30 baseball books in 30 days of ’11: Day 10 — John Thorn creates revisionist history — and he thought it was good


The book: “Baseball and the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game”

The author: John Thorn

The vital stats: Simon & Shuster, 384 pages, $26.

Find it: At the publisher’s website (linked here), as well as at Powells (linked here), Amazon.com (linked here) and Barnes & Noble (linked here).

The pitch: Might as well get the first book to induce Slurpee-like brain freeze out of the way.

In 12 dense, highly-researched chapters, plus an extensive list of notes and index, the newly installed “Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball” and previous author of “Total Baseball” shows that he’s definitely done his homework. We’re not sure at this point if we’re supposed to be impressed or insulted that it’s taken this long to set straight all the bunch of mularcy that we’d been led to believe about how the game of baseball was discovered, evolved and communicated to the ticket-buying public.


In a “paternity” project that Thorn says he started in 1983, and “I am not likely to write on this subject again” because of how deep he feels that he’s dug, the end game that we’re now told to believe it’s folks like Daniel Lucius Adams, William Rufus Wheaton and Louis Fenn Wadsworth who have as much, if not stronger, claim to have birthed the game than Abner Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright.

Reboot. Relearn. Reasonably safe? Reassembly required.

Thorn not only makes the case that too much make-believe has perpetuated long enough as to how the game came to be — and he’s got plenty of evidience to convince himself that Cooperstown, N.Y., is as much baseball’s Bethlehem as Dryer’s Field in Iowa — but he figured it was also fun, in a way, to embrace the ways those myths were created.

“Decades ago, when I became convinced that the well-worn tales about the rise and flower of the game were largely untrue, I dermined to set matters straight,” Thorn writes in the intro. “However, as time wore on I found myself more engaged by the lies, and the reason for their creation, and have sought here not to simply contradict them 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 straight arrows: In the Garden of Eden, after all, Adam and Eve are bores; it is the serpent who holds our attention.”

That implies we’re to take the Bible’s story of Genesis literally, doesn’t it?

Religion, incidentally, plays into Thorn’s new research that it was a blind belief in Cartwright and Doubleday, who were involved in the Point Loma-based Theosophical Society, a turn of the century “New Age” movement, and held a certain amount of credibility to whatever audience they were putting out there as the leaders.

Whether or not your brain has the capacity to process all of Thorn’s work here is the real test. The endorsements of Ken Burns, Jim Bouton, George F. Will and Robert W. Creamer should be enough to force us to make the time to at least try to make ends meet — or at least meet Thorn in the middle in trying to decide if our time-honored yarns about how things came about can be retooled.

Thorn isn’t the least bit stuffy in putting all this out there, so the reader has no fear of being put to sleep. But if putting myths to rest are what will make you rest easier, here’s the term paper that you’ve been waiting for — rich with evidence of gambling, racism, elitism and scandal.


An excerpt: From page 57:

“No ingenious lad like Abner Doubleday or inventive clerk like Alexander Cartwright created the game. Although Cooperstown is the legendary home of baseball, the Baseball Hall of Fame will not relocate to Pittsfield (Mass.), and its officials no longe rmake special claims for Doubleday or 1839. Its status as a culture shrine will remain untarnished, for by now it has a history of its own. As Stephen Jay Gould explained not only of the Mills Commission’s search for a baseball father but also Cooperstown’s hold on our hearts, “Too few people are comfortable with evolutionary modes of explanation in any form. I do not know why we tend to think so fuzzily in this area, but one reason must reside in our social and psychic attraction to creation myths in preference to evolutionary stoires — for creation myths . . . identify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide no palpable, particular thing as a symbol for reverence, worship or patriotism.”

How it goes down in the scorebook: Revisionist history isn’t something we’re always looking for, but if the truth sets us free and we can set the record a little straighter about what our forefathers did with their free time, we should be all the better for it.

If anything, you can judge a book by its fabulous cover, as well as the glossy-paged photos included. It’s great baseball eye candy. Just set yourself enough time and patience to plow through all this meat and byproduct.

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