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A recent book goes in search of “How Baseball Happened”

Thomas W. Gilbert explores how amateur baseball created the sport we enjoy today. (Or will until Rob Manfred kills it.)

Currier And Ives Baseball Litho 1865
Straight outta Hoboken... and, apparently, using a defensive shift
Photo Reproduction by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

As wise & experienced adults, you all, certainly, know the difference between Manhattan-style clam chowder and New England style. (If you don’t, you are not old enough for my articles. Begone, younglings, lest uncouth words befoul your innocent eyeballs.)

But did you know why those two styles emerged? I didn’t. In How Baseball Happened, Thomas W. Gilbert will tell you.

Basically, chowder was a seafaring meal, and both Boston/New York were originally seafaring towns. Chowder was a stew thickened by hardtack, a kind of preserved emergency-ration cracker that lasted forever. (It’s still popular in Alaska, where survival rations are both a wise thing to have on hand and a strangely popular lifestyle choice.) Pounded into dust, it acted the way flour does in liquids... another thing all wise/experienced adults know, or should.

Yet hardtack is not especially appetizing, survival rations rarely are. You can use a chlorinated pool as emergency drinking water, but I wouldn’t recommend making lemonade with it. So chowder-lovers eventually switched to other thickening agents. In New York, there were tomato farms nearby. In Boston, dairy farms. Hence the two varieties of chowder.

What the heck does this have to do with baseball? Not a whole lot, except that amateur players in the mid-19th century often enjoyed eating postgame chowder. Is it still a fun little factoid? Yes. Does Gilbert provide an authentic chowder recipe from the era? Oh, you bet your hardtack he does.

How Baseball Happened is absolutely full of these details, many of which are connected to the baseball origins story, many not. Funny, the next book I started reading after Gilbert’s was a Sherlock Holmes mystery set around the Hinckley fire of 1894, because that author is a St. Paul resident who just put Holmes/Watson in 1894 Minnesota for Why Not, and it’s also crammed with frequently tangential factoids. (It’s the first mystery novel I’ve ever read that has footnotes). How Baseball Happened, like Holmes, amasses details for the sheer sake of knowing them. And I found most of them fascinating.

Gilbert is himself trying to solve a mystery; where did baseball come from? The story of Abner Doubleday “inventing” the sport is so thoroughly bogus that even the Hall Of Fame, on the location in Cooperstown where this magical inspiration legendarily happened, no longer claims it is true. (Doubleday himself was never quoted as claiming any such thing.) Gilbert writes:

The Doubleday origin tale is only interesting in the way that lies sometimes are, for what they say about the people who tell them and the myths they are trying to obscure. It is no myth. Myths grow organically out of human experience into a narrative that expresses a cultural or religious truth...

The story was made up by a commission of seven baseball lifers in three-piece suits, picked for that purpose by Albert Spalding, the rich owner of the Chicago Cubs and de facto CEO of major league baseball.

(Yes, that Albert Spalding, owner of the sports equipment business. He was somewhat involved in a strange mystical humanist sect known as the Theosophical Society – as was the slightly famous Civil War hero Doubleday.)

What was the lie, and what was it obscuring? Here’s the short version: nobody knows where and how baseball was invented. Stick-and-ball games are ubiquitous all over the world, and a style of these close to what we think of as “town ball” today was fairly common in American cities by the early 19th century, particularly in the New York City area.

These were most often played by middle-class amateur clubs, which began to get sorted out into categories: the traditional middle class, made up of tradesmen like butchers or shipbuilders, and the socially-climbing middle class, of doctors, lawyers, financial workers. (Gilbert calls these the Emerging Urban Bourgeoisie, or EUB, and admits it’s a clunky phrase.)

Over time, the EUB clubs worked at crowding out other ones, establishing standardized rules of play / player conduct which were less about improving the game than defining who played baseball correctly. (You can see an example of their rules here.) As the New York style of play spread via canal & railroad, baseball started being publicized by American boosters eager to overcome the widespread cultural inferiority complex vis-a-vis England. (The rise of daily papers contributed to this, too; more frequent publications needed more copy, and what’s better copy than a debate about who was first at something?)

Therefore, the game had to have been invented in its entirety by a clever American in wholesome farm country who’d later become a war hero, owing nothing to sordid cities or British games like rounders or cricket. (It did, many early amateurs played all of the above.) And, while America was proudly more egalitarian than England, the first teams had to have been, as Spalding wrote, proper New York “gentlemen – and I use the term ‘gentlemen’ in its highest social significance.” See, England, we have gentlemen, too, except ours are way cooler.

(The social distinctions between tradesmens’ clubs and EUB clubs was imperceptible to almost everyone else. The truly rich considered them all street urchins, and the truly poor were too busy trying not to die of overwork/cholera.)

The spread of (mostly) standardized baseball led to inter-city contests, which drew increasing numbers of spectators, who became civic pride rooters, who became fans willing to buy tickets. Teams began using this ticket money to lure players away from other teams/cities (at first, considered a heresy, except by fans of the teams that were winning). And at that point you have the basic format of modern baseball.

That’s the short version. Gilbert’s is longer, and I found myself earfolding around 50 different pages of odd historical facts plus odder historical characters. Once you accept Gilbert’s historical framework, and I quickly did, it’s these little mini-bios and stories which keep the book delightful. It’s something of a jumble, and what a fun jumble it is!

To give just a few examples:

  • Henry Chadwick, the only sportswriter with a prominent plaque in the HOF, and whose gravesite in Brooklyn is laid out like a baseball diamond
  • How New York City’s pre-1850s “street levels rose an inch a year because of compacted horse manure and whatever garbage was rejected by the city’s thousands of feral pigs”
  • The connection between refrigerated railroad cars and a slang term for a type of cigarette now legal in many states
  • The amazing history of Hoboken’s Elysian Fields, where many EUB teams first started drawing sizable middle-class crowds, and featured every manner of opportunity for vulgar activities, which is exactly why those crowds were there
  • Gambling! Lots of gambling! The old rich liked gambling on violence and horses, the new poor on horses and baseball, and the EUB disapproved of such behavior – as they did boozing/brawling, eliminating all these vices from baseball forever
  • Vast political corruption and underworld dealings, only some of which were true about the “Bill The Butcher” character Daniel-Day Lewis played in Gangs Of New York (most of that story’s hugely exaggerated)
  • James Creighton, possibly the first quasi-paid baseball player, definitely its first great pitcher (aka someone who intentionally tried to get batters out rather than serve up a ball to be put in play), who died at 21 from “strangulation of the intestine” (probably from throwing too violently too often, 200-300 times a game) and was featured in one of the earliest baseball cards... after he died
  • His brother, John, who took part in a doomed dumbcluck attempt to colonize Nicaragua as a slave state and supported the South, until becoming an abolitionist. He’d later shoot himself while drunk in front of his kid
  • Jack Chapman, one of a few players whose barehanded fielding skill earned the awesome nickname “Death To Flying Things,” and in the 1880s tried integrating the Buffalo minor-league team. This provoked predictable backlash... particularly when the team played road games in nearby Toronto
  • African-American amateur clubs, the newspapers that would cover them, the ones that wouldn’t, and how the clubs were excluded by Whites-only teams
  • Descriptions of baseball games played in Civil War POW camps, with guards that might/might not shoot outfielders who ran too far after a ball and hence could be suspected of escaping

And so much more! (This referencing the feel of those 1990s late-nite TV commercials for “Hits Of The Sixties” CDs, except here it’s a different ‘60s. There are still hits involved.)

In his acknowledgments, Gilbert thanks Yale College “for exposing me to serious scholarship and for discouraging me from a career in academia.” The two, of course, are not mutually exclusive... but I’d be lying if I said I’d never taken a history class where the instructor was less interested in what students can discover than what they can memorize/recite. Those aren’t the classes which make you want to learn more history.

A fan of baseball history, or just history in general, could spend a worse afternoon than simply skipping to all of Gilbert’s insert segments, where many of the most enjoyable stuff in How Baseball Happened is found.

The chowder recipe is one of these. It was originally published by Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, champion of women’s education/employment, promoter of the national Thanksgiving holiday, and poet — as Gilbert notes, “she had a darker side; she wrote ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb.’” (Naturally, Gilbert adds his own cooking tips to Hale’s instructions.)

The illustrations, while sparse, are well-selected and add to the text; there’s a particularly wonderful map of “How Baseball Expanded” on pages 230-231. With dated arrows sweeping across half the country, it reminded me of a military history map tracing which armies went where when. (It was New York-style baseball invading the nation, in a sense.)

If How Baseball Happened’s collection of stories and factoids is, sometimes, a bit meandering, it’s in a good way. Like a road trip in no hurry to reach the destination. You can check out those interesting signs which point to something curious five miles thataway, and you’ll still be able to find your way back.

Gilbert always finds his way back (although the chapter titles aren’t much help — there should have been more, and Elysian Fields definitely deserved one all to itself). He comes back to his theme; how modern baseball was essentially created in the Amateur Era, and much of “official” baseball history seems to ignore this fact. Perhaps there’s a conscious or collectively subconscious reason for this omission, to avoid comparison to what was unique in the Amateur Era (bad and good), and what has been lost. (Although, of course, there is still widespread amateur play today.)

“Ultimately, the rise of professional baseball meant that the highest level of baseball competition in the United States would be controlled by a legal monopoly that would then sell it as an entertainment commodity,” Gilbert writes in his afterword. “We fans still want to believe that the sports franchises that we watch and support belong to us. They do, but only in one narrow sense. We pay for them.”