The true story of how baseball happened.
Ever wonder about baseball’s beginnings? If you have, you’ve probably heard the name “Abner Doubleday.” I remember hearing that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, but never thought much more about it. It’s one of those wispy arbitrary facts racquetballing around my brain, managing to escape any conscious, critical thought.
Turns out it’s a bunch of hogwash. Dirty, filthy lies. Not only did Abner Doubleday not invent baseball – but nothing about the guy is even remotely related to baseball.
Thomas Gilbert’s How Baseball Happened dismantles this myth and reveals baseball’s true genesis as a truly American sport. The beginning of baseball is much less to do with who than where.
Minor spoiler: if you’re interested in the early days of New York (Brooklyn in particular), you’re going to love this book.
I’d characterize this book something like a batting order. Gilbert comes out swinging with some really strong mythbusting, hits on baseball’s key figures and events, follows up with the meat of the origins of baseball in the early-to-middle section of the book, and methodically polishes the world he’s re-created in the back half.
What’s nice is you probably don’t have to read the entire thing if you don’t want to. Gilbert doesn’t bury the lede. The good stuff is right there at the beginning, and if you’re really captivated there’s a whole lot more to come.
I love Gilbert’s writing style. This is a highly digestible history lesson that reads nothing like your middle school social studies textbook. Gilbert writes with a lot of personality. And cuss words. And some colorful language of the day (but nothing in poor taste/used in a derogatory way). You might not want your young kid to read it. But your young kid has probably already seen 100x more horrible things on the internet already. I don’t know – your call.
My favorite part.
Gilbert dedicates a lengthy section of the book to Jim Creighton, who revolutionized pitching despite his tragic death at the age of 21. Creighton was what you might call one of the first baseball superstars. He threw much harder than anyone else and seemingly managed to do it within the rules. Until Creighton, pitcher was much more of a functional defensive position (just lob it over the plate so they can hit it). With higher velocity and a mix of different pitch types, Creighton changed pitching forever.
Creighton and his family played a huge role in the early days of baseball. Read enough of this book and you’ll get the feeling it’s a small world.
What could I possibly not like?
Gilbert’s approach is to build the world around the formation of baseball as a national pastime. Political and cultural themes wind their way throughout the narrative and play an instrumental role in the story Gilbert is trying to tell.
If you’re looking specifically for details about how the game was played, apparel worn, equipment used and other very baseball-specific topics, I’m not sure this book is really what you’re looking for. Gilbert sprinkles in these interesting details here and there, but that’s not his main focus. His goal is to describe the important people and circumstances crucial to the creation of baseball – rather than focus on the evolution of the game itself.
If you’re a baseball fan as curious about how it came to be in the 19th century, this is a must-read. You won’t be bored to tears because it’s written by some stony historical academic. This is a light read packed with interesting stories and people. Highly recommend.
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