Baseball's original sins
The towering baseball book of the season is a revisionist treatment of the sport’s earliest days. Other titles suggest the continuing relevance of this past to baseball’s present.
INVENTION VS. EVOLUTION
After three decades of research, John Thorn has published a major history on the sport’s origins, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game. It has long been known that Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball, as was once claimed. Now we learn that Doubleday’s more believable replacement, Alexander Cartwright, didn’t have that much to do with it either. Both, it seems, were beneficiaries of posthumous lobbying campaigns. Thorn makes the intriguing suggestion that Doubleday’s ascendance was due to his association with Theosophy, an esoteric spiritual movement that just so happened to claim the allegiance of early baseball magnate Albert Spalding, spearhead of an official commission to discover the national pastime’s origins. As for Cartwright, he played on the Knickerbocker club that is routinely credited with staging the first modern baseball game in 1845; but Thorn argues that his role has been overstated, much to the neglect of other club members who helped develop the rules. What’s more, the rules these Knickerbockers played by in 1845 would have been strange to the modern spectator. Pitches were thrown underhand, bases were not spaced at 90 feet until 1857, and the “first” game did not use a shortstop because the position did not yet exist. Thorn’s argument, then, is one that common sense should dictate, but that we Americans have rejected out of need for a creation myth: No one “invented” the game of baseball, but rather it evolved over a long period of time. By insisting that baseball has one father, we have forgotten all its grandfathers, the different versions of the game played in rural areas, in cities outside New York and, most fascinatingly, in Massachusetts, where the field was 360 degrees and there was no such thing as foul ground.
Thorn is also interested in the game’s development beyond the rules. A major theme of the book is the tension between baseball’s ideal and its reality. This tension was apparent from the earliest days. A key virtue of the sport was said to be its “manliness,” but the Knickerbockers were for the most part fat, citified white-collar workers. Their club was meant to be exactly what that word connotes: a gathering of elites. But a blue-collar element threatened the gentility of the sport. Indeed, Thorn argues that without gambling, baseball would have never become what it is today. Along with fighting and drinking—one actually used to be able to purchase a whiskey at the ballpark—gambling completed early baseball’s trifecta of sin. Owners would continually try to eliminate these vices as various leagues emerged and faltered in the last quarter of the 19th century. But the owners had their own vices, particularly in the way they treated players, and their avarice played no small role in the game’s early struggle for stability.
IN SUPPORT OF LEISURE
In light of Thorn’s history, it is interesting to read the perspective of a much later commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti, in the reissue of 1989’s Take Time For Paradise: Americans and Their Games. This slim volume is best described as an academic meditation on leisure (albeit with baseball as Exhibit A): Aristotle, Shakespeare and Milton are cited, but there’s not one mention of any particular player. The book places Giamatti firmly within the idealist rather than the realist school. His particular focus is on baseball’s communal nature, though he does attempt to grapple with technological change and the way it atomizes spectators. Gambling, which so concerned early baseball owners, is not mentioned at all—strange, perhaps, considering that Giamatti was the man who agreed to banish Pete Rose. Giamatti is more concerned here with cheating, which he considers to threaten the integrity of the game. Giamatti died suddenly in 1989, so he did not live to see the era of rampant steroids use. One wonders how he would have dealt with the issue considering his strong words here.
THE BUSINESS OF BASEBALL
Thorn’s early baseball owners come to mind while reading The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. In telling the story of the Tampa Bay Rays (née Devil Rays), Jonah Keri introduces us to Vincent Naimoli, the team’s original owner. Way back in the deadball days, owners owned multiple clubs and cannibalized the rosters to create one super team and multiple anemic ones. This had a way of depriving the fans of competitive baseball. Naimoli achieved the same result, but in a more modern fashion: He squandered money on overrated talent. Naimoli managed to gain even more detractors by instituting policies seemingly intended to alienate fans. Enter a new team of Wall Street wunderkinds, who used a rebranding effort to change the club’s image, fan-friendly policies to put people in the seats and new statistical metrics to put a winning squad on the field. Voila—the Rays became AL champs. This book will inevitably be compared to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, but it imparts a broader sense of what it takes to run a successful sports franchise, off the field as well as on, and it is more of a general business primer than Lewis’ book. The Extra 2% might be criticized for a somewhat simplistic good-guy, bad-guy structure—the hapless early management team did develop key players, after all, a fact that Keri doesn’t adequately explain. Nevertheless, the book provides an entertaining case study, as well as an interesting vantage point from which to consider baseball’s business past.
John C. Williams has written for the Oxford American, PopMatters and the Arkansas Times.