SC was 14 when the Cold War ended, and so, despite having decent recall of the 1980s, he was still confused when he read this offhand comment by Mark Liberman:
Chervel's essay is an instance of a familiar European hand-wringing type. It's reminiscent in some ways of American political self-loathing, but a closer analogy might be traditional American "missile gap" or "Japanese challenge" jeremiads. Or the old Soviet propaganda about how it was Russians who invented baseball, ice cream and electricity.
Russians inventing baseball? It's true that Abner Doubleday didn't actually do it, but the idea that baseball was a Russian game first was just too silly for SC to believe. However, since it's a real slow linguistics day for your host, and watching baseball is about the best use of SC's time that he can imagine for 6 months of the year ([AHEM -- Mrs. SC]), it seemed like it might be fun to track this down.
A quick search on Google turned up the word "lapta" within the first page, as well as a book of satirical essays by U.S. News columnist John Leo, called How the Russians Invented Baseball and Other Essays of Enlightenment. Lapta turns out to have some fairly strange rules:
Russians would divide into teams of five to ten players on a natural field. One player would throw a ball toward a member of the other side, who would try to hit it with a lapta stick and then run to the opposite side and back before the thrower's team could retrieve the ball and hit him with it. "Games resembling lapta, such as cricket and baseball, also exist in a number of foreign countries," notes an old Soviet encyclopedia.
SC has no idea what's going on in cricket games, but is pretty sure that the batter (or is it "batsman"?) spends some time running back and forth after hitting the ball. There certainly are visible similarities, but that hardly proves that baseball or cricket was actually copied from lapta. As for the encyclopedia mention, the closest that SC could come to verifying it was this secondhand citation:
According to the Big Soviet Encyclopaedia (3rd ed., English version, v.3 p.43), the American game of baseball is closely related to the Russian game lapta. Other "varieties of baseball" apparently include softball (which is popular in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic), cricket and pesäpallo in Finland.
Your host had a good chuckle over this fanciful essay, which imagines that Leon Trotsky was a frustrated lapta player who could have had a successful baseball career. As a story idea, it's not entirely original; the claim that Fidel Castro failed at a baseball career has been floating around for years, but it's not true. SC would love to know if there was ever any parallel fiction in the Soviet Union, perhaps suggesting that JFK or Ronald Reagan never would have opposed them if they had been successful at lapta.
Apparently, the idea that Russians invented baseball still has some cachet in Russia; this 2003 article from an English-language newspaper in St. Petersburg suggests they're not over it yet.