John Thorn and Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game
March 2011 was an interesting month concerning author and historian John Thorn. The same can be said for enthusiasts of baseball’s origins and how the game evolved during the 19th Century. On March 1, Commissioner Bud Selig named Thorn the Official Baseball Historian of Major League Baseball, a post held by only one other person—“the “Father of the Save,” the late Jerome Holtzman, who held the post from 1999 until his death on July 19, 2008. Next on March 15, the Commissioner announced that Thorn would lead the newly formed Baseball Origins Committee that would seek to determine the game’s beginnings and evolution. The all-star committee also includes David Block, James Brunson, Adrian Burgos, Ken Burns, Len Coleman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Steve Hirdt, Larry McCray and George Will. The formation of this committee comes a little over 103 years after the Special Base Ball Commission’s findings were published on March 20, 1908 in Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide that anointed Abner Doubleday as the creator of America’s national game. To top things off, also on March 15, Thorn’s much anticipated book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, went on sale. Thorn, a longtime member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), began digging into baseball’s paternity in 1983, thus finally leading to the publication of this Simon & Schuster monograph twenty eight years later.
Why MLB Historian?
To the average baseball fan, John Thorn may not be a recognizable name. In the baseball community of historians, writers and SABR members, Thorn has long been recognized as baseball’s foremost historian. He has been researching, editing and writing baseball books since the early 1970s, including The Hidden Game of Baseball, The Armchair Book of Baseball and Treasures of the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1989, Total Baseball, edited by Thorn and Pete Palmer, made a splash in the baseball research community by including sabermetrics in the player and pitcher registries and ultimately replacing The Baseball Encyclopedia as the game’s leading statistical reference book. I quickly adopted Total Baseball as my baseball bible.
While I am writing about Total Baseball, I feel the need to tell a personal story. See there was one obvious flaw with the first edition of my baseball bible. The pitching registry got cut off on page 2005 in the middle of Chris Zachary’s record. Only his 1963 season was listed. Also missing were the records for Pat Zachary through George Zuverink. How would I survive? I somehow came across information about requesting the corrected page through the mail from John Thorn. That is via the United States Postal Service. This was before the Internet boom so I couldn’t download the missing page from a website in PDF or send an email asking for the page. Since I was going to write him anyway, I thought I would add a few suggestions. I suggested adding the 30 home run, 30 stolen base club as a list in future editions of the book along with a few other statistical lists. Anyway, a month or so later I received the missing page and stuck it in my book.
In 1991, the second edition of Total Baseball was published. I purchased a copy as soon as it was available from the local bookstore. As I was just about finished going through the book, I saw my name in the acknowledgement section. Boy was I excited. My name in print! I felt like Steve Martin in the movie The Jerk when he discovered his name in print in the phonebook. “I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this book everyday!…Your name in print makes people!”. Well, I guess a million people probably didn’t look at Total Baseball each day, but I know I did. That small gesture was big for me. See at the time, I had given up writing about sports. The previous fall, I had quit my part-time job in the sports department of the Hartford Courant to take a full-time job for the law firm I still work at today. It was a smart move on my part. I have no regrets. But at the time, I put aside a dream that I felt destined to do as a kid to try to make ends meet. Total Baseball would last eight editions, last being published in 2004, with my name in each edition. Thanks John! (Sorry this article is not supposed to be about me.)
If you do not know Thorn from his printed works or even by his name, you may know his face or voice. During the baseball work stoppage in 1994, Ken Burns’ nine-part documentary Baseball aired on PBS during the month of September 1994. That documentary made Buck O’Neil a star. Another star of the series to me was John Thorn. He was the film’s chief consultant which included on screen commentary. Having one of baseball’s leading historians in the documentary added a lot of creditability to the series, especially for us nitpicky historians. Thorn participated in the latest contribution to this series, The Tenth Inning, which aired in November 2010.
Thorn was in the news about seven years ago, when on May 11, 2004, he announced to the world a finding of a bylaw from Pittsfield’s town council banning baseball and other games within eighty yards of a meeting house. The bylaw in part read: ”for the Preservation of the Windows in the New Meeting House no Person or Inhabitant of said Town, shall be permitted to play at any Game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Batball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other Game or Games with Balls, within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House.” This finding added to the obvious flaw in making Doubleday the creator of our national pastime. Baseball had to be widely played in some form long before 1839 if it was being declared a nuisance by a government body in 1791. Thorn made his discovery by perusing the Internet. The bylaw was mentioned in an 1869 book entitled The History of Pittsfield, (Berkshire County,) Massachusetts, From the Year 1734 to the Year 1800. The full-text of this book can be found on Google Books with the mentioning of the bylaw on page 447.
Thorn’s other baseball activities and contributions are numerous. He co-founded SABR’s Nineteenth Century Committee with Mark Rucker in 1983, a committee I proudly belong to and participate in. He was editor of the SABR journal, The National Pastime for several years. He founded, edits and contributes to Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game. The last two years he has served on SABR’s Henry Chadwick Award committee that “honors baseball’s great researchers—historians, statisticians, annalists, and archivists—for their invaluable contributions to making baseball the game that links America’s present with its past,” an award Thorn will one day be honored with himself. In 2006, he received SABR’s Bob Davids Award, given for contributions to SABR and baseball that reflect the ingenuity, integrity, and self-sacrifice of SABR’s founder.
Baseball Origins Committee
The formation of the new Baseball Origins Committee comes four months after a letter from Commissioner Selig, dated October 18, 2010, first appeared on the Internet. In the letter Selig responds to another letter as follows: “As a student of history, I know there is a great debate whether Abner Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright really founded the game of Baseball. From all of the historians which I have spoken with, I really believe that Abner Doubleday is the â€œFather of Baseball.â€ I know there are some historians who would dispute this though.” Ugh!!! With all the research done the past several years, you would have thought that MLB’s own commissioner would not have fallen for the myth. At the very least, you would have thought he would not have expressed his opinion in writing that many feel is totally absurd.
However, with all that said, Selig made his own save by naming Thorn the official historian and announcing the creation of this committee. As previously mentioned, the committee’s body is an all-star team of authors, historians, and other baseball people. Among them are SABR members who have contributed to the study of the origins of the game. David Block’s 2005 book, Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game, kick started the recent interest in baseballâ€™s beginnings and Larry McCray leads SABR’s Origins Committee that focuses on the early forms of baseball and its predecessor games. With Block, McCray and Thorn on this committee, I am confident, when the committee’s findings are presented, Bud Selig will no longer believe Doubleday is the true “Father of Baseball.”
Baseball in the Garden of Eden is not the first book to discuss the origins of baseball. As early as 1866, Charles A. Peverelly’s The Book of American Pastimes discusses, starting at page 335 under the heading “The National Game,” baseball’s linkage to the English game of rounders and credits the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York as the ones who are responsible for making baseball a game of organization. (Note: The full-text of this book can be found on Google Books as well.) Peverelly includes the twenty Knickerbocker rules in his text with rule number one stating â€œMembers must strictly observe the time agreed upon for exercise, and be punctual in their attendance.â€ It makes sense that showing up on time should be the first rule.
Other significant works include Robert Henderson’s Ball, Bat, and Bishop, published in 1947, Harold Peterson’s The Man Who Invented Baseball, published in 1973, Block’s pre-mentioned title Baseball Before We Knew It in 2005, and most recently, Monica Nucciarone’s Alexander Cartwright: The Life Behind the Baseball Legend in 2009, which includes a foreword written by Thorn.
In Baseball in the Garden of Eden, Thorn has added his own twist to the great origins of baseball saga. He has confirmed, enhanced or debunked previous research in a beautifully written, 384 page book. It only makes sense that the new book by baseball’s preeminent historian has the cover art illustrated by baseball’s preeminent artist, Dick Perez. The book includes 296 notes on the resources he used to come up with this new baseball classic.
The debate of baseball’s origin really starts with two main figures. One being who many call the true “Father of Baseball,” Henry Chadwick. The other being, perhaps the new “Father of Baseball,” at least as we look at baseball as an American game and after reading Thorn’s theories in this book, Albert G. Spalding. Chadwick was a sportswriter who was born in England. As a young boy in his fatherland, Chadwick played the children’s game of rounders, a bat and ball game. Spalding, a legendary pitcher, baseball owner and sports magnate, decided that baseball was purely an American invention and he wanted to “prove” it.
In 1905, Spalding formed the Special Base Ball Commission, more commonly known as the Mills Commission, named after its chairman, A.G. Mills, former National League president and author of the reserve clause. The Mills Commission’s purpose was to find the real origins of baseball. When the findings were published in 1908, Albert Spalding had his purely American connection to the birth of baseball that he so deeply desired. Spalding had defeated Henry Chadwick and his rounders theory. Abner Doubleday was a West Point graduate and a Civil War hero. How American can you get? What about Cooperstown, New York as the setting? How perfect is that? A beautiful, picturesque town for baseball’s Eden. Exactly a month after the publication of the finding, on April 20, Chadwick died. The battle was officially over between the two old friends and rivals. Chadwick could no longer strike back.
Within a year though, another name emerged as a possible originator of the game. His name was Alexander Joy Cartwright. Cartwright was credited in Peverelly’s book as proposing a regular organization and promising to obtain several recruits, thus the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club was formed. This was the spring of 1845, six years after the Mills Commission’s finding of Doubleday’s eureka moment in Cooperstown. The Doubleday myth, as we now call it, had been question by journalist Will Irwin, with him stating that Doubleday could not have created the game because he was in school at West Point in 1839. To make a long story short, Cartwright family members convinced the voters of the National Baseball Hall of Fame that Cartwright was the “Father of Modern Base Ball” and he was elected in 1938. (Note: Nucciarone’s book discusses this in great detail.) He would be inducted into the Hall in June 1939, during baseball’s centennial celebration of Doubleday’s invention. As it was written in the press, “more than 11,000 people who poured into this pretty village where Abner Doubleday sat down on a hot day and invented the national pastime more than 100 years ago.” For some reason, Doubleday has never been elected (sarcasm).
Cartwright being the “Father of Modern Base Ball” is as much a fallacy as Doubleday being the inventor. Cartwright’s plaque in Cooperstown reads “SET BASES 90 FEET APART. ESTABLISHED 9 INNINGS AS GAME AND 9 PLAYERS AS TEAM. ORGANIZED THE KNICKERBOCKER BASEBALL CLUB OF N.Y. IN 1845. CARRIED BASEBALL TO PACIFIC COAST AND HAWAII IN PIONEER DAYS.” Perhaps he can be credited with organizing the Knicks, but everything else is not the case. Does organizing the Knicks alone make him a Hall of Famer? Did he really organize the club? That is a discussion for another time. Also, check out Nucciarone’s book on his influence, or should I say lack of influence, on baseball’s spread westward to the Pacific coast and Hawaii.
Thorn credits three others who should share the title “Father of Modern Base Ball” instead of Cartwright. Their names are William Rufus Wheaton, Daniel Lucius “Doc” Adams, and Louis Fenn Wadsworth. Wheaton was an attorney who may have written the first set of rules in 1837 for the Gotham Base Ball Club. Along with William H. Tucker, he was on the Knickerbockers’ Committee on By-Laws that wrote the rules that were adopted in 1845. Wheaton had stated that there were few differences in the rules of the Gotham club and the rules the Knicks adopted.
Doc Adams was a graduate of both Yale and Harvard. As a young physician in New York City, Doc played a form of baseball as early as 1839 and became a member of the Knicks in 1845, about a month after the club was formed. As a player, Adams is credited as being the first shortstop in 1849 or 1850. At his suggestion, the first baseball convention of ball clubs met in 1857 to formalize set rules between clubs and ultimately leading to the formation of the National Association of Base Ball Players. Adams was elected president of the convention and was the first chairman of the Rules Committee. In his leadership positions, Doc played a crucial role in the establishment of several key aspects that make up the game of baseball, which included creating a set pitching distance of forty five feet (Note: This distance lasted until 1880 and became sixty feet, six inches in 1893, today’s current distance.), ninety feet between bases and catching the ball on the fly to record an out rather than being able to catch the ball on one bounce for an out.
The stories of Wheaton and Adams have been told before, but the story of Louis Wadsworth has not been told until Baseball in the Garden of Eden. “Mr. Wadsworth,” as he was referred to by the first Knickerbocker president Duncan F. Curry in an 1877 interview with reporter Will Rankin, was credited by Curry as bringing a diagram of a ball field to the field sometime around 1845 and the gentleman agreed to try it out. This interview took place in the presence of Thomas Tassie, a member of the Atlantic Base Ball Club. Rankin wrote a letter dated January 15, 1905 to the Mills Commission referring to the Curry interview. Mills tried to hunt Wadsworth down by writing a letter to Edward S. Fowler, Collector of Customs at the Port of New York, since Tassie had recalled Wadsworth holding an important position with the Custom House. Nothing was uncovered and Wadsworth remained a mystery.
Thorn eventually pieced the story together eighty years later. Wadsworth was an attorney who held a “patronage position” with the Custom House but was not a federal employee so his name did not turn up during Fowler’s search. As for baseball, he was a first baseman for the Gothams and Knickerbockers from the early 1850s to 1862, and was one of the most dominating players of his era. Thorn discovered he was born in 1825 in Connecticut and graduated from Washington College, now Trinity College, in Hartford in 1844.
Thorn credits Wadsworth with the nine inning game and the nine man team. Wadsworth was the Knickerbocker representative on the “Committee to Draft a Code of Laws on the Game of Base Ball, to be Submitted to the Convention” that met prior to the Convention of 1857. In summary, through sly tactics, Wadsworth’s leadership led to a uniform game of nine innings and nine men to a team. By the way, also on the committee was Thomas Tassie. In the end, Wadsworth married a wealthy widow, became a judge, became widowed himself, drank away the inheritance, committed himself to a poorhouse, and died eight days after the Mills Commission findings were published in the Spalding Guide.
Above is an overview of some of the people that played a role in making baseball what it is today, even if their role was just mythical in nature. Baseball in the Garden of Eden is so much more then what I have been detailing. The book has many twists and surprises. Thorn finds answers to longtime mysteries and presents new theories. He discusses, not only the New York game, which is the game that is played today, but also details the Philadelphia and Massachusetts games, and a game called wicket that was played primarily in Connecticut. Thorn discusses, not only the Knickerbockers, but also the Gothams, the Eagles, and the less than gentlemanly Magnolia Club. Stars of these pioneering times are presented with Thorn’s favorite being the great ballplayer and tragic figure, James Creighton, who passed away at the age of just twenty one years old. Thorn also digs deeper into the Doubleday-Spalding connection and their Theosophical Society ties that was presented in chapter three of Block’s Baseball Before We Knew It .
If you have read this far and enjoy baseball or history or mystery, simply purchase this wonderful book. Amazon.com has this hardcover for $15.97 or if you own a Kindle, you can download it for just $12.99! I will be keeping my copy close by at all times. It will sit on a shelf with many of the books mentioned along the way in this article and with other classic books on the game’s early history. Books by George B. Kirsch, Peter Morris, William J. Ryczek, Andrew J. Schiff, Marshall D. Wright, and handful of others will share space with Thorn’s Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game.