Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: Baseball in the Garden of Eden (2012)

By John Thorn

Ask the casual baseball fan who invented baseball, and the answer probably will come back as "Abner Doubleday." He is said to have created the national pastime in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839.

This is despite the fact that Doubleday was a student at West Point at the time. Indeed, his historical claim to fame was actually that he was at Fort Sumter when the Confederacy attacked to start the Civil War in 1861.

But if not Doubleday, then who?

John Thorn, the official historian for major league baseball, took that task on. His long, long search covered decades, and the story of his investigation is smartly recounted in "Baseball in the Garden of Eden."

Many games don't have a simple genesis; basketball and Dr. James Naismith might be the exception that proves the rule. It doesn't take a historian to take a look at the British game of cricket to conclude that the English brought the game over to the New World, and it went through some unknown adaptations to get to be baseball. An intermediate step probably was the English game called "rounders."

But that's merely the outline of the story. Ball and bat games have been around for centuries. If you are looking for absolute proof that baseball predates Doubleday's alleged invention, check out the town laws of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1791. It seems that a game called "baseball" if played too close to a meeting house, was declared illegal.

Slowly but surely, baseball evolved during the 1800's. The number of bases and players increased to the point where we might recognize it -- although Thorn doesn't spend much time trying to help the reader picture what the early variations of the game resembled. Regional differences in the rules slowly disappeared, with the Knickerbockers of New York getting plenty of credit for standardization along the way. Eventually the game reached the point where nine men on the field and nine innings was more or less than standard. From there it was an easy jump to professionalism, which arrived in a manner of speaking in 1869, and a full national league, in the form of a National League, in 1876.

The road was pretty bumpy from there, as Thorn nicely recounts. Teams came and went, and the reserve clause was born along the way -- a device to control salaries that lasted almost a century. We even saw the rise and fall of The Players League in 1890, and the arrival of the American League at the turn of the century. But somehow baseball survived and prospered.

Thorn knocks down plenty of myths about the game's early days. Alexander Cartwright has been given plenty of credit for his role in the development of the game, but Thorn can't find much support for such claims. Henry Chadwick at least tirelessly promoted the game, in part through writing and editing.

So where did Doubleday come from? Thorn recounts the work of a commission in 1907-08 created to find out how baseball came about. It was a rather nationalistic time, and coming up with a story that said the game had evolved from a British ancestor just wouldn't do. One person came forward to claim he had been in Cooperstown when Doubleday's work was introduced. Even though the witness didn't have much credibility, the story was accepted as fact without any backing research.

Why Doubleday? Thorn goes into the history of theosophy, a philosophy designed to promote brotherhood as well as the study of other religious and unexplained laws of nature. Al Spaulding - a baseball player who went into the sporting goods business - was connected to theosophy through his wife. Doubleday was also a follower, so when the connection more or less fell out of the sky, the group issued its finding.

The obvious danger of a book like this is that it can be dry. Thorn does a good job of keeping the material fresh. Some quoted material from the 19th century can be slightly slow going. Even so, the only part that really drags is the sections on theosophy. They are probably necessary to the story, but they do glaze the eyes.

Overall, though, "Baseball in the Garden of Eden" puts the pieces of baseball's development together and makes some sense out of them. Those interested in the subject will find much to enjoy here, and maybe it smashes for good a few misconceptions about the game's roots that have been around for far too long.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

No comments:

Post a Comment