Author Looks at Baseball before Abner Doubleday

Article excerpt

In 1791 in Pittsfield, Mass., a law was enacted that prohibited games such as "wicket, cricket, base ball, bat ball, football, cat, fives or any game with a ball" within 80 yards of the town meeting house.

This was only 15 years after the Declaration of Independence, and 38 years prior to the supposed birth of baseball in Cooperstown, N.Y. Is Pittsfield the nominal birthplace for the sport?

Probably not. In John Thorn's "Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game," the noted baseball historian unearths evidence that baseball was played in Upton, Mass., around 1735. But it also was played in other places, in other forms and variations resembling the English games rounders and cricket.

The Massachusetts version of baseball featured no foul territory, between seven and 14 fielders, and more action than the game as played in New York or Philadelphia. Other variations, such as town ball and three old cat, had features still present in the sport that's played at PNC Park and baseball diamonds around the country.

"Like Stephen Jay Gould (the late paleontologist and biologist) might say, at the early stages of things, we have more diversity, we have more variety," says Thorn, who spent 29 years researching and writing "Baseball in the Garden of Eden."

"As the institution or species matures, it tends to consolidate. You have fewer horses, you have fewer bugs. It's not necessarily a good thing there's one kind of horse. It is, however, a fact: the irreversible trend of consolidation and specialization, and that's what happened in baseball."

Cooperstown's reputation as baseball's cradle took hold because of the Mills Commission, appointed by Albert G. Spalding in 1905 to determine the sport's origins. Three years later, the commission released its findings, with Abner Doubleday anointed as the game's figurehead, even though his credentials are no more impressive than the Easter Bunny's resume.

"It was a wish for a simplistic history," Thorn says. "We wished to have an Edison of baseball. We wished to have an Isaac Newton sitting under a tree and have a baseball drop on his head so we could say 'Eureka!' "

Thus, the contributions of men who helped form the game and codify the rules were forgotten. Thorn, the editor for "Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball," resurrects the ghosts of William Wheaton, one of the first umpires who, Thorn believes, wrote the first standardized rules of baseball; Daniel "Doc" Adams, a mid-19th century player who invented the shortstop position and defined the basepaths and distance between the mound and home plate; and Louis Fenn Wadsworth, a first baseman for the New York clubs the Gothams and Knickerbockers who is acknowledged as having set the standards of nine men and nine innings at a time when seven was the preferred number for both. …