The History of Baseball
An exclusive interview with MLB Historian John Thorn
BY STEPHEN KEELER
Slaying giants is a dangerous occupation; when that giant is a myth of gigantic proportions, the slayer had best be endowed with plenty of chutzpah to accomplish this task and live to tell the tale.
No wonder, then, that John Thorn has been successful in his chosen field as baseball historian, with Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game the latest fruit of his labors. Raised in New York by parents who escaped the Holocaust, John fears no myth regarding our national pastime, with perhaps the greatest concerning the origins of the game.
Thorn’s research provides incontrovertible evidence regarding the true beginnings of our national pastime. His aim isn’t to kill the myths about the game, as that would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Rather, he paints a picture to understand how the myths were formed and why, so that by debunking them, they still provide the color and fun of the game, and its embrace by Americans. South Florida Opulence spent some time with John to gain insight into his motivations for the book, and for his life dedicated to baseball.
“Americans love a good story – not a falsehood, but a good story that speaks to a truth and, for the sake of keeping the listeners’ attention, doesn’t lack for embellishment,” John says with the twinkle of a gifted storyteller, one who knows well of which he speaks. “We want both Abraham Lincoln and PT Barnum at the same time.”
More than an enthusiast, John is foremost a historian – the official Historian for Major League Baseball, in fact. He says the first mention of baseball – then a pastoral game – dates back to 1749. In his book, John writes, [these are my words, not Jane Austen’s!], “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…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 for an American,” John says with fervor, “runs under your feet.” This primal connective tissue linking America and baseball is part of the reason for his love of the game. Class and social distinctions, racial injustices, outright lies and forgeries, great feats of selflessness, intrigue and investigation, success and failure, all dominate baseball on its parallel trajectory with American society – at large.
“Nothing brought America together through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries as much as baseball,” he said. “It was embraced by rich, middle class and poor, and spread wherever Americans lived.” Growing up as an immigrant Jewish kid, it was only natural for John to be a Dodgers fan, even after they left Brooklyn for Los Angeles. “Not only did the Dodgers break the color barrier by bringing Jackie Robinson into the major leagues, but every Jew, and indeed every person committed to a faith, respected the fact that both Sandy Koufax opted NOT to pitch the first game of 1965 World Series because it fell on a Jewish holy day, and that the Dodgers had no problem accepting that.”
And there is always a chance for humor in baseball. John relates: “Don Drysdale ended up pitching that day instead of Koufax, and got spanked by the Minnesota Twins. Upon getting relieved finally by Dodger manager Walt Alston, Drysdale quipped, “bet you wish I was Jewish today, too.”
“No other sport has so consistently captured America’s attention,” John mused. We drilled down a bit on that topic. “Baseball is still pretty much the same game as in the 19th century. However, there were two different versions from New York and Massachusetts competing for favor before the Civil War. The Massachusetts game is far older, and in my opinion, superior.” John has umpired both – and although he says the New York version is more gentlemanly and similar to today’s game, he sees the Massachusetts version as “more manly” because it displayed a higher degree of bravery. There were no foul zones; runners could lead a chase into the outfield if they wished not to stay within the bases; and the pitcher could purposefully peg a runner in the ribs to get him called out, he didn’t have to be tagged or forced out at the base. The early game also had no gloves or protective gear.
What about issues and scandals over time, such as the creation of the designated hitter as an abomination, or the use/abuse of steroids? Don’t they skew the claim? Not at all for John. “Baseball lives in the present day, so it suffers and benefits from whatever might be in society; at the same time, it has an uncanny ability to renew itself, even as America does as a whole.”
What about your arguments in the book that baseball wasn’t founded in America by Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown, NY, but grew organically from before the American Revolution in different ways across the colonies? Won’t that hurt the game and the hall of fame? “Nonsense,” John heartily replies. “People will still go to Cooperstown, and will accept the myth – as they do that of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny – because they are ‘in’ on the story.”
If you’re not “in” on the story, here it is:
Shortly after the turn of the century, Henry Chadwick, an English-born sportswriter, penned that baseball’s roots started with the British game of rounders. The statement angered American pitcher Albert Spalding, who believed that a game so profoundly American in character had to be founded in the United States. Spalding, in an effort to get down to the truth of the matter, assigned a Commission to investigate. During the three years of the Commission’s “research,” a mining engineer from Colorado wrote a letter to Spalding’s office, claiming he had watched a school game in Cooperstown, New York, at which Abner Doubleday took a stick and drew a diagram in the dirt for a new game that was similar to baseball. It was this story that led the Commission to name Doubleday the inventor of the game.
Ironically, John said, Doubleday was a Civil War Union General who never knew he had invented the American pastime. He died 15 years prior to the Commission’s announcement.
“Baseball is all about meritocracy. It’s still the oldest, continuously operating activity at all levels that allows anybody to rise to the top. The core issue remains – can you play? If you can, then you’ll have that opportunity in baseball. That is the goal for America too.”
John Thorn’s book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, is available through most book retailers and at www.Amazon.com.