hasn't caught on just yet. The last known official wicket game was played in Newington in 1940.