Introducing lapta, Russia’s 400-year-old version of baseball

If you do have the desire to watch and play, we recommend that you visit Pushkino, where local lapta fans having been organizing outdoor games in the summer for several years now.

If you do have the desire to watch and play, we recommend that you visit Pushkino, where local lapta fans having been organizing outdoor games in the summer for several years now.

Lori/Legion Media
In tsarist times this game used to help soldiers stay in shape. Today it is played by eccentrics who wish to be different. We're talking about lapta, Russian baseball.

If you look up lapta in a dictionary or encyclopedia, it will describe the game as a traditional Russian sport. But the chances of seeing this game played in Russia today are about as high as seeing a bear stroll down the street – i.e. practically zero.

And even if you are lucky enough to see a match, you will probably understand what is going on just as much (or even better) than most Russians. The reason is simple: Lapta resembles the highly popular (especially in the U.S.) sport of baseball, which in Russia is little known.

Actually, it would be more correct to say that it is baseball that resembles lapta, since the American game became popular only in the 19th century, while lapta already existed 400 years earlier.

History

Balls and bats dating back to the 14th century have been found among the ruins of Novgorod the Great (335 miles northwest of Moscow). In the 18th century lapta was an important activity for physically preparing the soldiers of Peter the Great’s army. Later the game became a major pastime.

After the October Revolution in 1917, however, the first People's Commissar of Military Affairs (equivalent to minister) Nikolai Podvoisky excluded lapta from the preparation program for Red Army soldiers. Today lapta is not played in the Russian army.

How to play

Two teams with a minimum of three players each are needed to play the game. A rubber ball (or tennis ball) and bats are used. A traditional lapta bat has a spade-like shape. But today round ones are also used, similar to baseball bats.

The field is around 30-40 yards wide and 40-55 yards long. One part of the field is called the kon, the other the gorod. The serving team occupies the gorod while their opponents stand in the kon zone. A player from the serving team hits the ball with the bat as far out into the field as he can, after which he runs onto the other half of the field and then returns to the gorod.

As he is running, his opponents try to catch the ball and throw it at him. If this happens, one of the players from the kon goes to the gorod. If not, then they must retrieve the ball. The runner tries to return "home" before the ball is returned to the gorod. Otherwise he has to return behind the kon line and run again, now with the serve of his teammate. The game is won when all the members of one team have hit the ball and returned to the gorod.

Where to play

Today lapta in Russia has lost its popularity. Children know it only from books and films. Seeing a live lapta match is a real challenge.

But if you do have the desire to watch and play, we recommend that you visit Pushkino (20 miles northeast of Moscow), where local lapta fans having been organizing outdoor games in the summer for several years now.

"It's very easy to learn how to play lapta,” said one of the players, Arina Prokopovich. “In order to understand the rules you just need to observe the players a bit. It's all very emotional. There are injuries, of course, but it's interesting.”

Prokopovich decided to try the sport when she saw my friends playing it a couple of years ago.

“It's nice to think that you are playing a rare game and not something like soccer or basketball," she said.

Read more: 9 Soviet children’s yard games>>>

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