Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Baseball's top historian roots out truth behind fiction surrounding game's origins

Baseball's origins have been debated almost since its infancy. Who invented the game, and where? When was the first game played? Was it a wholly American concoction or did it descend from the British game of rounders? In the early 1900s, A.G. Spalding assembled a committee to settle the issue for once and for all. In 1908, his Mills Commission tabbed Abner Doubleday as the game's founder.

Doubleday's ties to the game came under fire eventually, with a new creator emerging in the form of Alexander Cartwright, a member of New York's Knickerbocker club in the 1840s. As the Doubleday Myth was discredited, Cartwright took the general's place as "father of baseball," earning recognition as such in the Hall of Fame in 1938. Turns out his stake to the title was no more valid than Doubleday's. John Thorn, who was recently named Major League Baseball's official historian, explores both men's connections—and lack thereof—in his new book Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game.

If not Doubleday or Cartwright, then who? Thorn uncovered a few new heroes that may finally get their due. But the book does much more than credit (and discredit) baseball's founding fathers. Thorn examines the role that gamblers played in the sport's early days, sparking interest in the young game and earning it newspaper coverage, which helped legitimize it as a pastime for adults to follow. He also shines a light on the Magnolia Ball Club, which seems to almost purposefully have been written out of baseball's history despite preceding the famed Knickerbockers by two years.

Baseball in the Garden of Eden took Thorn nearly three decades to complete. His focus naturally shifted over time from simply digging up the evidence to document the origins of the game to understanding why the truth was so shrouded in the first place. The result is a fascinating tale that will help inform discussion of the sport's founding in years to come. To read my full review, visit BaseballAmerica.com.

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