Baseball's Official Historian Explains The Origins Of Our National Pastime Baseball's official historian, John Thorn, sets the record straight on the game's earliest days ... in the 1700s. Yes, that's right, baseball started decades before Abner Doubleday supposedly created the game at Cooperstown — and it only became popular when professional gamblers took an interest.

The 'Secret History' Of Baseball's Earliest Days

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

Among the ritual sounds of spring in America are the crack of bats and the snap of leather as baseball revives for another season. But just how old is the national pastime? The guy to ask is our guest, John Thorn, who was recently named the official historian of Major League Baseball. He's spent a lifetime studying and writing about baseball, and in his new book he researches what he calls the Paleolithic era of the game. He believes some form of baseball may date back to the American Revolution.

G: The Secret History of the Early Game." He notes on the first page that you can find a reference to baseball in a 1798 Jane Austen novel. I asked him to begin with a reading from the introduction.

JOHN THORN: (Reading) 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.

DAVIES: Well, John Thorn, it's great to have you here. You do spend a lot of time documenting the game in the early 19th century. You said there were different versions of the game in Massachusetts and New York. How do they differ?

THORN: The Massachusetts games is far older and involved overhand throwing by, what we call today, the pitcher. It had anywhere from nine to 14 in the field, and sometimes more. You would be thrown out, a ball would kerplunk you in the ribs between the bases and this is part of the delight, the sadistic delight of this game, that you could create an injury to an opponent's pride, if not to his body, because the ball was actually rather soft.

The New York game, which is, in it's essence, the same game; they're both baseball games. The New York game's distinctions involve the creation of a foul territory, the inability of putting a batter out between the bases in this undignified way, you have to tag him out or force him out at a base.

DAVIES: So you couldn't plunk him, in other words?

THORN: You couldn't plunk him, but the New York game had the underhand pitching style, which made batting very much easier.

DAVIES: And something more like the New York game eventually won out, right? Do we know why?

THORN: I believe the New York game won out through superior PR, because I have played re-creation games, I have umpired re-creation games for the Massachusetts game and it is a fantastically fun game, both to play and to watch. And how it became the game that got away is beyond me, because the New York game I think, in many measures, is inferior. It claimed for itself, manliness and gentlemanly conduct, but manliness was really a characteristic of the Massachusetts game. That's where bravery was on display.

DAVIES: Because you could get hit by the baseball?

THORN: Also because you did not have to stay between the base as while you were running, so you could lead your opponents on a merry chase into the outfield and beyond.

DAVIES: And there was no foul territory in the Massachusetts game?

THORN: No foul territory. So one of the particular skills of the Massachusetts game was what they called slide hitting. So you would position your hands on the bat and raise the upper hand so that the ball would be ticked behind you between the additional catchers or scouts that were behind the primary catcher, and you would just run for days.

DAVIES: And there were four bases?

THORN: There were four bases plus home plate.

DAVIES: Right. So you were to touch each base in succession once the ball went in some direction. But you might run all over the place of avoiding a hurled ball in between.

THORN: You might. In fact, the distance between the home plate, or strikers point, and first base was very small so almost everybody was able to get to first. But then getting around the bases, that was the tough part.

DAVIES: You know, I have to say that people who are used to the modern game might listen to that description of the Massachusetts game and say it's not baseball, it's chaos. But you've umpired it. You like it

THORN: I like it and it is a structured chaos. It is not mere tag or a game that we know from Spenser's "Faerie Queene" as base or prisoner's base. It has rules, it has regulations and it rewards skill.

DAVIES: Was the game back then an urban game or a rural game, or both?

THORN: Both. It is - I believe the game predates cities as we know them. The game did not arise in an urban slum. This is a farm game brought to the cities and then exported back to the farms. And one of the charms of this Edenic pastime, particularly for bachelors in the city, is it reminded them of the farms they had just left behind.

DAVIES: And how did you determine that - that it migrated from farm to city?

THORN: The earliest mentions that we can find of baseball by old timers take you back to west-central Massachusetts in the 1750s, '40s and in one citation 1735. The game has no record in the cities until, at the very earliest, 1805. And more likely the famous find by George Thompson of two ball clubs scheduled to play in order to promote drinks and revelry at Jones's cottage in New York in 1823, at the corner of what is now 8th Street and Broadway.

DAVIES: And when the game was played in the early 19th century, were their uniforms? I take it they did not have catcher's mitt - did not have fielding gloves, right?

THORN: No. Fielding gloves are a much later innovation, the 1870s, and there's no indication that the early clubs had uniforms but they may have worn ribbons on their front shirt - on the fronts of their shirts. They may have worn ribbons on their jerseys, because the exchange of ribbons, which is a very medieval custom, was a part of the organized game from its earliest days - that the winning team would entertain the losing team at a post game banquet and they would exchange prizes.

DAVIES: And how did the ribbon figure in?

THORN: The ribbon was something that was worn on the jersey during the game, of each club, and the losing club would forfeit its ribbons to the winning club.

DAVIES: So you tell us that, you know, baseball got going probably in the 18th century and was actively played in the early 19th century and then really kind of came to its own after the Civil War. How much was gambling a part of the whole thing?

THORN: I don't think you could've had the rise of baseball without gambling. Baseball was a boys game and not worthy of the attention of adults, not worthy of press coverage. What made baseball seem important was when gamblers figured out a way to spur interest in it, so that gambling would just become, of course, the original sin for current baseball, courtesy of the 1877 Louisville fix, the Black Sox scandal, Pete Rose, you name it.

In the beginning there were people who turned their noses up at gambling but they recognized the necessity of it. It was - you would not have had a box score. You would not have had an assessment of individual skills. You would not have had one player of skill moving to another club if there were not gambling in it.

DAVIES: Mmm. So you had organized baseball clubs. Now did the gambling sort of begin, external to that? That is to say people who ran gambling games on the street discovered it was fun - that people would be interested in watching the game if they would take and pay bets on it?

THORN: Yes. Absolutely. There were touts at the ballgames with baseboards in hand and they would be taking their bets between innings. They would bet on the outcome of an individual at bat. It was absolutely rampant. When gamblers were banned from the sidelines - and they formerly had a section of the bleachers devoted to them, it was the pool box. The pool box was banned so pool rooms grew up right around the ballpark and people who are now playing billiards - the name which subsequently became known as pool, was not originally pool - bet these tandems much the way the country sees with betting on the NCAA Final Four.

DAVIES: Well, money always helps to fertilize the growth of any new enterprise. So how did the gambling money then get into the game itself? I mean were - did they pay players?

THORN: Inevitably, when players were a - when ball-playing teams were a combination of amateurs and pros, or whether they were going for a percentage of the gate and some star with salaried and everybody else was on the hook, it was easy to approach a ballplayer and say look, I'll give you as much for this game as you would make the entire year if you'll help to throw the game. So game fixing, which we think of as the Black Sox scandal in 1919, dates as early as 1865. That is when we had our first scandal and three players were banned.

DAVIES: And in this post-Civil War period were the team's professional? Were they paid to play the game?

THORN: We think of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the unbeaten squad that toured from one coast to another and was undefeated in 57 first-rate games and a handful of others against scrub teams, we think of them as the first professionals. But professionalism had entered the game, certainly by the mid- 1860s, and ballplayers we know were being paid by the beginning of the 1860s. The first all professional team probably dates to about 1866.

DAVIES: We're speaking with John Thorn. He's a baseball historian whose new book is "Baseball in the Garden of Eden."

We'll talk more after a quick break.

This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with John Thorn. He is the official historian of Major League Baseball and the author of the new book is "Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game."

You know, we said we like to think of baseball as sort of fixed and unchanging, but it has changed. What are some of the major changes that we saw, you know, from the game of the 1880s to the modern game?

THORN: I think enclosed ballparks is of enormous importance because now you had a fence, no matter how distant, that you could hit the ball over and little by little slugging came into the game. Now Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Frank Chance, you name the hitting heroes of the first decade of the century, there was no point in them hitting the ball, swinging at a pitch the way Babe Ruth did because they weren't going to drive no mushy ball in the seventh inning over a fence 500 feet away anyway.

The innovation of enclosed fields and ever diminishing distances to the wall so that the ballplayers - you get larger. The fields get smaller. Power becomes more easy to accomplish. The game changes. Pitching becomes a game of throwing breaking balls, you can't throw a ball down the middle. You cannot take it easy with batters seven, eight, and nine because anybody can hurt you in today's lineup.

DAVIES: So the fact that they enclosed the fields and made them close enough for hitters to hit a ball out of the ballpark required pitchers to pitch more aggressively and not give hitters that chance.

THORN: Actually, I'd say they began to pitch more defensively.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

THORN: Today's pitcher nibbles at the corners, throws more breaking pitches than fastballs, with a handful of exceptions, and those exceptions tend to be relief pitchers. So good ole country hardball, the kind of ball that Cy Young might throw or Walter Johnson might throw, that's pretty much a thing of the past for a starting pitcher.

DAVIES: And the ball itself, how much has it changed since, say, the Civil War?

THORN: The ball between the Civil War and say 1900, there's a lot of variation. The home club supplied the ball and those home clubs that had good hitting clubs might supply a livelier ball. The league made specifications as to how the ball should be made beginning in the 1870s, but these were sometimes ignored. Taking a ball that had been bashed around for four or five innings and replacing it with a clean ball, this didn't start until the 1920s. It was after a Cleveland shortstop named Ray Chapman was hit in the head on a cloudy day by an under armed submarine delivery pitched by Carl Mays and he died a day later, that the white baseball became paramount. Formerly, it was mushy, it was dirty and the pitchers had an edge.

DAVIES: And when did the rule that allowed you to get someone out in the field by throwing the ball at him, plunking him, when did that disappear?

THORN: This is a - this idea that, archaic versions of baseball disappear is mistaken. They survive. When I was a boy I played ballgames in which you could be struck by the ball between the bases and retired. So the archaic versions go back to the farm or go back to the playground. But in the "Knickerbocker Base Ball Club rules of 1845" and the rules as formalized at the convention in 1857 and expanded upon by the Major Leagues in the years, in the 1870s and beyond, soaking was never on the highest level of play, but it continued to lurk at the town level or county level.

DAVIES: Soaking, that's whacking somebody?

THORN: Soaking, plugging, yup.


DAVIES: Okay. Did you play baseball as a youngster?

THORN: I played baseball poorly. I had a pretty good glove. I could run. But I never mastered hitting. You know, I was always behind the decent fastball. I couldn't pull.

DAVIES: And have you always been passionate about the game?

THORN: Baseball was more than a passion for me. It was my ticket to becoming an American. I was born in a displaced person's camp to Holocaust survivors and when I came over at two and a half I had already begun to speak German but I was stateless. I learned English by being thrust into a nursery school environment and learning to read off the backs of cereal boxes and baseball cards. So I fell in love with the cards before I'd even seen a game.

DAVIES: You're now Major League Baseball's official historian. What does that mean? What do you do?

THORN: I serve. That is my mission. My mission is I take it philosophically to mean that baseball has looked at what I've done over the years and thought that I might be helpful in attaching younger fans to the joys of the history of the game - that baseball is a tremendously exciting game. There's no question that the game as played on the field today is far better than it was 20 years ago, 40 years ago, 60 years ago and so on. However, some things have been lost in terms of our attachment to story and I'm hoping that I can make the game's history come to life.

DAVIES: Do you have a favorite place to watch a game?

THORN: At my age, which is 63, I will say that the trip to the ballpark, which involves a two and a half hour auto trip each way, becomes a little rigorous. So the shorter distance to the refrigerator from my couch is very appealing.


DAVIES: What about Minor League ballparks? They're everywhere. Great fun, aren't they?

THORN: Minor League ball is great. If any of our listeners are Major League fans who have not seen Minor League ball, I cannot urge them strongly enough to try it. If you want to see where the old ballgame lives, this is where it lives.

DAVIES: Well, John Thorn, it's been fun. Thanks so much.

THORN: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: John Thorn is the official historian of Major League Baseball. His new book is "Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game." You can read an excerpt on our website,

Coming up, Ed Ward on country soul singer Percy Sledge.

This is FRESH AIR.


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