Sixty-six years ago, I saw my first Major League Baseball game, in the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians. I watched it on the little black-and-white TV in the living room of the house in Pomona, California, where I lived with my mother, my grandmother, and my younger brother, Rick. I was six years old.
Imagine—among the many others watching that game in 1954—an old man of 72 years, the same age I am today. Now imagine that old man himself as a six-year-old. Let us further stipulate that this boy’s father was both a baseball fan and a smoker, and gave his son the baseball cards included in the packs of cigarettes he bought. Perhaps the boy’s father was able to attend one or more of the games in October 1888, in a precursor to the World Series, pitting New York (champions of the National League) against St. Louis (champions of the American Association), and told his son about the big plays. And maybe, as he was watching Willie Mays’s famous catch in the first game of the 1954 Series, that one-time boy, now an old man, remembered his father and wondered what had ever become of those ancient baseball cards.
In 2020, we are not that far removed from the early era of professional baseball in America, no matter how much the game has changed over the decades. And yet, I have talked with younger fans for whom even the MLB of the 1970s seems almost as quaintly antique as horse-drawn carriages. Passionate fans enjoy resources for baseball history that I couldn’t have imagined when I was growing up, some of them under the banner of “sabermetrics,” others delving deeply into the origins and “prehistory” of the sport before professional baseball as we know it became dominant; I wrote a bit about this in “How Jane Austen Played Baseball.” But many more fans today are disconnected from the game’s history, which is one of its principal charms.
“Oh, no,” you may be saying. “A bore, a scold, one of those worshippers of Tradition who drone on about the glories of the Dead Ball Era. No thanks.” Not guilty. I am a firm believer in the irreducibility of taste, and I have no desire to twist your arm. But I do believe that, given a nudge, many fans in 2020 would find both delight and consolation in a deeper acquaintance with baseball’s past. And supposing that to be true, where should a reader start?
One possibility is Thomas W. Gilbert’s just-published book, How Baseball Happened: Outrageous Lies Exposed! The True Story Revealed, which comes with an extremely generous introduction by John Thorn, the Official Historian of MLB. The cleverly designed dust jacket and the jokey subtitle suggest a certain doubleness about Gilbert’s project not acknowledged by Thorn. On the one hand, there is the promise of a startling exposé; on the other hand, a jaunty tone suggesting the genial hyperbole of a carnival barker.
Much that Gilbert “exposes” about the pseudo-history of baseball that enjoyed credibility for a long time—above all, the myth that Abner Doubleday “invented” the game in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839—has already been demolished by other historians. Gilbert acknowledges this but then huffs and puffs, asserting that while “[n]ot everyone still believes” the false stories we heard in childhood, “they continue to warp our view of baseball’s beginnings.” He overrates the persuasive power of bluster, claiming on the same page that “for as long as it has existed as an organized sport, baseball has been telling weird lies about where it came from” and that “the majority of Americans who are not trained historians remained confused by the layers of bullshit burying baseball’s true origins.”
Oh, dear. I’m afraid that this is, to borrow a word Gilbert relishes, “bullshit.” Most Americans who follow baseball today know little about the early history of the game and couldn’t care less. You’d have to explain to them what they supposedly already believe before going on further to explain how wrong, wrong, wrong it is. But as I’ve made clear, I think at least some of them would relish learning more about that history. And that is why, despite some frustrations with Gilbert’s shtick, I strongly recommend his book, both for longtime readers of baseball history and for neophytes. With the 2020 World Series just around the corner, set to culminate a season unlike any other, this is a perfect time to read about the Amateur Era that flourished in the early and mid-19th century. If it wasn’t quite baseball in the Garden of the Eden, if the “organized baseball” that emerged from it and supplanted it wasn’t and isn’t quite as irredeemable as Gilbert sometimes sourly suggests, nevertheless it is a story well worth telling, and Gilbert recounts it with humor, irony, passion, and a sharp eye for colorful detail.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.
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