Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book Review: John Thorn's New Tome is Ultimately Disappointing

One of the great things about this writer's annual trip to Florida is that it provides a chance to catch up on some reading. The latest book completed on this trip was John Thorn's Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game published this year by Simon & Schuster. While the book includes some amazing research and photographs, the content is ultimately disappointing.

Part of the problem is that Thorn had too many great themes in mind when he wrote the book. The first was to bust the notion that Abner Doubleday "invented" the game of baseball in Cooperstown and how that myth was created in the first place. First of all, we all know that Doubleday did not invent the game, but through Thorn's amazing research, we get an understanding of how the myth came to be and why. The second grand theme was to show the early roots of the game and how it developed from several regional versions until the New York version of the game came to displace all others. The third great theme was to show how this simple game played more or less as an intramural type of thing became the game we know today. The fourth theme (you see what this author means?) was that gambling had a large part of the growth of the game. And finally, Thorn wants to present us with the idea that baseball was branded in religious, mythological and patriotic terms to make it something it never was.

That long paragraph succinctly shows how Thorn had too many thoughts in mind so that in the end, the book loses its way. It's not that Thorn doesn't pull a lot of it off. The book starts with the myth making of Abner Doubleday and that early start of the book was fascinating. We got to see how Albert Spalding and his 1905 "commission" led to the adoption of Doubleday as the creator of the game to the exclusion of other candidates. Thorn's research is thorough and we get to pursue other interesting characters like Louis Fenn Wadswroth. The detective work here is thrilling and very educational.

As is the next section of the book where Thorn--after discounting Spalding's commission's findings--goes on to give us a fascinating look at the earliest roots of the game. The regional aspects of "Base Ball" and the different rules used by each region were terrific sections. The pictures that accompanied Thorn's research were wonderful. We do get a wonderful sense of how the game developed over decades from a very early period in our history. Thorn's description of how the New York style of play ultimately eclipsed all other version of the game is also terrific.

Following this early history, Thorn then takes us on a tour of how the game changed from an amateur game to one played by professional athletes, the early formation of leagues and, in the end, the major leagues. It is in this section of the book that Thorn begins to lose us. For example, Thorn again tries to tie in one of his beliefs that the popularity of the game grew in large part because of gambling. While he makes a good case that gambling was prevalent in the early game (as it is to this day), Thorn never really wins his case that gambling propelled the game to the heights it attained.

There were so many times during this section of the book that the reader starts asking questions that never find their mark. Where did these teams play? Thorn mentions a few "enclosed parks," but what were they like? Who built them? Where were they? Thorn mentions "bare-handed fielders," but we never know how that turned into gloved fielders. We know that Albert Spalding, one of the central characters of the book, made his fortune by beginning to equip baseball, a game he had played and been such a large part of for decades. But we miss the evolution of things from the equipment standpoint.

Thorn does do a terrific job during this section in describing the formation of the leagues that were to become our "major" leagues. Thorn also paints a fascinating picture of how the reserve clause came into being and limited what had been a wide open world for players as they frequently jumped clubs before the clause. We got to see the early roots of the labor issue that would plague baseball for over a hundred years. That was well done indeed. We get a great history of how the leagues started as player associations and turned into owner-centric leagues as profit centers.

After bringing the history of the game to about 1890 or so, the book loses its way entirely. We spend perhaps the last seventy pages of the book back to the myth-makers We get far too much information on Albert Spalding and the Theosophy movement that helped create the religion and myth of Major League Baseball. Some of that background could have been covered in the early stages of the book and left there. In the end, we don't care anymore about Spalding, Templeton and other Theosophists and how baseball became our apple pie.

To more effectively pull this book off, Thorn could have begun the book with the myth and why it was created. He could have talked about the Spaldings and Templeton's and the rest who were responsible for the myth-making and then left them there. More time then could have truly been spent in "the secret history of the early game" and more development of rise of the early game to the game we know today.

This writer still recommends Thorn's book as the history that is effectively presented is extremely valuable. We get to meet some of the early great players. The research is fascinating as are the pictures that support the  research. It's simply too bad that Thorn got lost in too many cross-purposes and muddied things up to the point where the history is lost due to too much focus on the myth-makers. This writer sure wants to know a lot more about Wadsworth!

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