By Philip Howard
Recent news about Ocracoke Island’s new Little League baseball team, the “Raptors,” reminds me that Ocracoke has a long and fascinating connection with America’s national pastime.
Most of Ocracoke’s first settlers came from the British Isles. Young men in England and Scotland had developed an early folk game, “Cat and Dog,” which involved a piece of wood (a “cat”) that was thrown at a target, often a hole in the ground. Opposing players defended the target by hitting the wood away with a stick (a “dog”).
Two holes were used in some versions of this game that resembled cricket. A batter would hit the cat, then run between the holes while the opposing team would try to put the runner out by knocking the cat into the hole before the runner got to it.
Other manifestations of “Cat and Dog” evolved into a stick and ball game similar in many ways to modern baseball. In one version the “cat” was carved from a piece of wood about six inches long and two inches in diameter. Each end was tapered. The cat was placed on the ground, and either struck with a stick or stomped on with a foot. This would “catapult” the stick into the air so it could be hit with a stick.
In later versions, a ball was substituted for the piece of wood, and launched from a simple lever mechanism. Still later, a pitcher replaced the mechanical lever.
By the time Ocracoke was first settled, in the mid-1700s, “cat-ball” or “cat” was a popular outdoor recreation in colonial America, including Ocracoke.
Because folk games had no official rules, they changed over time and from place to place. No one knows exactly how “cat” was first played on Ocracoke Island. By the late nineteenth century Ocracoke boys played cat with a homemade ball, typically a core of string covered with old shoe leather. A stick of wood served as a bat.
In most ways “cat” was identical to modern baseball, with two teams, four bases (including home plate), a pitcher, a catcher, outfielders, and a batter. As in baseball, a batter would be “out” after three strikes, or if his fly ball was caught in the air.
On the other hand, “cat” had no designated boundary lines. If a batter hit the ball, no matter how hard, or in what direction, it was considered in play. Sometimes a batter would just “snick” the ball. (“Snick,” meaning to hit the ball with a glancing blow off the edge of the bat, a term used in cricket, has survived on Ocracoke since the colonial period.) If the ball flew off to one side, or even landed behind the batter, it was still in play.
Runners could be tagged out in the conventional manner, but generally the ball was thrown at the runner. If a runner was hit by the ball he was “out.”
During the first half of the twentieth century “cat” was played on Ocracoke with a soft rubber ball. Traditional baseball bats were used whenever they were available, though a simple wooden stick sufficed if necessary. Baseball gloves were almost unheard of.
The establishment of a Coast Guard station in Ocracoke village in 1904, and the construction of a naval base during World War II, brought a contingent of young men to the island. They often brought bats, balls, and gloves with them. By the late 1950s softball had replaced “cat” as the primary sport on Ocracoke. But the colonial ball game “cat” probably survived longer on Ocracoke than anywhere else in the United States.
For many years Ocracoke boys played “cat” on the school grounds, on the beach (near Loop Shack Hill and at the South Point), and in the grassy area beside the National Park Service Visitors Center.
Today, “cat” is a game remembered only by older islanders. But “cat” is a legacy that connects one of the island’s earliest traditions with a growing interest in Little League baseball today.
Let’s play ball!
Philip Howard enjoys researching island history which enriches his avocation as a story teller. Philip and his daughter, Amy will be doing a new version of their popular program at Deepwater Theater at 8 PM on Monday evenings called “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, Strange Stories & Quirky Tales of Ocracoke Island.” They also lead Ghost & History Walks on Tuesdays & Fridays.