Baseball in the Garden of Eden
By John Thorn
Hardcover, 384 pages
Simon & Schuster
List Price: $26
Reflecting on the appeal of history in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, heroine Catherine Morland comments, "I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention." Indeed. And in no field of American endeavor is invention more rampant than in baseball, whose whole history is a lie from beginning to end, from its creation myth to its rosy models of commerce, community, and fair play. The game's epic feats and revered figures, its pieties about racial harmony and bleacher democracy, its artful blurring of sport and business — all of it is bunk, tossed up with a wink and a nudge. Yet we love both the game and the flimflam because they are both so . . . American. Baseball has been blessed in equal measure by Lincoln and by Barnum.
Miss Austen's novel, written in 1798, but published posthumously twenty years later, is today well known in baseball-history circles not for the passage above but for this one:
Mrs. Morland was a very good woman, and wished to see her children everything they ought to be; but her time was so much occupied in lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves; and it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books—or at least books of information. . . .
Yet before April 1937, when Robert W. Henderson of the New York Public Library called public attention to this Austen reference to baseball, and to an even earlier woodcut of the game in John Newbery's A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), few Americans knew that English boys and girls had played a game called baseball, whatever its rules may have been. Magnanimously, we had granted the Brits their primacy in cricket; some American cosmopolites might go so far as to acknowledge a playing-fields link between their national game and ours — perhaps, as the early sportswriter Henry Chadwick claimed, through rounders — but baseball, well, that was our game.
A special commission constituted by sporting-goods magnate Albert Goodwill Spalding affirmed in 1908, after nearly three years' purported study of the game's true origin, that baseball was assuredly American for it had been created from the fertile brain of twenty-year old Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. Critics of the commission's methods and conclusions soon made an alternative case for the genius of Alexander Cartwright and the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, founded in New York in 1845. Weary after decades of America's jingoistic rodomontade, the British gallantly departed the field, never having comprehended what the whole fuss was about ("it's just rounders, you know").
Responding to Henderson's conclusion that baseball was "made in England," John Kieran wrote in his April 11, 1937, column for the New York Times:
Oh, Abner of the Doubledays in far-off fields Elysian,
Your claim to fame is called a foul by later-day decision.
Some prying archeologists have gone and found some traces
Of baseball footprints ages old in sundry English places.
Dryly, Kieran proposed that "in view of the enjoyment which we in this country derive from baseball, it would be a sporting gesture to let the English inventors know that we are very much obliged to them."
However, with publication of the commission's report in the spring of '08, followed shortly by Chadwick's death from complications of a cold aggravated by his ill-advised attendance at a drizzly Opening Day, the contest as to who invented baseball had ceased to be one of national origin. It soon boiled down to a two-man affair, both contestants American. Doubleday, whose dossier bore an official stamp, took the lead over the late-to-the-fair Cartwright and has held it, except among knowledgeable fans, to the present day.
Like Henderson's report (the forerunner of his 1947 book Ball, Bat and Bishop), Kieran's commentary amounted to a howl in the wilderness, for the Baseball Hall of Fame had already been designated for Cooperstown as consecration of Doubleday's ingenuity. Recent scholarship, especially that of David Block in Baseball Before We Knew It, has swung origins interest back to the mother country while affirming Henderson's view that bat-and-ball games are of great variety, antiquity, and geographic diversity, tangled up in the same evolutionary bramble bush from which baseball emerged. In this book we may touch upon some of these variant games, from the banks of the Nile (seker-hemat) to the meadows of medieval England (stoolball) to twentieth-century Finland (pesäpallo), but the story of baseball that fills these pages takes place in America.
Decades ago, when I became convinced that the well-worn tales about the rise and flower of the game were largely untrue, I determined to set matters straight . . . in other words, to fashion a history based upon excavation of fresh documentary evidence and to expose the truth. However, as time wore on I found myself more engaged by the lies, and the reasons for their creation, and have sought here not simply to contradict but to fathom them. And the liars and schemers in this not so innocent age of the game proved to be far more compelling characters than the straight arrows: In the Garden of Eden, after all, Adam and Eve are bores; it is the serpent who holds our attention.
Why, I wondered, had so many individuals expended so much energy in trying to shape and control the creation myth of baseball: to return to an Edenic past, real or imagined; to create the legend of a fall from grace, instigated by gamblers? That became the driving question behind this book. Baseball nostalgia, which I had always dismissed as curdled history for the soft of heart and head, now began to have an edge to it.
It has turned out that Spalding and Chadwick — like the calculating exponents of Doubleday and Cartwright — were not mere liars and blowhards. They were conscious architects of legend, shapers of national identity, would-be creators of a useful past and binding archetypes (clever lads, noble warriors, despised knaves, sly jesters, wounded heroes, and so on). In short, they were historians as that term once was understood. They were trying to create a national mythology from baseball, which they identified as America's secular religion because it seemed to supply faith for the faithless and unify them, perhaps in a way that might suit other ends. If in the process of crafting this useful past, certain individuals, events, ball clubs — even competing versions of the game, like those played in New England or Pennsylvania — had to be left along the road in the name of progress, so be it.
In The Death of the Past, J. H. Plumb described this earlier model for history as the establishment of "a psychological reality, used for a social purpose: to stress the virtues of courage, endurance, strength, loyalty and indifference to death." If we substitute "injury" for "death" in that formulation, we have a fair definition of the virtues of sport: providing for its players sublimated, graduated danger in preparation for national service, and for its spectators a salutary exposure to risk, through dashed hopes or unsuccessful wagers. The analytical impulse that marks modern historiography is, in Plumb's view, nothing less than an assault on the created ideology, or myths, by which people have given meaning to their institutions and societies. Large narratives and small pieties are swept away, replaced by skepticism and sometimes the bright if not warming light of truth.
The modern reader may ask: Apart from why it may have mattered to so many in the past, why do the origins of baseball matter today? Why does each announcement of a new find—an advertisement for a game of baseball in New York City from 1823, a prohibition against playing it in Pittsfield from 1791, a diary mention of the game in Surrey in 1755 — land on the front page of major newspapers? Because baseball provides us with a family album older and deeper, by many generations, than all but a relative handful of Americans can claim for their own lineage; because the charm of baseball today is in good measure its echo of a bygone age; and because it is gratifying to think we have something lighthearted in common with the harsh lives of our forefathers, going back to the nation's earliest period and likely beyond. Parson Weems created the tale about a boyish George Washington and a cherry tree ("I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet"), but it is no creation myth to report that the Father of Our Country played a bat-and-ball game called wicket, now vanished but long concurrent with baseball, with the troops at Valley Forge.
"The best part of baseball today," Larry Ritter, author of The Glory of Their Times, was fond of saying, "is its yesterdays." The old marketing adage is that in any field there are two positions worth holding: the first and the best. And it is because of baseball's success—the game on the field today is unquestionably superior to that of a century ago— that a special quality of interest pertains to its early years; for it is with institutions as with men, as Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer wrote a century ago in another context, "the greater their importance in adult life the greater is the interest that attaches to their birth and antecedents, the incidents of their youth, and the influence that molded their spirit and shaped their destinies."
More recently, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould observed, "Most of us know that the Great Seal of the United States pictures an eagle holding a ribbon reading e pluribus unum. Fewer would recognize the motto on the other side (check it out on the back of a dollar bill): annuit coeptis—'he smiles on our beginnings.' "
All the same, 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.
This book honors baseball's road not taken: the Massachusetts version, which was, in many ways, a better game of baseball than the New York game, although the latter triumphed through superior press agentry. Also coming in for examination will be the Philadelphia game, which like its New England sibling disappeared in an instant, more mysteriously than the dinosaurs. Gambling will be seen not as a latter-day pestilence brought upon a pure and innocent game, but instead the vital spark that in the beginning made it worthy of adult attention and press coverage.
Among the organized groups that played baseball before the ostensibly original Knickerbockers were the Gotham, New York, Eagle, Brooklyn, Olympic, and Magnolia clubs. The last named came into view only recently, as a ball club composed not of white-collar sorts with shorter workdays and gentlemanly airs but sporting-life characters, from ward heelers to billiard-room operators and bigamists.
Why did the game's earliest annalists forget to include this club in its histories? One might venture to guess that the Magnolias were too unseemly a bunch to have been covered by a fig leaf, so they were simply written out of the Genesis story, which when presented less messily became the stuff of legend.
In the words of psychiatrist George E. Vaillant, "the passage of time renders truth itself relative. . . . It is all too common for caterpillars to become butterflies and then to maintain that in their youth they had been little butterflies. Maturation makes liars of us all." And so it was with the rough and ready game of baseball, constructing a legacy in support of its social and business models.
Among those lost in the shuffle of Cartwright and Doubleday and Chadwick and Spalding in the first decade of the twentieth century were four other men, each of whom had a better claim to "inventing" the game than any of those named. Of these little-known four fathers only one, a mysterious Mr. Wadsworth, was accorded even a bit part in the drama of the 1908 Special Commission's findings. We will soon enough catch up with him and with the others—Daniel Lucius Adams, William Rufus Wheaton, and William H. Tucker.
Although Doubleday did not start baseball, it may be said that he started the Civil War: The first Confederate shot at Fort Sumter "penetrated the masonry and burst very near my head," he wrote, after which "we took breakfast leisurely"; thus fortified, he "aimed the first gun on our side in reply to the attack." A Sanskrit-reading mystic who corresponded on esoteric matters with Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Doubleday never thought to place himself on baseball's pedestal: A bookish sort as a boy, with no taste for athletics, he died more than a decade before anyone thought to credit him with baseball's design.
It was Doubleday's unusual credibility as a warrior and as a spiritualist that made him seem, to those with a grand plan, the perfect instrument by which an exogenous religious sect might thoroughly
Americanize itself and become a major player in the promised land for all mankind. Doubleday had been named president of the Theosophical Society in 1879 after the departure for India of its founder, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. His apotheosis as father of baseball was engineered with Theosophical Society assistance, particularly that of Spalding's second wife. They were aided immeasurably by the rabbit-out-of-the-hat appearance of elderly mining engineer Abner Graves, whose 1905 testimony to having witnessed Doubleday's brainstorm in 1839, when Graves was five years old and the future military hero was twenty, sealed the deal for generations to come.
Like Doubleday, Cartwright did not know he had invented baseball when he died in 1892, one year before his unwitting rival. The muscle massed behind the Doubleday story after the commission report of 1908 prompted grandson Bruce Cartwright Jr. to launch an equally propagandistic plot that yielded for the Knickerbocker Cartwright a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame on which every word of substance is false. (Alex Cartwright did not set the base paths at ninety feet, the sides at nine men, or the game at nine innings.) And, as has recently been demonstrated, in Monica Nucciarone's biography, grandson Bruce inserted fabricated baseball exploits into a typescript of Alex Cartwright's handwritten Gold Rush journal, which contains no baseball remarks and itself has been judged a forgery.
Unraveling this twisted yarn in which various players hoped to shape America's future by imagining its past, we travel to the Theosophical Society compound at Point Loma, California, strategically selected by the society because it was the westernmost part of the continental United States, and thus nearest the Aryan (i.e., ancient Asian) motherland. Along the way we pick up a motley crew of Cuban refugee children, American millionaires and statesmen, utopian dreamers, and the newlywed Spaldings.
Baseball historians have treated Albert Spalding as a combination of Daddy Warbucks and Mr. Micawber because of his penchant for both profit and fustian. ("Baseball," he once declared, "is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistency, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Virility.") But Spalding was something of an idealist, too, one who loved the game for its pure amateur spirit, for its joy, for its uplifting qualities. It has been easy to make him out as the architect of the scheme, by turns evil and comic, but at some point during his Point Loma years he may have become its unwitting victim, afflicted with early-onset dementia that left him in thrall to others. Two of his sons thought so, and sued Spalding's widow for twisting his mind and his assets toward the interests of the Theosophists. The plot to steal baseball started with Doubleday and
Spalding and a utopian paradise in America's Golden West; it ended with the Theosophists suing each other into near extinction and a Spalding family feud that made headlines for years after the magnate's death in 1915.
"Who controls the past," George Orwell wrote, "controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." So it has been with baseball.
Excerpted from Baseball in the Garden of Eden by John Thorn. Copyright 2011 by John Thorn. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.