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Baseball I Don’t Care About

January 3, 2018

This is not so much a review of Baseball in the Garden of Eden as it is a promotion of the book because I don’t have much to say that is critical, or even knowledgeable, about the text. The summary of what I’m about to say is just: It’s excellent, and you ought to read it, whether or not you’re interested in the subject matter.

I’m totally not. It’s not that I’m actually hostile to 19th century baseball, it’s more like I don’t care about it very much. Subscribers to Bill James On Line probably all get this, to a greater or lesser degree:  people who don’t know me very well but who understand that I spend at least an hour or two every day reading or writing or talking about baseball also assume that I care equally about all aspects of baseball, which is plainly not the case. I have my areas of interest, and right down at the bottom of my areas of interest is "19th-century baseball." I almost literally could not care less about 19th century baseball.

But I do care about history. That’s where John Thorn’s book excels, and that’s why I enjoyed reading it so much. It provides a thoroughly researched, exhaustively sourced, and extremely credible account of the game’s origins, written in a witty, sprightly style that told me everything I’ll ever need to know about the way the game evolved and what it (most likely) evolved from, tracing all the steps involved in that often complicated evolutionary process. It delineates all of the events, as far they can be known from this remove, and all the personalities involved in that process, as well as the historical forces, the accidents of fate, and all of the other influences on baseball’s early growth. I can’t imagine that anyone is going to feel the need for another book on this subject, other than books that elaborate on  individuals or events that John Thorn wisely summarized for the sake of a smooth narrative line.

This is a work of history. It explains the early game in cultural contexts that no longer exist today, as such, while it makes those contexts clear. For example, one of the many, many things I had no clue about is the relationship between "baseball" and "theosophy." Before I read this book, I would have posited no possible connection between the two concepts, yet Thorn shows how vital that connection was in late 19th- and very early 20th-century society, how crucial figures such as A.G. Spalding and Abner Doubleday were intimately drawn to the beliefs of powerful philosophical thinkers such as Madame Olga Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott and William Quan Judge, the founders of the Theosophical Society, a spiritual brotherhood that sought to make clear the unknown principles of the universe.

If there’s one thing I don’t know about nor care about less than 19th century baseball, it has got to be 19th century systems of spiritual brotherhood. I mean, I care about both to the extent that they still maintain some sort of vague influence over our lives today, so it’s somewhat important that I get the thrust of what they were about, but that’s all I need—the thrust. I don’t feel any crying need to understand the fine details of 19th century baseball or spiritual brotherhood because I find them each to be a confused, debased, misguided attempt to organize something that in my lifetime I’ve found to be clear, comprehensible, and very well organized. (By which I mean the systems of "baseball" and "philosophical beliefs," both of which I very much enjoy devoting time and effort to thinking about.) I don’t need to watch go-karts crashing into each other for hours on end to appreciate how to drive a car; it’s sufficient for my purposes to know that go-karts crash into each other, and that some people enjoy crashing them or watching them crash.

John Thorn provides that thrust. The essence I took from his book makes a world of sense: the origins of the game are ultimately lost in time, though we can make intelligent guesses to fill in most of the blank areas, but at a specific point in time, 1905, baseball formed a commission to arrive at a definitive origin. To fulfill its mission, the Mills Commission made up a lot of misleading half-truths that oversimplified and misconstrued baseball’s history, while also recording the hit tune "Paper Doll." No, wait, that was the Mills Brothers. The Mills Commission just generated the misleading bubbemeisehs. (Yiddish for "fake news.") The main principle behind the slanted version of the truth that the Mills Commission dispensed was "patriotism," in a virulent form that we no longer buy into nowadays—the further back you trace  the origins of baseball, the likelier it is that you take those origins out of the United States entirely, or previous to the formation of the U.S.  If colonial boys were playing baseball, then the game is essentially British, and we can’t possibly have that, can we? So the unstated object of the Commission was to locate baseball’s origins by fixing them in the continental U.S. sometime after July 4, 1776, preferably with an American hero. The beard they pinned it on was the Union General (then a captain) who defended Fort Sumter, and the year they picked was either 1839 or 1841 (inexplicably, 1840 was ruled ineligible), in an improbable tale that some didn’t buy at the time and that no one buys today, in part because we tend to emphasize the question of "Is this actually so?" over the question of "How patriotic does this sound?"

To my mind (with Thorn supplying the nitty-gritty details of what I only imagine), baseball began thousands of times in world history, pretty much every time you found two kids with some sort of stick and some sort of spherical object that they could hit with that stick. The game, as it was played by grown men in the first half of the nineteenth century, was a codified version of those childhood games, with various iterations of the rules that the grown men agreed upon, differing from region to region, or even from game to individual game. I can easily imagine one set of rules that a group of players agreed to in the morning that were changed, by mutual consent, in another game played on the same field that afternoon with many of the same players. No matter, if an inning lasts four outs this afternoon but lasted two innings this morning, or if hitting the ball into the tall grass counts as a home run or an out, right? What the hell…

I used to do this all time, and so did you and so did John Thorn, when we were boys. In my environment growing up, New York City streets, the bases would change depending on which cars were parked at various points lining the streets. A Pontiac might be first base and a DeSoto would be third base in the morning game, but by noon a Chrysler and a Ford sedan would have replaced those cars and would be parked ten feet further from the manhole cover we used for home plate (and ten feet closer to the second manhole cover, which we called a "sewie," that we used for second base). I’m sure such adjustments to the playing field influenced our strategy, such as it was, in each game but we understood that it was just a kids’ game and didn’t matter one tiny bit as long as we got to hang out and run around, which was the whole point.

With grown men in the early 19th century, "hanging out" might have been worded as "associating with other gentlemen" and "run around" might have been phrased as "seeking wholesome exercise," but early baseball had much more in common with kids playing stickball on Brooklyn streets than it had with the Dodgers playing a far more rigorous, systematized form of the game a few hundred sewers away. Attempts to dress up early 19th century baseball as a version of what the Brooklyn Dodgers were doing are, to my mind, mistaken. In retrospect, you could make Jim Creighton, for example, the equivalent of Sandy Koufax a century later, but that would be arguing by analogy. Yes, Creighton was doing something that in many ways resembled what Koufax would do later, and yes he got some of the same sort of appreciation from his peers that Koufax got from his, and on and on, but you could as well argue that Creighton was also doing something that closely resembled what the legendary stickball players in my neighborhood were doing. Johnny Aleo, an older kid from across the street who later had a tryout with the Yankees, could put a spin on a Spaldeen like you couldn’t believe, absolutely unhittable.

Of course, that’s also an analogy, and it also falls apart very soon, but that’s my point. All arguments by analogy collapse into complete idiocy after a short while. They’re not meant to stand up as point-by-point equivalences, just as useful illustrations of a concept. The difficulty here is that, as with all evolution, there is no single point at which we can state that "baseball" before this date was a disorganized, chaotic mish-mosh but on the next morning it became a professional and codified enterprise. But that is exactly where the Mills Commission report, published in 1908, went wrong, in trying to fix a date, and locate an inventor, or find a team, or any of that, to identify baseball’s origins with any real precision. It can’t be done, and John Thorn has shown how and why that goal is illusory.

In the course of reaching that common-sense conclusion, though, he provides reliable details and fascinating documents explaining every step along the path to reaching the form of major league baseball that we’ve had, in a more or less stable form, since the creation of the American League in 1901, which is where I begin to be interested in professional baseball. (Allowing, of course, for individuals like Honus Wagner and Cy Young and Sam Crawford, whose professional careers were underway by 1901, and which I’m certainly interested in knowing about. Let’s call their early careers a gray area, and the early careers of men who played very briefly in the post-1901 era an even grayer area, but everything before that is pure black as far as my interest goes.) Even now, a week or so after finishing John Thorn’s book, the fine points he drew between, say, Joseph Carlisle, proprietor of the Magnolia Lunch Club, an early sponsor of athletic competitions, and Dave Broderick, a similar owner of a lower-Manhattan saloon a few miles to the north of the Magnolia, begin to fade, but the relationship between the two men was perfectly clear to me as I was reading it, and the biographies of individuals is not what I need from a history book, anyway. It’s sufficient that I understand that, in this book right here, there are plain, intelligent, perceptive descriptions of complex processes and I now know where to find them if I ever need to. Meanwhile the book was a sheer delight to read, beautifully written, beautifully illustrated.

Thorn not only seems to have enjoyed finding out all these details about the early game, which is a pleasure in itself, but he actually seems to hold the game of early baseball in a very high esteem. When I lived in Thorn’s neck of the woods, upstate New York (I taught for a few years at SUNY-Albany), I played in a game or two of 19th-century baseball—I think the Schenectady chapter of SABR sponsored these games. At any rate, there were a bunch of local SABR members who really got into these games. I was out for a little exercise, and I was curious to meet my fellow SABR members, but I wasn’t really interested in memorizing the fine points of the game for their own sake as much as I was interested in knowing things like "What’s it like playing the game without a concept of ‘foul territory’? What’s different about the rules, the weird positioning, catching the ball if you don’t have a glove, etc.?" and my curiosity was easily satisfied.

Thorn, I think, feels far more passionately than that, and reaches a far different conclusion with the same facts than I do after learning about the early game. This isn’t completely unheard of. I once gave a paper at an International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference in Nice, I think, wherein I scoured Fitzgerald’s novels, short stories, letters, essays and biographies to show passages of his writing that illustrated the superficiality of his alleged interest in modernism, in Marxism, in Freudian psychology. At the same conference, a colleague gave a paper that argued for the diametrically opposite conclusion—that Fitzgerald was in fact a highly sophisticated thinker concerning modernist art, Marx, and Freud, applying these concepts subtly and appropriately throughout his work.

The funny part of this was that, completely unplanned, we each cited the same exact passages in Fitzgerald’s work to support our opposite theses. He interpreted them differently, of course, stressing the essence, rather than the language, of a passage, for example, concluding that the essence represented Fitzgerald’s thought processes, while I was citing how the language Fitzgerald used displayed a massive fundamental misunderstanding of Freud, or Marx, or whatever.

We both found it hilarious, and laugh about it to this day, the point being that it’s entirely possible to use the same material to reach opposed conclusions. John Thorn immerses us in loads of really fascinating ideas, events, and people that caused baseball to take the shape it has, and I admire his great skill as a historian and a writer that allow us to follow his reasoning in connecting all the disparate threads that got woven into making baseball what it is today, while still allowing us to draw our own conclusions from the data he supplies.

One of the many themes that Thorn’s book pulls to the surface is early baseball’s close ties to gambling. He shows how gambling was a natural aspect of any sort of athletic competition, and how it is capable of destroying our conception of equitable play. I’m not a gambler—never been to Vegas or Atlantic City, nor ever wanted to—I’ve probably won a grand total in my lifetime of under a thousand dollars on cards, horse-racing, football pools, and the like, while losing just over a thousand, purely to be sociable.    I’m not opposed morally to gambling so much as I think it’s wasteful of my time and, if I let it, my wallet. But Thorn stresses the essential role that gambling played in early baseball, explaining something that I may have thought but not confirmed: baseball is interesting to me only to the extent that it is fair. The more I think that a game might be fixed, or that a player, for reasons of his own, isn’t trying hard to win, the more I’m not interested in the outcome of that game.

When the Giants played the Dodgers in the early 1960s, for example, I was (and am) certain that Willie Mays would exert himself as much as possible to hit the best pitches that Don Drysdale could throw. That was the entire point of my interest in the outcome—that both supremely skilled players in direct competition with each other were trying their hardest to win. As passionately as I felt about baseball in those days, my interest would have shrunk to a nubbin by the suggestion that Mays or Drysdale didn’t really care who won the 1962 N.L. pennant, and "gambling" inherently carries with it that suggestion.

That suggestion, though, was all over the place in 19th century baseball—games were thrown right and left, bets were freely being made, and the only real question was which players were hard-core gamblers and which ones were naïve about their teammates who were openly gambling on the outcomes of the games. Thorn reports that "gambling was as American as apple pie and baseball," quoting De Tocqueville on Americans’ fondness for "all undertakings in which chance plays a part."

Thorn draws a direct line between cricket, which in 1740s England "was driven by gambling" and American baseball a century later via the English-born cricket-aficionado turned putative father of baseball Henry Chadwick, whose invention of baseball stats remained "clearly…oblivious to the fact that while he was submitting innovations for the ‘consideration of the fraternity,’ he was helping to enhance the game for the gambling faction." The stats we all know and love, in other words, began at least in very large part as a medium to place wagers on. Later, as gambling finally (?) got driven out of baseball and the game became a reliably clean sport, we still have Chadwick’s stats to know, love, and cherish.

For me, the intertwining of gambling and baseball is just one major consideration, sufficient in itself, to rule out early baseball as a sport I give a damn about. I have near-zero ability to concentrate my attention on any sport whose outcome may be primarily determined by factors outside of the playing field. For some, I suppose that "gambling" doesn’t matter much—these folks still have the illusion of a fair game and don’t mind particularly if the outcome is rigged so long as they don’t have knowledge themselves of which way it’s rigged, but for me gambling is a total buzzkill, and as I say (and more importantly, as Thorn demonstrates), gamblers’ filthy fingers were all over the game in the 19th century.

I have other issues with the 19th century game (I have more issues than Reader’s Digest and National Geographic combined) but gambling just kills the game for me. Of course, we still have gambling in baseball at high levels well into the blessed 20th century, and possibly (for all I know) into the 21st, but I choose to think of post-1900 baseball as mostly untainted by gambling, fixes, laying down, with rare but notable exceptions. This is convenient thinking, I know, drawing a line after 1900 and declaring baseball beyond that point, quite arbitrarily, as a sport worthy of my devoted attention, while drawing a big black X over all previous iterations of the sport.

I understand perfectly how arbitrary that division is. Baseball as played in the fall of 1900 is probably not much different from the game as played in the spring of 1901, if at all, but my rationale is that if we don’t draw an arbitrary line somewhere, then we’re going to justify classifying the very earliest forms of the game as "Major League Baseball."  In his precise descriptions of those early forms of baseball, John Thorn explicates, in horrifying detail to my mind, all of the gross differences that (again, to me) allow the drawing of that big black X:  posts for bases, pitchers tossing deliberately hittable balls up to batters, umpires being tricked on purpose in every play (when they’re not actually rooting for one team over another), the number of fielders being determined by how many players are available on a given day, and on and on and on—we eventually reach a point where "baseball" isn’t even baseball, much less "Major League Baseball," and wherever that point lies, that’s where you choose to draw your line. But you’re being as arbitrary as I am, because that form of primitive baseball is no different from the day before or the day after, no more than spring of 1901 is different from fall of 1900. Any starting point chosen as "the true beginning of Major League Baseball" is bound to be an arbitrary point, so I choose the first game of the American League as the arbitrary point at which my interest in MLB begins. Baseball was never invented. Like Topsy (to quote from a popular novel in Jim Creighton’s final decade), it just growed. (Thorn attributes the quote from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Henry Chadwick in squelching the pernicious myth of Abner Doubleday, a squelch that lacked force at the time but has grown more powerful with time.)

Baseball in the Garden of Eden is wide-open to all sorts of possibilities for the game’s origin that have little to do with Civil War generals, bucolic all-American settings, or any particular date. It traces the more primitive origins, historically, all the way back to ancient Egypt, ca. 1460 B.C., under Thutmose III, where it was known as "seker-hemat," or "batting the ball." (No, I’m not making any of this up.) I’m pretty sure if Thorn had set out to find the origins of the game we in Brooklyn called "salujee," he could find some eons-old version among the Hottentots or the Inuit, and possibly among the higher apes or lesser vertebrates. This is some killer research Thorn has performed here, and it all points strongly to the game of baseball (in some form) preceding western civilization. Even A.G. Mills in late 1907 conceded that some primitive form of the game could be traced "at least to the palmy days of the Chaldean Empire!" (Thorn quotes this letter fully, as he does with many other charming artifacts of Victorian or Edwardian prose.)

In the comments to my last article, Ventboys speculated that Bill James makes his similar choice to dismiss 19th-century baseball because of the inconvenience in translating 19th-century ball’s statistics (which sometimes count "walks" as hits, other times as outs, still other times as nothing, among a panoply of numerical quirks and tetches), and while there may be a kernel of truth to Ventboys’ speculation, I remain convinced that Bill’s most profound objection is not the added work that computing older stats requires but, rather, the debased quality of play in early baseball. I don’t want to speak for Bill, that’s just my guess, but it’s certainly my principal reason for lack of interest in baseball before 1901.

I’ve played enough pickup softball games in my time to see certain similarities between what I was doing as a young man seeking recreation and exercise and what the very earliest gentlemen’s clubs were doing. Your side has only eight men and our side has twelve? Here, borrow one of our guys for the afternoon. Or let’s play eight to a side. Or maybe, ok, you can have eight fielders and we can have twelve—the important thing is, Let’s have fun out there.

I don’t seek to delegitimize early baseball—it was great in its time, and an essential building block in forming later baseball, and all that, but please. Let’s not pretend that it was what it turned into. From a historical perspective, it’s all good. I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to make heroes of the Jim Creightons and King Kellys of the world—they were, historically considered, vitally important early players, and Thorn shows us precisely how highly they were thought of by their contemporaries.  But I think the quality of play is improving all the time, by bigger leaps and longer bounds than most folks think possible (I’ll try to elaborate on my reasoning in the next article) and there’s an awful lot of time between Jim Creighton’s day and ours, so much time that I believe a one-to-one comparison between Creighton and Clayton Kershaw, for example, isn’t fair to either man. Can you compare the skills of Orville Wright to those of, say, Neil Armstrong? On what basis? Bravery? Motor skills? Ambition? Engineering know-how? Better to say each one was highly skilled, given his day and age and equipment and conditions, than to try to find specific similarities and differences between the two. If you want to put them both in the Rocketry Hall of Fame, that’s fine with me, as long as your definition of a Hall of Famer allows that. My definition might not, but hey, that’s horse-racing.

You might find, among my somewhat hyperbolic remarks here, a certain disrespect for John Thorn’s work, but nothing could be further from my intention. On the contrary, I’m overstating my distaste for 19th century baseball in the firm belief that most of my readers find his subject matter of far greater inherent appeal than I do. If that’s so, then how much more drawn to Thorn’s sparkling prose will they be than I am, whose interest in his subject matter is practically nil? He has achieved something close to miraculous here, taking a subject that bores me silly, writing about it in great detail, and yet giving me the most pleasure in a book I have had all year. (I finished it after Christmas, so no smart remarks, please, about how short "all year" is at this point.) It’s quite literally a fabulous piece of work, erudite, perceptive, scholarly and eminently readable. Read it and see.



COMMENTS (21 Comments, most recent shown first)

I've been fascinated by 19th century baseball ever since I checked out the Baseball Encyclopedia from the local library at about the age of 9 or 10, and discovered that the Baltimore Orioles were three-time champions in the 1890s. And unlike the excellent Orioles of the late 70s and early 80s, these Orioles were Hall of Famers who hit .400 and 20 or 30 triples and scored eight runs a game. The pitchers threw 400 innings, and Matt Kilroy struck out 512 batters! They were supermen!

Of course as I grew older and possibly wiser I came to realize outrageous statistics weren't necessarily an indicator of supreme talent, but probably more of primitive conditions, chaotic rules, and wild spreads in talent.

But the realization that the quality of players and play in the 19th century was poor hasn't dampened my fascination with Base Ball. In college I first read Harold and Dorothy Seymour's Base Ball, The Early Years. And Thorn's work adds brilliantly to that foundation.
7:29 AM Jan 19th
Marc Schneider
The real question about Cobb or DiMaggio should be what would their OBP or WAR be today? Who cares about their batting average? And, most likely, their defensive runs saved would be poor as people in their 80s (or dead) probably wouldn't have good range. DiMaggio had problems with his arm later in his career; today, with video, every baserunner and their uncle would be taking an extra base on him.
8:33 AM Jan 10th
Brock Hanke
The quip about what Ty Cobb (or Joe DiMaggio) would hit if he played now was first told to me in the early 1960s by someone who attributed it to Dusty Rhodes, who had had a big World Series as a pinch-hitter. Rhodes, a Cobb fanatic, was asked what Cobb would hit now, meaning at the time of the Series that Rhodes had starred in. He said something like "about .280" When asked why such a low number, he cited Cobb's age, which was about 80. I have no idea whether the quip predates Rhodes.
12:05 AM Jan 9th
Marc Schneider
Steven Goldleaf

"Thorn, I think, feels far more passionately than that, and reaches a far different conclusion with the same facts than I do after learning about the early game. This isn’t completely unheard of."

Not only is this not unheard of but, in my reading of history, it's very common. Facts are often meaningless with some context and different writers can interpret facts completely differently. I recently read two books about Vietnam and, in both, the writers agree that LBJ agreed to send an additional 10,000+ US troops around, I believe, 1968. In one version, that's an escalation of the war. In another, it's a de-escalation because General Westmoreland requested another 100,000. So, who's right? It seems to depend on your point of view.
4:00 PM Jan 5th
Steven Goldleaf
Steve161--you may be right. It could have been the accent that diverted me from understanding the rules of cricket. It was really something, as I recall, this poor English grad student eagerly explaining cricket by the carload, in a thick accent that simultaneously fascinated and baffled me, using words that not only didn't sound like English, they didn't sound like any human tongue. Maybe you can explain it to me, next time you come to NYC. They play it in Flushing Meadow Park, btw, opposite CItifield, mainly West Indian guys, I think.
10:04 AM Jan 5th
Steven Goldleaf
See, I KNEW I could get John Thorn to comment here if I only could find a way to summarize and paraphrase his note to me so stupidly and clumsily that he would feel obliged to violate his own rules of proper decorum and set the record straight!!!
9:58 AM Jan 5th
Wonderful, thank you. My appetite is whetted: I'll probably jump the book way up in the queue.
8:47 AM Jan 5th
Oh, what the hell, form be damned: I had tried to observe the nicety of not publicly engaging in the comments section of a review of my own book, but here's what I wrote to Steven Goldleaf regarding your question about cricket:

I prefer not to take part in the Comments section of an article largely about me, but the commenter is correct: cricket was the game for the upper crust and those who could pay to hire a professional instructor, like Sam Wright and subsequently his sons Harry and George; or the paid player like Jim Creighton. It was for the Anglophile rather than the patriotic American, too, especially once the War broke out and England continued to import cotton from the Confederacy.

There's rather a lot about this in the book, but crucially this:

The contest between cricket and baseball for the hearts and minds
of Americans was about to be heightened. After a £750 guarantee was
secured, a dozen professional cricketers, composed equally of All-
England Eleven players and those of the United All-England Eleven,
signed on for cricket’s first overseas tour in October 1859. Five matches
were played, all against sides of twenty-two, with two in Canada
(Montreal and Hamilton) and three in the U.S. (Hoboken, Philadelphia,
and Rochester). The English won each time. Additionally, three
exhibition games were staged. Attempts to pit the English tourists in
a baseball match against the best of New York and Brooklyn came to
naught because a sufficient fee could not be secured. In any event, an
animated contributor to the Tribune wrote:

It would be no more honor for the English Eleven to beat the best nine
that could be selected, playing the New York game, than it would be
to beat at cricket the best Eleven they could pick from any ordinary
school in England. If they want to find foes worthy of their steel, let
them challenge the “Excelsior” Club, at Upton, Massachusetts, now the
Champion Club of New England, and which Club could probably beat,
with the greatest ease, the best New York nine, and give them three to
one. The Englishmen may be assured that to whip any nine playing the
New York baby game will never be recognized as a national triumph.

The English tour was an artistic and financial success: The cricketers
cleared £90 above the guarantee. If the Civil War had not broken
out eighteen months later, two or three follow-up tours might have
been arranged in the following five or six years. As it was, the enthusiasm
for cricket faded in the war years, and English support of
the Confederacy through uninterrupted cotton purchases surely did
not help. By the time an English team returned to America in 1868,
American cricket was on its way to becoming the sport of British expatriates
and urban patricians.

In one of the cricket exhibitions of 1859, a match of eleven Englishmen
against sixteen Americans, a young devotee of both cricket
and baseball, Brooklyn’s Jim Creighton, clean bowled five wickets in
six successive balls. English cricketer John Lillywhite, upon seeing
Creighton pitch a baseball, instantly saw the obstacle—though no
umpire would likely detect it—that overmatched American batsmen
faced: “Why, that man is not bowling, he is throwing underhand. It is
the best disguised underhand throwing I ever saw, and might readily
be taken for a fair delivery.” The key to Creighton’s success in baseball
was an imperceptible though certainly illegal wrist snap, added to a
swooping underhand delivery.

The Civil War also made a return tour of the All-England XI impossible. At war's end, baseball emerged as the more popular game, for spectators especially.

7:47 AM Jan 5th
Steven: the rules of cricket are really very simple. I've never seen a full test match, not having had four days to spare while travelling in Britain, but I've watched quite a bit of limited-overs on TV and find it entertaining. The vocabulary is another matter, however: sometimes I think I'm listening to a telecast from Uzbekistan--though I do know what a yorker is.

Thanks for putting my question to Mr Thorn.
6:54 AM Jan 5th
Steven Goldleaf
Which shows a remarkable confidence on DiMaggio's part, considering he quit after batting .263 at the age of 36. I've heard the same anecdote, btw, about Ty Cobb (I think Cobb felt he would have hit .275 at the age of 80, or something like that.) Of course, they both (and every other great hitter in history) had tremendous egos, and well-deserved, but this sounds like a sportswriter's story rather than a ballplayer's to me.
4:44 AM Jan 5th
The comments below remind me of an answer Joe DiMaggio supposedly gave to an interviewer who asked him, in about 1990, what he thought he would hit if he were playing today. He answered .250 and the reporter asked why so low and DiMaggio replied, "well, I am 75 years old."

3:48 PM Jan 4th
Steven Goldleaf
Steve161--since I really don't know much about the early game, I took your question to the source, who felt reluctant to participate in a thread about his own book, and he confirms that, yes, there was a certain snootiness to the game of cricket that didn't really exist in American baseball. He actually covers this subject in his book, telling me even more about cricket than I thought I would ever read voluntarily. Have you ever understood how cricket works, btw? In grad school, I had a very patient Englishman explain the game to me, draw up diagrams, explicate strategies, detail terminology, and I thought I'd died and had been whisked straight to hell.
3:16 PM Jan 4th
Seriously, I've always wondered who did invent the double play. It doesn't seem to me that it would've been an obvious concept -- that if you could force the runner at second and still get the ball to first before the batter, you'd get two outs on the same batted ball. It's easy to imagine that happening for the first time, and somebody on the defensive team having to convince the umpire that it was legal -- not to mention the argument that would've brought from the victimized team. Has anybody ever seen an account of the first double play?

10:05 PM Jan 3rd
Dave: You divided that up wrong. :-)

You'll never convince me that Abner Doubleday
Didn't invent the double play

8:49 PM Jan 3rd
You'll never convince me that Abner Doubleday didn't invent the double play.

4:24 PM Jan 3rd
Time travel doesn't exist. Really, it doesn't. Forget that part.

I think I've said too much.
11:38 AM Jan 3rd
A modern cavalry regiment would kick the living crap out of Genghis Khan and his buddies.

But no one ever laid more destruction and fear around the world than old Genghy did.

To say that weren't a formidable force in their time would be stupid. They were the best at what they were given the time, equipment, and environment they had.

So were 19th century ballplayers. No on is saying they could beat a modern major league team. Mostly because they are all dead and time travel exists, and it's a stupid argument.

At the time, given the equipment, skills, and environment they had, they were the best of their time. Any time you are at the top of your field, you deserve to be considered among the best ever.

This also works for science, navigation (do you really think an aircraft carrier navigator is better than the guy working for Magellan, just because he had better technology?), flying, medicine (a doctor who saved a live in 1871 is just as good a doctor as one in 2018, and didn't without the modern aspect of it). I guess Stephen King is a better writer than Mark Twain for no other reason than he has a computer.

As far as modern players, like Issac said, they have only seen further because they stood on the shoulders of those who came before. Or something like that.
11:37 AM Jan 3rd
Baseball originated earlier and differently than any of that.

(BTW, this is fake history in the sense that I have no basis for it. :-)
But I'm saying it as though it were actual history, because I think it's a good bet. Then again I've thought some other things were good bets.)

Baseball originated in primitive times when tribes were battling, and one of the guys in one tribe (maybe lots of the guys, maybe all of them) had a stick and one of the guys (or many or all) on the other side had stones. A stone guy threw a stone at the other tribe, and a stick guy, instead of just dodging it, swung at it with his stick, and hit it. This probably happened lots of times, and then, maybe after an instance where the batted stone actually hit one of the stone guys, maybe killed him, later on they (presumably the stick guys, not the stone guys) had fun remembering and celebrating the memory of it by sort of re-enacting it among themselves, presumably without killing anybody. They'd throw stones and swing sticks at them, and loved it. Maybe they even saw it as practice for the next time they came across a tribe that had sticks or stones. I don't think they formed leagues, but after a certain amount of time with it, they were doing sort of what we'd call baseball, although probably without the bases for the first few thousand years.
11:22 AM Jan 3rd
I agree being too reverent of the play of 19th-century ballplayers is problematic. I have no beef with putting its key players in the Hall of Fame -- especially a one-of-a-kind star like King Kelly or an indisputably great player like Billy Hamilton. But inducting a Jim Creighton -- a literal flash in the plan who had one good idea -- seems a bit ludicrous.

Because modern baseball players are so well-trained and refined with their skills, it also seems ludicrous a 19th-century ballplayer could compete at the modern level. But I do recall Bill James writing that Honus Wagner, had he competed in the lively-ball era, would have hit 300 to 400 home runs. And I've read enough of Bill's other writings of Wagner that hint he was such a superlative athlete, he probably would have thrived in any era. He's probably about it, though.
9:35 AM Jan 3rd
Excellent review. My interest in 19th Century baseball is about as great as yours, Steven, and you've sold me--with no little help from a pre-existing respect for Mr Thorn's work. The book is now on my Kindle. However, the first-in-first-out stack is pretty high: I might not actually get around to reading it for six months. So permit me to anticipate a question I'll be looking to answer when I do read it.

England being a thoroughly class-ridden society, especially in the 18th and 19th Centuries, baseball's cousins (I won't say ancestors) cricket and rounders were very much the games of particular classes (still are, to some extent). To what degree did this influence the evolution of baseball as a national game in America?
8:20 AM Jan 3rd
Steven Goldleaf
Oh, one other thing I neglected to mention: Thorn regularly updates his ongoing serious research into early baseball (among many other topics) at the website You can click on this website for contemporary news breaks, the latest of which concerns evidence of a baseball (or "basteball") game being played at Princeton in 1786. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in early baseball, or just in fine historical writing.
6:17 AM Jan 3rd
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