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Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game

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Overview


Think you know how the game of baseball began? Think again.

Forget Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown. Forget Alexander Joy Cartwright and the New York Knickerbockers. Instead, meet Daniel Lucius Adams, William Rufus Wheaton, and Louis Fenn Wadsworth, each of whom has a stronger claim to baseball paternity than Doubleday or Cartwright.

But did baseball even have a father—or did it just evolve from other bat-and-ball games? John Thorn, baseball’s ...

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Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game

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Overview


Think you know how the game of baseball began? Think again.

Forget Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown. Forget Alexander Joy Cartwright and the New York Knickerbockers. Instead, meet Daniel Lucius Adams, William Rufus Wheaton, and Louis Fenn Wadsworth, each of whom has a stronger claim to baseball paternity than Doubleday or Cartwright.

But did baseball even have a father—or did it just evolve from other bat-and-ball games? John Thorn, baseball’s preeminent historian, examines the creation story of the game and finds it all to be a gigantic lie, not only the Doubleday legend, so long recognized with a wink and a nudge. From its earliest days baseball was a vehicle for gambling (much like cricket, a far more popular game in early America), a proxy form of class warfare, infused with racism as was the larger society, invigorated if ultimately corrupted by gamblers, hustlers, and shady entrepreneurs. Thorn traces the rise of the New York version of the game over other variations popular in Massachusetts and Philadelphia. He shows how the sport’s increasing popularity in the early decades of the nineteenth century mirrored the migration of young men from farms and small towns to cities, especially New York. And he charts the rise of secret professionalism and the origin of the notorious “reserve clause,” essential innovations for gamblers and capitalists. No matter how much you know about the history of baseball, you will find something new in every chapter. Thorn also introduces us to a host of early baseball stars who helped to drive the tremendous popularity and growth of the game in the post–Civil War era: Jim Creighton, perhaps the first true professional player; Candy Cummings, the pitcher who claimed to have invented the curveball; Albert Spalding, the ballplayer who would grow rich from the game and shape its creation myth; Hall of Fame brothers George and Harry Wright; Cap Anson, the first man to record three thousand hits and a virulent racist; and many others. Add bluff, bluster, and bravado, and toss in an illicit romance, an unknown son, a lost ball club, an epidemic scare, and you have a baseball detective story like none ever written.

Thorn shows how a small religious cult became instrumental in the commission that was established to determine the origins of the game and why the selection of Abner Doubleday as baseball’s father was as strangely logical as it was patently absurd. Entertaining from the first page to the last, Baseball in the Garden of Eden is a tale of good and evil, and the snake proves the most interesting character. It is full of heroes, scoundrels, and dupes; it contains more scandal by far than the 1919 Black Sox World Series fix. More than a history of the game, Baseball in the Garden of Eden tells the story of nineteenth-century America, a land of opportunity and limitation, of glory and greed—all present in the wondrous alloy that is our nation and its pastime.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

There is something sacred about baseball. Of course, other sports have histories and Hall of Fames, but there is a mythic quality about our National Pastime that gives diamond history a special aura and makes Cooperstown a hallowed shrine. Of course, religions beget schisms, so it's only logical that fierce debates would eventually rage over the origins of baseball and its real birthplace. Over the years, there have been several good books on the subject, but John Thorn's new one is the best yet. In central ways, Baseball in the Garden of Eden isn't really a history of the subject; it's a meta-history. Thorn delves into the secret or unconscious motivations behind claims about the game's true beginnings, exposing the hidden agendas of several prominent figures. Obviously though, the author is far too infatuated with the early history of baseball to focus exclusively on this primal question. In fact, his insightful recapitulation of the sport's evolution during its early years qualifies as first-rate social history. Even crossover readers will be fascinated by his discussion of gambling, greed, class warfare, and racism in baseball's formative decades.
—R.J. Wilson, Bookseller, #1002, New York NY

Publishers Weekly
"It is said in folklore circles that when a custom is too old for its origins to be remembered, a story is often devised to rationalize what would otherwise be baffling," writes noted baseball historian Thorn (Total Baseball). "Such has been the case with baseball." Thorn strives to set the record straight. Among his innumerable revelations are that gambling actually legitimized the game, and that baseball's presence in America dates back to at least 1791 in Pittsfield, Mass. Long believed to be the founding fathers of baseball, Alexander Joy Cartwright and Abner Doubleday were the tools of "those who wanted to establish baseball as the product of an identifiable spark of American ingenuity." Thorn has done an admirable job in uncovering the truths and fossils of baseball's foggy prehistoric era, but the book is so dense with key figures and historical minutiae (the book spans from ancient Egypt to the opening of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939) that it becomes plodding. With the help of an index and a highlighter, baseball lovers will savor the book as reference material. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“With elegance, wit and precision, John Thorn traces the lineage of baseball, a melting pot of cultures and diversions that became quintessentially American. Baseball in the Garden of Eden is a must read for anyone who claims to know the game.”

—Jane Leavy, Author of The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and The End of America’s Childhood and Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy

“Baseball’s creation myth—Abner Doubleday in a Cooperstown pasture in 1839—has the merit of being enchanting but the defect of being false in every particular. Now comes another of John Thorn’s many contributions to our understanding of baseball, proof that the game is even older and more interesting than most fans know.”

—George F. Will, Author of Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball

“What a garden of delight! John Thorn takes us through the tangled history of the game’s origins with great good humor and flair. He accepts nothing on face value, but gives all sides their due. A pleasure for fans, but also for anyone with an interest in history and myth.”

—Kevin Baker, Author of Strivers Row

“No one knows baseball history as well as John Thorn or writes about it more ably. And there is no one better suited to record—with affection, amusement and sometimes hilarity—the chicanery, misrepresentation and downright lies that have obfuscated the fascinating story of the origins and development of our national game.”

—Robert W. Creamer, Author of Babe: The Legend Comes to Life and Stengel: His Life and Times

“No sport clings to its myths like baseball, which means it takes a baseball historian of the first rank like John Thorn to turn those myths upside down and inside out. Baseball in the Garden of Eden offers enlightenment for every fan. It is also a joy to read.”

—Michael Shapiro, Author of Bottom of the Ninth and The Last Good Season

“An invaluable, enduring and unique history of the early game and how it swiftly changed, in some ways for the worse, and yet survived and thrived."

—David Nemec, Author of The Great Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Baseball

“The One True Game’s old creation myths are nowhere near as interesting and as much fun as the truths that Thorn digs up about the conspiracies, vices, and raucous behavior of baseball’s earliest innings.”

—Robert Lipsyte, author of An Accidental Sportswriter

“No one, absolutely no one, knows more about the history of our national pastime than John Thorn, and this new book ought to settle once and for all many of the questions fans have about baseball’s origins. Superb.”

—Ken Burns

“John Thorn's Baseball in the Garden of Eden reveals a secret history of the early game that is more fantastical (and funny) than any concocted story.”

—Jim Bouton, Author of Ball Four

"If you love history or baseball, you will enjoy Thorn’s impeccably researched tome; if you love both, you will be mesmerized."

—Dave Sheinin, The Washington Post

Library Journal
Thorn, who co-created Total Baseball and served as a chief consultant on Ken Burns's Baseball documentary, goes back into the world of 19th-century baseball, exploring the game's early years and the various claims to its invention: Doubleday? Cartwright? Thorn explores each man's connections to the game, along with the men who boosted their roles. Whether describing New York's Knickerbockers of 1845 baseball, the Gotham Baseball Club, the game in New England, or on Hoboken's Elysian Fields, Thorn shows his chops as a primary-source researcher. The results are best for fans of the cerebral game of baseball history and all who like Peter Morris's books on those early years.—M.H. — "Sneak Peak," Booksmack! 1/20/11
Kirkus Reviews

A prominent baseball historian's delightfully literate take on the mythmakers who shaped the story of the game's creation.

A glittering 1889 banquet at Delmonico's—Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain attended—welcomed home Albert Goodwill Spalding's baseball team from a world tour. A rousing speech by baseball executive A.G. Mills, insisting on the game's exclusive American provenance, drew table-thumping cries of "No rounders!" This patriotic desire to claim baseball for our own, to distance it particularly from any British influence (rounders or cricket), led eventually to the appointment in 1905 of the Special Baseball Commission, charged with establishing once and for all the game's true origins. The stacked Commission settled on Civil War hero Abner Doubleday as the inventor and Cooperstown, N.Y., as the garden from which the game sprang. As scholars and sophisticated fans have long known, and as sabermetrics pioneer Thorn (editor:New York 400: A Visual History of America's Greatest City with Images from the Museum of the City of New York, 2009, etc.) meticulously demonstrates, the Commission was spectacularly wrong: The game surely pre-dated Doubleday and, in fact, had many fathers and a variety of evolutionary strands before knitting itself into the baseball we recognize today. The author autopsies the game's short-lived, prelapsarian era before moving to the time when codification of rules made baseball attractive as a spectator event, a business and a perfect vehicle for gambling. He charts the cheating, gambling, drugs (only alcohol then), color bans and the host of other sins already a part of the game's history before the Commission ever convened. Thorn expertly sifts the mix of high and low motives accounting for the anointment of Doubleday and Cooperstown, resuscitates names and teams vastly more important to the game's origins and cheerfully limns a parade of Gilded Age entrepreneurs, hucksters, journalists and promoters, whose charming fantasy of baseball's ancestry persists in the popular mind.

A singular treat for baseball fans.

Bruce Weber
Among the many books that have educated us about the birth and infancy of baseball, John Thorn's extraordinarily detailed and well-documented Baseball in the Garden of Eden is the advanced seminar, the one that begins by telling you that everything you thought you knew is wrong…Thorn…has used the myth-debunking framework to paint a more thoroughgoing picture of 19th-century baseball than has been presented before…[it's] a vexingly complicated story to tell, and one of the strengths of this book is that he shies from none of the complexities. The development of the game took place off the field as much as it did on, and Thorn scrupulously traces the influence of a variety of social forces on its progress and popularity…
—The New York Times
Dave Sheinin
If you love history or baseball, you will enjoy Thorn's impeccably researched tome; if you love both, you will be mesmerized.
—The Washington Post
The Barnes & Noble Review

Today, the number of people who believe that Abner Doubleday invented baseball is probably around the same as the number of those who believe that George Washington could not tell a lie. But if not young Abner, who? The question of baseball's origins, whether it was invented in this country -- and, if so, by whom -- or whether it evolved from ancient bat-and-ball games through the English game of rounders (say it ain't so!), has bedeviled fans and promoters of the game for well over a century. But, as John Thorn shows in Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, the origins of what we call baseball is a many-branched evolutionary tale. Inconvenient, complex, and slippery in detail, it was countered by a creation myth, the fabrication of which became an exercise in intrigue and hucksterism.

One could say that creating the story of baseball is the story of baseball. It is a sport whose popularity and profitability were advanced by a concocted narrative that looked back to a prelapsarian American past where clean-limbed men played on greensward for the love of the game with nary an obscenity heard, nor drink taken, nor wager struck. The more ruthless the business -- and ruthless it became with the establishment of the reserve clause, the racist "gentlemen's agreement," and syndicate ownership -- the more appealing and infused with nostalgia that Edenic fantasy was. Indeed, by the turn of the 19th century, baseball was so besmirched by owner-rigged games and its spectators' behavior had become so unedifying, that its promoters believed that "without a vision of its former glory as national pastime it might go the way of other bygone or discredited amusements, such as pedestrianism or ratting." Thus the creation of baseball's creation began.

Those who sought, in the game's origins, "an indefinable spark of American ingenuity without foreign or evolutionary taint" found an ideal candidate for baseball's only begetter in General Abner Doubleday, the Union officer who, in April, 1861, directed the first shot at Confederate forces. True, he had not been especially fond of sports during his lifetime, but what of it? He had been safely dead for a decade when the game's paternity was officially conferred on him in 1908 by the Special Base Ball Commission assigned the task of determining baseball's origins.

Drawing on the research of others and his own relentless sleuthing, Thorn looks into the general fishiness of Doubleday's apotheosis and investigates what it owed to the machinations of a couple of powerful women in the American Theosophical Society, of which Doubleday had been president. One was the long-time mistress -- and later wife -- of Albert Spalding, sports-equipment magnate, PR whiz, and schemer nonpareil. Spalding is a central player in this colorful festival of sharp operators, connivers, and mighty strange customers. Also prominent among them is Abner Graves, the deus ex machina who suddenly popped up in April, 1905 to claim that he had, some 65 years earlier, been a witness to Doubleday's invention of baseball. (Graves, whose character was not without blemish, later murdered his wife.)

Thorn, baseball's most eminent historian, investigates the hanky-panky (in every sense) that lay behind baseball's creation myth, and while doing so teases out the complicated tangle that was the game's actual evolution. The first promoters of what became the national version of baseball, the New York game, were intent on divorcing the sport from its vulgar origins in rowdy bat-and-ball-games of rural areas. Baseball, for them, was a game for men of the better sort, a way to take manly exercise in wholesome surroundings. Thorn unpacks this seemingly straightforward aspiration to show its enormous complexity, starting with the demographic changes that created a "bachelor culture" in the city and going on to describe the air of "chivalric courtliness" and "phony medievalism" that pervaded the early games. He shows how the threat of cholera gave rise to recreational fields, and scrutinizes the club rules that kept the lower orders out of the game. The lofty ideal of genteel amateurism remained powerful -- so much so, that an actual working-class team, the Magnolias, was written out of history. But reality was different. With the introduction of enclosed fields, paid admission, player emoluments, and the game's increasing immersion in the unsportsmanlike sporting culture, baseball developed into a brass-knuckle business, the stages of which Thorn lays out in salient detail.

This beautifully written, truly revelatory book brings together vast research, including archival discoveries -- and even the discovery of an archive. That crucial trove, believed lost to flames, is the data and testimony gathered by the Commission, material out of which a Spalding employee culled evidence to substantiate the (false) claim that baseball is of strictly American origin. It is also a work of incisive revision, so corrective of received opinion and so alert to unexpected evolutionary links that, at times, the narrative threatens to split at the seams. There is, of course, a degree of baseball wonkery here, but the book is, above all, a deep and many chambered social history well populated with rum characters, wide-awake opportunists, and bouyant dreamers. Even the reader who is dead to the question of how many feet a pace actually represented on September 23, 1845 will find here a magnificent portrayal of one of the great strains of American history.

--Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743294034
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.44 (h) x 1.27 (d)

Meet the Author

John Thorn

John Thorn co-created the groundbreaking Total Baseball, the sabermetric classic The Hidden Game of Baseball, and was the chief consultant for Ken Burns’s television series Baseball. He was appointed Official Historian of Major League Baseball in 2011.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 14, 2011

    Weirdly Written

    I know, what type of title for a review is that, well it's the best I could do with what I read. I heard about this book on NPR and heard the author talk and was instantly interested. Unfortunately I was truly let down once I dug into the book. It is obvious that Mr. Thorn is an expert on the history of baseball, that he has more than done his homework, and that his hypothesis is quite well supported and even admired. However, his writing organization, voice and structure truly threw me. If you love baseball and want a look at the early game you will get through this book as I did, but if you are looking for a good story and narrative say like, D. Kearn Goodwin's Lincoln Team of Rivals, you will be let down as I was.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2012

    Entertaining

    I enjoyed this book. It went a little sideways in terms of spaldings cult dealings. Overall it was good.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2012

    Blughh :P

    Don't read it. If this book had any physical taste to it it would
    have to be cardboard. The author here seems to put a lackluster
    vibe into telling us what could have been a very interseting true
    to life account. Sorry, Thorn. You've failed miserably.
    Sincerely,
    Christian Parker

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  • Posted October 25, 2011

    About what I would have expected

    Knowing John Thorn's work mostly through the Ken Burns "Baseball" documentaries, and being aware that he is the official MLB historian now, I knew this book would be well-written. It was very interesting to discover others around the game in its formative years that give a person looking back more of an impression of how a game would've evolved, and couldn't just spring from the mind of one individual.

    Thorn does a good job of going into details about the Mills Commission, how it worked, as well as its intentions and motivations. I gained an appreciation of what they were trying to do (although I was non-plussed by the cult backstory surrounding A.G. Spalding). I believe the intentions of Mills in particular was mostly noble, but see how it could easily get off the track with primitive methods of research (namely that it was largely word-of-mouth).

    As always with these types of books, I came away wanting even more detail, especially about how certain types of on-field plays came into being, etc. Overall, other than the cult business Spalding was involved in (necessary to be aware of, but too much detail paid to it, in my opinion), this was just what I expected. Very much recommended for anyone who wants to understand the origins of the game we see in the 21st century.

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  • Posted April 24, 2011

    what a book!

    history of baseball!

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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