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Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Gameby John Thorn
As the official historian for major league baseball and chief consultant to Ken Burns' magnificent 10-part documentary series Baseball, John Thorn surely ranks as one of the most knowledgeable individuals on our national pastime. His familiarity with and insight to the great game's convoluted and much-disputed history is seemingly voluminous. Throughout Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, Thorn chronicles baseball's formative years and dispels many of its century-old myths, mostly notably that Abner Doubleday created the game in Cooperstown, New York.
Despite more than a dozen decades of ardent devotion from fans around the nation, the true history of baseball is known by relatively few. What most people accept as the game's genesis, as the book reinforces many times, is little but a manufactured account lacking almost entirely in veracity. To illustrate the likely reasons behind this widespread misinformation, thorn quotes eminent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's thoughts on the topic:
Too few people are comfortable with evolutionary modes of explanation in any form. I do not know why we tend to think so fuzzily in this area, but one reason must reside in our social and psychic attraction to creation myths in preference to evolutionary stories for creation myths... identify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide no palpable, particular thing as a symbol for reverence, worship, or patriotism.
While baseball's roots have often been linked to games such as rounders, town ball, old cat (two old cat, three old cat), and even cricket, bat-and-ball games were played in ancient Egypt some 4,500 years ago. Although the exact origins of the game we now know as baseball are somewhat murky, there is evidence that some form of the game dates back in American history at least as far as 1735. As part of his exhaustive research on the subject, Thorn discovered an obscure 1791 by-law (from Pittsfield, Massachusetts) prohibiting the playing of baseball near the town meeting house. Obviously, Abner Doubleday (who interestingly enough went on to achieve fame at the battle of Fort Sumter and later Gettysburg) couldn't have invented a game in the mid-1800s that was already being played the century previous.
Nearly all of Baseball in the Garden of Eden is set in the mid to late 1800s when competing versions of the game were each vying for respectability and anointment as the accepted way to play. With a wide array of colorful characters, the game's early years (and some would argue the recent ones, too) were often characterized by greed, attempted monopolization, hippodroming, arrogance, racism, competing visions of what the game could or should be, and other opposing interests. Perhaps the strangest (or at least unlikeliest) factor in baseball's ascendancy was the role of the Theosophical Society.
Baseball in the Garden of Eden may well be the definitive account of baseball's beginnings. Thorn's illuminating and richly detailed work is itself a feat of scholarship, as he was able to extricate many unknown details about the game's early history in researching the book. While it would, of course, appeal to almost any fan with even a cursory interest in baseball's origins, Baseball in the Garden of Eden is one of the most erudite (and least opinionated) volumes in the entire baseball canon.
From the introduction:
I recognize that I may not presume my readers' familiarity with the themes and plots and players that make baseball's paleolithic period so fascinating to me. Prudence prompts the provision of a scorecard and a bit of a road map, too. As the book's title indicates, this is a serpentine tale, winding from ancient Egypt to Cooperstown on June 12, 1939, with present-day concerns regularly peeping through.
Recommended by Jeremy, Powell's City of Books
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"'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.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
The true, unknown, and wonderfully entertaining story of baseball's origins in the 19th century, as revealed by the game's preeminent historian.
About the Author
John Thorn was named the Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball by Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig in 2011. Thorn founded and edits Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, a semiannual scholarly publication. He was the coauthor of Total Baseball, a well-known baseball book, and many other baseball books, notably The Hidden Game of Baseball. He often appears on ESPN, the History Channel, and the MLB Network. He was the chief consultant and on-screen historian for Ken Burns's series "Baseball." He serves as publishing consultant to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Museum of the City of New York.
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