Baseball in the Garden of Eden

Today, the number of people who believethat Abner Doubleday invented baseball is probably around the same as thenumber of those who believe that George Washington could not tell a lie. But ifnot young Abner, who? The question of baseball’s origins, whether it wasinvented in this country—and, if so, by whom—or whether it evolved from ancientbat-and-ball games through the English game of rounders (say it ain’t so!), hasbedeviled fans and promoters of the game for well over a century. But, as JohnThorn shows in Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The SecretHistory of the Early Game, the origins of what we call baseball is amany-branched evolutionary tale. Inconvenient, complex, and slippery in detail,it was countered by a creation myth, the fabrication of which became anexercise in intrigue and hucksterism.

Onecould say that creating the story of baseball is the story of baseball. It is a sport whose popularity andprofitability were advanced by a concocted narrative that looked back to aprelapsarian American past where clean-limbed men played on greensward for thelove of the game with nary an obscenity heard, nor drink taken, nor wagerstruck. The more ruthless the business—and ruthless it became with theestablishment of the reserve clause, the racist “gentlemen’sagreement,” and syndicate ownership—the more appealing and infused withnostalgia that Edenic fantasy was. Indeed, by the turn of the 19thcentury, 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 theway of other bygone or discredited amusements, such as pedestrianism orratting.” Thus the creation of baseball’s creation began.

Thosewho sought, in the game’s origins, “an indefinable spark of Americaningenuity without foreign or evolutionary taint” found an ideal candidatefor 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 notbeen especially fond of sports during his lifetime, but what of it? He had beensafely dead for a decade when the game’s paternity was officially conferred onhim in 1908 by the Special Base Ball Commission assigned the task ofdetermining baseball’s origins.

Drawingon the research of others and his own relentless sleuthing, Thorn looks intothe general fishiness of Doubleday’s apotheosis and investigates what it owedto the machinations of a couple of powerful women in the American TheosophicalSociety, of which Doubleday had been president. One was the long-time mistress—andlater wife—of Albert Spalding, sports-equipment magnate, PR whiz, and schemernonpareil. Spalding is a central player in this colorful festival of sharpoperators, connivers, and mighty strange customers. Also prominent among themis Abner Graves, the deus ex machina who suddenly popped up in April, 1905 toclaim that he had, some 65 years earlier, been a witness to Doubleday’sinvention of baseball. (Graves, whose character was not without blemish, latermurdered his wife.)

Thorn, baseball’s most eminenthistorian, investigates the hanky-panky (in every sense) that lay behindbaseball’s creation myth, and while doing so teases out the complicated tanglethat was the game’s actual evolution. The first promoters of what became thenational version of baseball, the New York game, were intent on divorcing thesport 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 exercisein wholesome surroundings. Thorn unpacks this seemingly straightforwardaspiration to show its enormous complexity, starting with the demographicchanges that created a “bachelor culture” in the city and going on todescribe the air of “chivalric courtliness” and “phonymedievalism” that pervaded the early games. He shows how the threat ofcholera gave rise to recreational fields, and scrutinizes the club rules thatkept the lower orders out of the game. The lofty ideal of genteel amateurismremained powerful—so much so, that an actual working-class team, the Magnolias,was written out of history. But reality was different. With the introduction ofenclosed fields, paid admission, player emoluments, and the game’s increasingimmersion in the unsportsmanlike sporting culture, baseball developed into abrass-knuckle business, the stages of which Thorn lays out in salient detail.

Thisbeautifully written, truly revelatory book brings together vast research,including archival discoveries—and even the discovery of an archive. Thatcrucial trove, believed lost to flames, is the data and testimony gathered bythe Commission, material out of which a Spalding employee culled evidence tosubstantiate the (false) claim that baseball is of strictly American origin. Itis also a work of incisive revision, so corrective of received opinion and soalert to unexpected evolutionary links that, at times, the narrative threatensto 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 populatedwith rum characters, wide-awake opportunists, and bouyant dreamers. Even thereader who is dead to the question of how many feet a pace actually representedon September 23, 1845 will find here a magnificent portrayal of one of thegreat strains of American history.