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.