We have now, by my count, at least four versions of how baseball as we know it came to be.
I’m no historian. In fact, at this very moment I can’t for the life of me remember who the Mariners’ fifth starter is.
For these accounts we rely on men such as John Thorn, who on March 1 was named Major League Baseball’s official historian and not two weeks later announced the game was invented by people we’d never heard of.
Makes you wonder why it took so long to hire him.
If I have this straight, the progression went like this:
Abner Doubleday created the game in a Cooperstown, N.Y. cow pasture, according to the Mills Commission, which released its findings in 1907.
Alexander Cartwright Jr. conceived what is called the “modern game,” the U.S. Congress said in 1953. (Proving that Congress’ interest in baseball wasn’t always limited to the contents of Roger Clemens’ man purse.)
Tony La Russa invented baseball in the late 1980s, according to any of his post-loss glares had you happened to ask a slightly stupid question.
And now, in a book out today titled, “Baseball in the Garden of Eden, The Secret History of the Early Game,” Thorn says none of that is quite accurate, no matter what Cartwright’s Hall of Fame plaque or La Russa’s heart say.
Thorn has narrowed baseball’s fathers to as many as three men, which, granted, gives it more of an NBA baby momma feel.
None is Doubleday or Cartwright.
Thorn feels your pain.
“There are some people who are skeptical this will gain any traction against Doubleday,” he says. “He has staying power. If Santa Claus is the father of Christmas and Dracula the father of Halloween, Abner Doubleday is the father of baseball.”
And that’s that, even if it isn’t.
“And I love the Doubleday legend,” he says. “It’s so good because it’s told with such enthusiasm and such vigor.”
Yes, and so was the one about Mr. Rogers being a sniper in Vietnam.
Thorn is on the phone, walking the streets of Manhattan, down 7th Avenue on his way from an NPR gig, admitting, “I played baseball, badly, yes,” but rebounding with his years as a basketball player in the Public Schools Athletic League and one unforgettable game at the old Madison Square Garden, “At 50th and 8th,” he said, “the same floor Cousy ran.”
He is 63, the former editor and publisher of Total Baseball, has written several other books and is the chair of the Baseball Origins Committee, formed in the last few days to determine the genesis of the game that brings lightness and vitality to Thorn’s voice, battling the cabs and tumult of Midtown.
“It’s kind of like finding a long lost uncle or aunt,” he says. “We’re in an extended family in baseball that you and I are part of.”
At dinner tables from Bed-Stuy to the China Basin, conversations still run from today’s game to the games of Ruth and Mantle and Williams, all these seasons later, and Thorn endeavors to keep the conversations lively and accurate. From the middle of the 19th century, he introduces the names of Daniel Lucius Adams, William Rufus Wheaton and Louis Fenn Wadsworth, the last of which he is reasonably sure laid out the field, put nine men on that field, and expanded a game from seven innings to nine.
It’s grainy and brushed in sepia and features men who wander in and out of the frame, some with a better than even chance of dying from consumption, and without the vaguest idea that 150 years later Base Ball would still be baseball.
“A person who attended McKinley’s inauguration could be teleported to Yankee Stadium next month,” Thorn says, “and recognize the game being played.”
Maybe that doesn’t stir everyone, certainly not in a time where the game is broken into fantasy leagues and skills are assigned dollar amounts and we look past the talent to the numbers it represents – “I have Sabermetric blood on my hands, too,” Thorn says, laughing – but it does Thorn and those like him.
It actually fits quite nicely that in a sport where arguments are part of the routine, where conversation is built-in, that there can be no instant replay for where it all began. And so there is a place for a guy like Thorn, as there was for Jerome Holtzman, his predecessor, and again for a panel of folks who’ll root around and find the next Doubleday or Cartwright or Wadsworth.
“I see this as an opportunity to give something back to the game,” Thorn says. “It gives me such pleasure.
“I have only the dimmest idea of what I’ll be doing as baseball historian if I’m still in the position five years from now. I hope to get some stories right.”
There’ll almost certainly be stories. And, if nothing else, you can be sure they’ll be told with enthusiasm and vigor.
- Abner Doubleday
- John Thorn