Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: Baseball in the Garden of Eden

One upon a time, Harold Seymour wrote the first academic history of of the early years of baseball, not surprisingly, titled Baseball: The Early Years.  Actually there is some controversy whether Harold wrote more of it than his wife, Dorothy Seymour Mills.  Interesting dispute, but moving this review along, together they wrote a their ground-breaking narrative of baseball in the nineteenth century, leading up to the formation of the American League and the formation of modern baseball as we know it. Sadly it had all the narrative stylings of paint drying.  It is one of the few baseball books I've ever parted with. In all fairness, Seymour, and more importantly Mills, continued their research into baseball's past, and are worthy of your consideration in several volumes still in print or available inexpensively used. Ms. Mills is lauded for her pioneering work as baseball's first female historian in Baseball Prospectus
llustration by Homer Davenport in
Albert G.Spalding's America's National Game
Last year John Thorn, author of Total Baseball, published his examination of the origins of baseball, Baseball in the Garden of Eden.  While Thorn does provide a narrative outline of the professional game in the 19th century, that is not the chief purpose of the book.  Thorn's focus is on the efforts of leaders in the game to disguise the origins of baseball and weave baseball's creation myth out of whole cloth. 

Thorn's investigation begins with explorations into the nature of other bat and ball games including rounders, one-cat (including two-cat, and three-cat), town ball and the standardization of cricket's rules. More importantly, Thorn examines the rules, official and unofficial, of these games and where these games were played.  Without exception, Thorn offers evidence these games originated in England, and made their way across the Atlantic.  In addition, he is able to demonstrate these games were played in various parts of the country well before 1839, the year of Abner Doubleday's immaculate conception of the national game at Cooperstown, N.Y.
The Knickerbocker baseball club.  Alexander Cartwright is the middle figure in the back row.
What follows is an interesting discussion of the development of the "New York game," Baseball developed along two paths, in Massachusetts where the game was known as town ball, and in New York where the game was baseball.  In New York City the game began as gatherings of private clubs where two teams of seven to eleven players per side met for friendly exercise as their days ended in the late afternoon.  Thorn tells the story of the well-known Knickerbockers, as well as Alexander Cartwright's efforts to codify the rules of the game as the New York and New Jersey club scene evolved.

 Though Thorn devotes considerable ink to the history of the early years of professional baseball following the Civil War, the real hook to his story is the rise of Albert Spalding and his efforts to cast baseball as a homegrown American game.  Tracing the growing power and influence of Spalding, a ballplayer, an owner, and a sporting goods magnate, Thorn links him to the rise of the Theosophist Society.  The Theosophists became popular during the growth of secret societies, shrouded in mysticism that were quite trendy during the Victorian era.  The real joy of Thorn's narrative is his development of the conspiracy between members of the Theosophists, including Spalding, and other leaders to anoint Doubleday (a Civil War hero and leader of the Theosophists until his death in 1892) as baseball's godhead by the Mill's Commission in 1904. 
Al Spalding as a player with the Boston club.  He would later become extremely a powerful figure in the national game.
 Baseball in the Garden of Eden is a fascinating read.  Part baseball, part cultural and social history, part conspiracy investigation, I learned a lot about baseball's origins.  Written in a style that provides elucidation on the topic without being bogged down in detail, it is highly recommended.
Author John Thorn

1 comment:

Dave S. said...

Thanks for the review. I've got this one on my library list for next year (I've just got too many books on that list).