Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game by John Thorn
Simon & Schuster, 2011
List Price: $26.00
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 commission to settle the issue for once and for all.
The former player and sporting goods magnate had engaged for years in a friendly yet earnest disagreement with baseball writer Henry Chadwick, an Englishman who chronicled the game here in his adopted country. Spalding wanted desperately to find proof that the game was born here and owed no debt to the childish bat-and-ball games once popular in England. Certainly he embarked on the project with a bias. His Mills Commission could hardly fail to identify an American source for the national game. And what more patriotic progenitor could it have than Abner Doubleday, a Union general in the Civil War?
Chadwick died a month after the commission’s findings were released, depriving him of the opportunity to rebut them. 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.” Thorn expressed his suspicions regarding Cartwright a couple of years ago when he penned the foreword to Monica Nucciarone’s “Alexander Cartwright.”
Thorn opened that foreword thusly: “Abner Cartwright, Alexander Doubleday ‘¦ these composite names stand for an exceedingly odd couple whose identities have been stolen, accomplishments merged, and stories intertwined for more than a century now. In truth, Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright were entirely separate, historically significant individuals who were born and died one year apart but never met each other in life. What both men share is that their hard-won fame was hijacked after their deaths by unprincipled advocates with ulterior motives, and as a result each was credited with something he did not do: invent baseball.”
In “Baseball in the Garden of Eden,” he goes much deeper than casting aside two of baseball’s father figures. He presents some alternate heroes, whose contributions to the early days of the sport have been overlooked for more than 150 years. The credit must be divided as the game’s evolution lacks a single eureka moment, and thus a single father.
Thorn’s research indicates that instead of Cartwright it was William Rufus Wheaton who wrote the legendary Knickerbocker rules in 1845. They weren’t, however, the first such by-laws he had penned. Wheaton drew up rules for the Gotham club in the 1830s, and these were largely what the Knickerbockers adopted. He appears to have been assisted in codifying the rules by William H. Tucker, who played for several teams during that era. Of course, the playing rules were fluid in the early days. Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, the longtime president of the Knickerbocker club and the presiding officer of the first convention of baseball players in May 1857, pushed through the rule change setting the distance between bases at 30 yards. He also advocated for ending the practice of catching a ball on the bounce for an out. Additionally, Thorn credits him with creating the shortstop position. As if all that weren’t enough, Adams even made most of the baseballs used in those early days.
Some of Thorn’s finest detective work came in tracking down the mysterious “Mr. Wadsworth” who was identified in an 1877 interview with original Knickerbocker president Duncan Curry as the man who had first sketched out the modern baseball field. Louis Fenn Wadsworth had eluded historians for more than a century, which is hard to believe considering he was one of the best players of his era, moving back and forth between the Gotham and Knickerbocker teams. His most lasting contribution, however, was taking the lead to establish nine innings and nine men to a side.
Unearthing their contributions fulfilled one of Thorn’s goals in penning this history. But the more he studied their era, the more puzzled he became by the motivation of those who were so intent on crediting others.
“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 the excavation of fresh documentary evidence and to expose the truth,” he writes in the introduction. “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.”
So Thorn examined not just how the Mills Commission came to anoint Doubleday, but why. The last four chapters delve into the life of Spalding and his connections to the Theosophical Society. One of the movement’s early members: Abner Doubleday, who served a turn as interim president of the group.
While Thorn is forced to speculate on the reasoning behind Doubleday’s crowning, he certainly builds a strong circumstantial case that being able to present an American war hero and the creator of the national pastime as one of its own would boost the credibility of the Theosophists, who were regarded as a cult by most. (It didn’t work.) He also unravels some of the mysteries of Spalding’s personal life, including his fathering a son out of wedlock, then later “adopting” him and never telling him he was his actual son.
There’s much more here than crediting (and discrediting) baseball’s founding fathers. Thorn examines the role that gamblers played in the game’s early days. Though they evolved into a scourge long before the Black Sox shook the foundations of the game in 1919, they served an integral role in building the sport’s popularity. Gambling sparked interest in the young game, earning it newspaper coverage, helping to legitimize it as a pastime for adults to follow. Betting gave men a reason to be interested in the outcome of the games. Yet most histories of the game’s early years present the sport as a wholesome affair played by upper class gentlemen.
Thorn discovered not all of the clubs organized in New York were stocked from society’s upper crust. The Magnolia Ball Club—which preceded the famed Knickerbockers by two years—was rostered with unsavory characters and headquartered in a saloon. It seems to almost purposefully have been written out of baseball’s history. At least until now.
“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.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.