Baseball in the Garden of Eden

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.


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