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Let’s Go Read: How Baseball Happened

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Thomas Gilbert’s look at early baseball’s origins is well worth any history fan’s time

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How did baseball, as we know it, come to be? It’s a deceptively simple question, but one that even someone like myself — who enjoys baseball and history and baseball history — can easily overlook. For me, even after the claim that Abner Doubleday invented baseball was easily tossed aside as fiction, the question lingered but mostly went unexamined. Baseball is our national pastime and it grew out of cricket or rounders or some other game the founders brought over from the Old Word, right?

Thomas W. Gilbert is a bit more curious than I, and he decided that the general idea, that vague notion of where baseball came from was not enough. He had to find out how baseball happened. So, he wrote How Baseball Happened: Outrageous Lies Exposed! The True Story Revealed.

The book is a fairly riveting look at baseball’s origins from the post-colonial era through the the first (openly) professional leagues that came about during Reconstruction. The whole thing is wonderfully researched and engagingly written, which is no small feat given the time period covered. But Gilbert gets the info and he presents it entertainingly, mythbusting baseball’s origin story in way that would make Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman proud and providing compelling histories of a wealth of characters from baseball’s early days, individuals straight out of Horatio Alger stories.

Gilbert comes to some very interesting conclusions about the game that became our national pastime and provides many fascinating details that go well beyond the game as well; nuggets about firefighting, supper clubs, railroads, and so on. Throughout, the book focuses less on the game of baseball and more on the people. The game is always there, driving the story along, of course, but it is the people that populate this universe who make it interesting. Those individuals had lives that went far beyond baseball, and Gilbert gladly follows. The book does not shy away from the seedier aspects of early baseball or the downright ugly, like classism, racism, and segregation; but this only makes the story richer because our forebears, in baseball and in life, were flawed individuals, and ignoring their flaws would not make them any less part of the story.

And the story, flaws and all, is very well written. Gilbert uses first person narration liberally and includes anecdotes from his own family history to make the text feel more relatable to the reader. It’s a technique that pays off here because the events of 200 years ago, such as having to take a full day’s trip to get from lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side, seem very remote. Gilbert discusses his style and more about the book with me in an interview that can be found here. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

If you’d like to check out How Baseball Happened for yourself, it is available now via Godine Publishing. As always, I encourage you to purchase it via a local bookstore, especially during these difficult economic times; you can find an independent bookstore near you on Bookshop.org. Of course, your local library is a great resource as well, and you can find your library here.