It is a well-known absurdity by now that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, NY. John Thorn brings a scholar's approach and an archeological researcher's depth to the topic of who really invented both the game and its official history, as well as when, how--and perhaps, most importantly because most often overlooked--why.
Baseball had many antecedents in American, British, and even earlier history (George Washington is recorded as playing a game of wickets--an earlier variant using cricket wickets for bases--with the troops at Valley Forge in 1778!), and Thorn mines the most unlikely of sources as he untangles the family threads that lead to modern baseball. He also details the history of the 1905 commission that established Doubleday as the dubious founder of the feast, relying on the commission's complete file of original research, missing for decades and presumed destroyed by fire, but uncovered and donated to the Hall of Fame (in Cooperstown, of course) in 1999.
But perhaps most importantly, Thorn talks much about why--
Why did a localized game witn many variants become dominated by a single version that became "America's" pastime? His answer doesn't reach back into a pristine past, but prefigures what we always assume is the more soiled present: gambling, statistics, and publicity were the key drivers in Thorn's view.
Why was Doubleday the honored one, instead of more deserving men, some unremembered by the 1905 commission, some very much alive and in lively disagreement with the commission's membership and findings? The intricate and sometimes speculative research (based on some fascinating artifacts from unlikely sources like ebay auctions of old memorabilia) had a hold on me as I followed Thorn through his mysterious trails like a hardball Indiana Jones.
Why was it even important to name baseball's founder and establish a sanctioned creation story for the game at that point in history? Here's where things really get weird with tangled family relationhips and the mystical religious sect of Theosophy dominating many of the leading characters in the account.
I don't want to reveal more of the answers and steal the reader's joy in following Thorn's honest love for the game transmitted through his classic style of restrained humor and hard-facts historiography.
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager (TStocksl)
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.
"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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.