The Myths That Buttress America’s First National Pastime

Review of Baseball in the Garden of Eden by John Thorn

It was Cardinal Fleury, adviser to the king of France, who observed (around 1720) that “a man of mediocre status needs very little history; those who play some part in public affairs need a great deal more; and a Prince cannot have too much.”1 Obviously, he was writing some five decades before Colonial Americans threw off British rule — and nearly a century before U.S. voters (largely men of “mediocre status”) launched a political revolt against the type of aristocratic rule that the Founding Fathers represented and envisaged.

Consequently, as H. L. Mencken observed, the United States found itself in the grip of third-rate men. “Third-rate men, of course, exist in all countries, but it is only here that they are in full control of the state, and with it of all the national standards.”2 And third-rate men, as Cardinal Fleury observed nearly three centuries ago, need “very little history.”

Thus, today we have Tea Party know-nothings — supposedly concerned about America’s famous historical illiteracy — actually exposing their own historical illiteracy when they spout ideologically self-serving quotations, supposedly from the writings of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, that haven’t been found in those writings.3 Newt Gingrich, who professes to know some history, talks incoherently about President Obama’s, Kenyan world view. Mike Huckabee babbles nonsensically about Obama’s youth spent in Kenya while Michele Bachmann — who makes that flaming idiot, Sarah Plain, look like a rocket scientist — not only tells her supporters that our Founding Fathers worked hard to rid the country of slavery, but also asserts that the famous battles at Lexington and Concord took place in New Hampshire. When I hear these people speak, I’m ashamed for my country.

Instead of studying their history, most Americans cherish myths, especially the myth of American exceptionalism. Thus, even though most Americans still lead lives of “quiet desperation,” they take comfort in the myth that God chose America to be his new “City upon a Hill” (as John Winthrop put it) and, thus a beacon of Christian faith and liberty for the entire world.

The myth that George Washington could not lie about chopping down the cherry tree was eventually debunked. But it was no less ridiculous than the comforting myth propagated by Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, depicting “George Washington as none other than Joshua commanding the armies of the Children of Israel and leading them into the Promise Land.”4

Equally ridiculous was the myth propagated on March 20, 1908 by the Special Base Ball Commission on the game’s origins. It concluded that Civil War hero, Abner Doubleday, invented the game of baseball in Cooperstown, New York in 1839.

The Special Commission was the brainchild of A.G. Spalding — a former ball player who subsequently gained wealth by supplying baseball gear to countless teams — and it shaped its conclusions to fit Spalding’s fervent belief that baseball had to be an American invention, not English, because it was a vigorous, manly game befitting the people of this great country.

Applying the historical illiteracy that has made the U.S. famous, the Commission simply accepted the word of Abner Graves, who, as a five-year old living in Cooperstown, supposedly saw Doubleday “scratch out in the dust the diagram of a new game called baseball.” (Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, John Thorn, p.275.) Had anyone on the commission attempted to ascertain Mr. Doubleday’s whereabouts in 1839, as did journalist Will Rankin, they would have discovered that Doubleday was not in Cooperstown, but serving as a cadet at West Point.

But Rankin had credibility problems of his own. Although Duncan F. Curry (original president of the New York Knickerbocker baseball club) told him in 1877 that “a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is today, was brought to the field one day by a Mr.[Louis] Wadsworth,” Rankin subsequently reversed himself and claimed that Mr. Curry actually said it was Alexander Cartwright.

But, according to baseball historian John Thorn, Cartwright deserves credit for nothing except proposing the establishment of “a regular organization” that in 1845 became the Knickerbockers. Nevertheless, because the Knickerbockers have been credited with formalizing many of the rules that eventually were adopted by Major League Baseball, many Doubleday doubters gave Cartwright undeserved credit as the inventor of baseball.

According to Mr. Thorn, who is a serious historian, “baseball” was first mentioned in a children’s book published in England in 1744. The first written reference in the U.S. was by a student at Princeton in 1786, which referred to playing “baste ball.” In fact, Princeton had banned ball playing near the president’s house in 1761.

The town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts banned playing baseball near its new meeting house in 1791. But, if one can believe George Stoddard — who played in the 1850s and claimed that his great-grandfather played roundball in Upton, MA — the Massachusetts game was played in Upton as early as 1735.

Stoddard’s assertions notwithstanding, Thorn is convinced that baseball’s origins are to be found in England. But, he’s also convinced that American baseball, as we know it today, owes much to the rules established in 1845 by the New York Knickerbockers.

Whereas the Massachusetts game had four bases, with the striker standing between first and fourth base, and the Philadelphia game had five stakes, each 30 feet apart that had to be circled before a run was scored, the New York game had a baseball diamond with a home plate and rules stipulating that the distance between first and third bases (as well as between home and second base) be 42 paces. At 2 and one half feet per pace back then, home to first was 75 feet, rather than 90. The pitcher’s position was 45 feet from home plate.

The Massachusetts game had no such thing a foul territory. Theoretically, a batter could decide to turn around as the ball came in and smash it past the catcher, which is why some teams played two catchers. Knickerbocker rules not only delineated foul lines but also foul territory. It stipulated: “A ball knocked out of the field or outside the range of first or third base, is foul.” Thus, out of the park home runs, back then, were foul! In fact, the Knickerbockers established “foul” territory because they had trouble getting all their players to show up for a contest. Thus, they established foul territory to delimit the space their understaffed team needed to cover in any game.

Foul tips? Knickerbocker rules stipulated: “Three balls being struck at and missed and the last one caught, is a hand-out; if not caught is considered fair, and the striker bound to run.” (Four balls, or a base on balls, did not go into effect until 1863.)

Whereas the Massachusetts rule stipulated that only a caught fly ball was an out, the Knickerbocker rules stipulated: “If a ball be struck, or tipped, and caught, either flying or on the first bounce, is a hand out.” Catch a ball on one bounce and it’s an out!

The nine inning game didn’t come into effect until 1857, but even then teams played the full nine innings, because Knickerbocker rules were established for gentlemen whose focus was exercise in the fresh air. In their rules of 1845, the first team to score 21 runs was the winner.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in Knickerbocker rules concerned the pitcher. He was only 45 feet away from the batter, but was forced to “pitch” the ball to the batter, which really meant throwing it underhand so the batter could hit it. The rule stipulated: “The ball must be pitched, and not thrown, for the bat.” As Thorn writes: “The early baseball pitch was like today’s softball pitch, only more restricted: no wrist snap, arm perpendicular to the ground at release, and below the waist. Furthermore, the pitcher was urged to pitch the ball “for the bat.” He was not regarded as an adversary to the batter, but merely as a server; the batter’s true opponents were the fielders.” (p. 74)

The Massachusetts rules of 1858 stipulated the ball must be thrown (overhand) and not pitched. Think about it, when Major League Baseball was established in 1871 it went by Knickerbocker rules — and pitchers still pitched underhanded or sidearm until 1884. Really, we should call today’s pitchers “throwers” rather than “pitchers.”

With the 1884 rule change permitting the throwing of the baseball, “batters struggled to keep up.” Thus, another rule change in 1893 extended the pitching distance by five and one half feet. According to Thorn, “This move boosted overall batting performance by degrees that make the so-called steroid era pale by comparison.” (p. 245) For example, in 1894 four members of the Philadelphia Phillies hit for a batting average over .400!

Perhaps most significantly, Thorn argues that the myth of the amateur, gentlemanly, and all-American origins of Knickerbocker baseball was propagated by A. G. Spalding and Major League Baseball for two reasons: (1) Being historical illiterates, they didn’t know that most of the Knickerbocker rules existed in one locale or another years before they were codified in 1845 and (2) they hoped their myth would bury the reality that “the national game had arisen from a gambling culture in the 1840s that was never free of corruption.” (p. 286)

Before bets could be placed, rules were required — in order to establish a consistent basis for deciding who won. But so was the publication of scores and statistics — so that bettors might make prognostications based upon current information.

As fans increasingly became invested in the outcome of the game, organizations worked to obtain the best players possible. Initially, covert “professionals were given jobs, in the business houses of the team’s backers — jobs where they reported every morning, were visible to callers or doubtful skeptics, and drew small salaries, although few of them ever did a stroke of work.” (p. 144) Thus the Cincinnati Red Stockings listed center fielder and manager Harry Wright as a jeweler. Pitcher Asa Brainard was an insurance salesman, catcher Doug Allison was a granite cutter and so on.

Covert professionalism gave way to overt professionalism in the late 1860s, just a couple years before the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players launched its inaugural season in 1871. Because fans came to see the players, and not the owners, many major league baseball players were in a position to “revolt,” sign with another, better paying team at the end of a season. To end such revolts, the owners established the obnoxious “reserve clause” in 1879 that soon bound each player to his team for life, but gave owners the right to dismiss players after a ten day notice.

Fortunately, the formation of new professional leagues, like the American Association and the Players League, gave players new opportunities to revolt. But with the evolution of the Western League into the American League by 1903, much of that freedom was lost.

Owners realized that the reserve clause allowed them to squeeze the salaries of players. Even more obnoxious, however, was the short-lived syndicate ball practiced by National League owners. “With interlocking ownerships in the bloated National League of 1892 through 1899, a club trailing in the pennant race might transfer a star to an allied club that was closer to the top. Another franchise, situated in a large market, might pool its players with its wholly owned mate in a smaller market, moving the top talent where the greater profit beckoned”Yet another club might exert less than its best effort in a head-to-head series to benefit an affiliated club that stood higher in the standings.” (p. 260) Because Americans hated cartels and felt cheated by such player shifts, baseball during the 1890s “was at real risk of demise.” (p. 255)

As the drinking, gambling, throwing of games and wars between management and labor demonstrate, baseball was never the healthy, vigorous, gentleman’s game its mythmakers foisted upon historically illiterate Americans. But myths have consequences.

Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton argue, in The Dominion of War, that the myth of American exceptionalism — linking the cause of the United States with the cause of freedom — absolved Americans “from the obligation to understand other peoples and places on their own terms and in their own contexts.” (p. 423) Thus, presidents as different as George W. Bush and Barack Obama could invoke America’s commitment to freedom, in order to justify respectively both the immoral invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Libya.

Similarly, the pristine myths surrounding the origins of baseball not only resulted in the construction of a Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and the placing of a plaque celebrating the contributions of Alexander Cartwright in that Hall, they also provided a permanent foundation for befuddlement and demoralization whenever the dark side of the game reared its ugly head.

It’s time for historically illiterate Americans to grow up.

  1. John Lukacs, The Future of History, p.4. []
  2. On Being American, Library of America, pp. 308-09. []
  3. Thomas Frank, “Check it Yourself,” Harper’s, April 2011. []
  4. The War for Righteousness, Richard Gamble, p.11. []

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). He can be reached at: waltuhler@aol.com. Read other articles by Walter C., or visit Walter C.'s website.