Of baseball and theosophy

They say the Greek goddess Athena blossomed from the head of Zeus, fully grown. Really. Something about him swallowing a woman pregnant with his daughter, developing a splitting headache, and then *POP!* Goddess.

This is how we like to think of beginnings: Painful, yet productive, ideas and accomplishments from great men, acting alone, driven by inspiration and genius. But it rarely works that way. Beginnings are messy, occuring over time and beholden to the efforts of many.

So John Thorn reminds us in his new book Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game. Thorn, who was recently named Major League Baseball’s Official Historian, has been working on the content of this book for nearly 30 years; it is the culmination of much new and revealing research, and it should be required reading for all serious students of baseball history.

While it’s well established that Abner Doubleday didn’t “invent” baseball, some of us still cling to the alternative narrative that Alexander Cartwright was the “father of modern base ball,” as noted on his Hall of Fame plaque. Thorn, however, disabuses us of even that notion.

At the same time, Thorn does his best to identify those who truly helped codify and make baseball the national pastime. He also delves into the curious story of how Abner Doubleday became known as the progenitor of a game with which he was never associated in his lifetime.

In many ways, Thorn’s book is a sequel to David Block’s outstanding Baseball before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game, published five years ago. Block’s research showed that baseball wasn’t a uniquely American invention. In fact, the American game is an evolution of an English game called, um, “base ball.” Unique details—such as pitchers, batters and fielders, bases and bats, circling the bases to score a run, even three swings for an out—were common rules by the late 1700s.

Thorn takes over where Block left off: The period around 1845, when the New York Knickerbockers famously codified the “New York Game,” the game that would sweep the nation in a couple of decades. Thorn makes it clear, however, that even the Knickerbockers’ subtler rules, such as the establishment of foul territory and the elimination of making baserunners out by hitting them with a ball, didn’t spring out of thin air or Alexander Cartwright’s head. Baseball teams that played before the Knicks had already codified many of those rules.

Thorn says, “John Ward had it right when he stated…the Knicks were consolidators rather than innovators.” At the same time, Alexander Cartwright was evidently “just” someone who proposed that the Knicks organize themselves and set standard rules. He didn’t actually drive any of the rules themselves.

Thorn claims that four men, who all played for the Knickerbockers, have “legitimate claims to baseball’s paternity.”
{exp:list_maker}Louis Fenn Wadsworth—”who gave us nine men, nine innings and perhaps the diagram of the playing field”—yet died a forgotten pauper in an almshouse;
Daniel “Dock” Adams, who may have invented the shortstop position and led the committe that decided that a set number of innings would finish a game (rather than a specific number of runs scored), helped set the basepath lengths at ninety feet and advocated that first-bound catches not be counted as outs;
William Rufus Wheaton, who was a member of the Gotham Baseball Club before joining the Knickerbockers. The Gotham team standardized such innovations as laying out a diamond (in Madison Square) and stopped the practice of throwing the ball at a runner to get him out. Wheaton also apparently wrote the initial Knickerbocker rules of 1845;
William H. Tucker, who assisted Wheaton in the writing of the rules “in some unknown measure.” {/exp:list_maker}Thorn also discusses the Massachusetts game, which had no foul territory and in which runners were out when hit by a ball (which was softer back then). The historian has a preference for the Massachusetts game and, upon his description of it, one does think it would be fun to watch today’s ballplayers doing things such as purposely hitting pitches backwards.

Beyond the manner in which the rules of baseball evolved, Thorn addresses the bigger question of how the game of baseball turned into the sport of baseball—how it morphed from a child’s game to an organized adult sport. This is Thorn’s prime territory, and he covers it throughly and well.

One of Thorn’s profound insights is the role gambling played in forcing the game to become standardized and well-enforced. (Otherwise, how can gamblers be sure of getting a fair shake?). Thorn says, to grow from a…

local game to a national sport…Adults must care about the outcome, and their willingness to place a wager is a reasonable measure of their interest. As a game matures, investors and civic boosters may pool their interests in order to absorb a greater risk, placing their bets on the protracted success of a club or a ball grounds.

In fact, during the National Association years, parts of the ballpark were known as “pool boxes” where gamblers could gather to lay their money down in an organized fashion. After these pools moved out of ballparks, they made their way into saloons and parlors, where gamblers also played a form of billiards that eventually took on the name of pool—with a capital “P.”

Thorn’s tale takes us through the entire 19th century. He is concerned less with the on-field exploits of our early heroes than the behind-the-scenes people and developments that turned baseball into the sport we know today. Along the way, he covers important topics such as the exclusion of African-Americans from professional leagues, the wars between capital and labor that marked many of the early years, and even women’s forays into organized baseball.

He also paints vivid pictures of baseball’s most compelling early figures, such as:
{exp:list_maker}Jim Creighton, baseball’s first superstar, who died from an injury suffered while hitting a home run. Thorn wonders if this story was apocryphal, but doesn’t appear to come down on either side of the argument;
Cap Anson, probably the greatest player of the century;
Mike Kelly, the most popular player of the century;
John Ward, who led the players against the eventual dominance of organized capital owners;
William Hulburt, the White Sox owner and true founder of the National League;
A.G. Mills, baseball’s “fixer”; and
Albert Goodwill Spalding, looming above them all. {/exp:list_maker}Thorn tells a couple of stories particularly well. First, there is the fascinating connection between Spalding and Doubleday through the Theosophical Society, a mystical religious movement of the late 1800s. I first learned about this connection in Block’s book; Thorn takes the subject further and wonders if Abner Graves (who claimed to have witnessed Doubleday literally creating the game in Cooperstown) was connected to the Society as well.

Alas, certain proof probably will never be available, but the temptation to claim that Spalding (who was singularly focused on ensuring that baseball be viewed as the American game) engineered Graves’ claim through a mystical society link is too juicy to ignore.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

Secondly, there is the phenomenal growth and popularity of baseball in the 1880s, followed by a dearth of popularity (and profits) in the 1890s, as baseball suffered from the country’s depression, as well as its own mismanagement. This, despite a monopoly enjoyed by the National League throughout the decade (compared to the 1880s, when there were three major leagues in existence).

It must be said that Thorn is a historian first and a writer second. His text is full of historical facts, and he spends a lot of time articulating how those facts fit together. His writing style can be formal, and some of his adjectives and adverbs obscure. His story doesn’t really compel the reader until he hits a rhythm in the second half of the book, particularly when outlining Spalding’s career, as well as the history of the Theosophical Society.

One wishes Thorn would go more deeply into some subjects that he only touched upon. For instance, he openly questions whether baseball bloomed after the Civil War because so many soldiers were exposed to the New York game during the war. This is sort of common wisdom right now, and it would be good to hear Thorn’s thoughts and research beyond the one paragraph in the book.

Still, if you’re interested in the early years of baseball, Thorn is the “go-to” guy. His research is thorough, and his mastery of the details is daunting. This book is the culmination of the very best baseball research you will find.

References & Resources
One particular early baseball episode highlighted by Thorn was covered wonderfully in Mark Lamster’s Spalding’s World Tour: The Epic Adventure that Took Baseball Around the Globe – And Made it America’s Game.

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