Digging Up the Truth

Abner Doubleday had nothin' to do with it.

A few weeks ago, Major League Baseball did something right by naming John Thorn its Official Historian. Best known as the author and editor of the Total Baseball encyclopedia series and the senior creative consultant on Ken Burns' Baseball series (where he got plenty of face time), Thorn is the sport's preeminent scholar, a methodical researcher who talks a good game as well. Nowhere has his work been more important than in unraveling — and subsequently reconstructing — its official history. Suffice it to say that everything you thought you knew about Abner Doubleday, Alexander Cartwright, Cooperstown, the New York Knickerbockers and so forth is wrong. It's been known to be wrong for decades, yet the old myths die hard, primarily because they've been encased in glass in the game's official museum, and handed down for generations upon generations.

(Hell, even commissioner Bud Selig buys into those myths, as reader Diane Firstman reminded me after I first ran this piece. This is on the order of the Surgeon General advising the public of the rightful place of storks in human reproduction.)

Thorn has a brand new book out — one he's actually been working on since 1983, its findings revealed in piecemeal fashion — called Baseball In the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, which debunks the myths surrounding the sport's origin and attempts to set the record straight. It's no dry and dusty historical tome; Thorn revels in the audacity of the lies told by men more than a century ago in the service of propping up a flimsy tale about Civil War general Doubleday laying out the basics in a Cooperstown pasture in 1839. "Baseball has been blessed in equal measure by Lincoln and by Barnum," Thorn writes in Eden's introduction, and soon enough he's off to romp with the hucksters whose patriotic zeal fueled their desire to "prove" that the game was wholly American in origin, as opposed to being derived from British games such as rounders and one ol' cat, to say nothing of bat-and-ball games which go back to ancient Egypt.

Sunday's New York Times has a short piece which acts as something of a thumbnail sketch for the book. In it, Thorn moves beyond Doubleday and Cartwright to identify three men with stronger claims on introducing the game's key innovations:

Moving beyond the binary and false options of Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright Jr. as the father of baseball, three better candidates emerge: Daniel Lucius Adams, William Rufus Wheaton and Louis Fenn Wadsworth. Cartwright’s plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame declares he set the bases 90 feet apart and established nine innings as a game and nine players as a team. He did none of these things, and every other word of substance on his plaque is false.

Adams, known as Doc, set the base paths at 90 feet, among other notable innovations, including creating the position of shortstop — eight years after Cartwright left New York in the California gold rush of 1849. Wheaton created the Knickerbocker rules by copying a set he had drawn up for an earlier ball club, the Gothams, in 1837.

As to nine men and nine innings — and perhaps even more — these may be credited to Wadsworth. A first baseman for the Gothams and the Knickerbockers from about 1850 to 1862, the mysterious Wadsworth may provide the most compelling story of all.

No one credited him as an innovator until 1907, when the Mills Commission neared the end of its three-year mandate to determine the origins of baseball. On Dec. 30, Abraham G. Mills hurriedly dictated his conclusions to his stenographer and anointed Doubleday, as per the wishes of Albert G. Spalding, whose brainstorm the commission had been.

I'm only 30 pages into Eden myself, where Thorn has just unfurled a longer version of the tale of the mysterious Wadsworth. I can't review the entirety of the book at this point, but I will say that its author's wit is a crucial ingredient in bringing long-dead characters such as Mills, Spalding, their accomplices and their critics to life. It's one thing to print the legend, and quite another to have so much fun tearing it to shreds.

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