MLB historian sheds new light on game's origin

MLB historian sheds new light on game's origin

John Thorn's opening act as Major League Baseball's historian is to re-write a significant part of that history.

Or, rather, to set the history straight.

In an article appearing in Sunday's New York Times, Thorn dethrones Alexander Cartwright Jr. as the innovator of modern baseball and instead places the crowns atop the heads of three other heretofore relatively unknown men.

According to the exhaustive research of Thorn, named on March 1 by Commissioner Bud Selig to succeed the late Jerome Holtzman as MLB's official historian, Daniel Lucius Adams set the bases 90 feet apart, William Rufus Wheaton created a set of rules, and Louis Fenn Wadsworth dressed the game to the nines -- innings and men.

All of those innovations are credited to Cartwright, as detailed in his plaque on a wall of Cooperstown's Hall of Fame.

"If a tale is told often enough, it starts to resemble the truth," Thorn said. "I don't want anyone to think of me as a crusader on behalf of causes. I'm only interested in setting the story straight, and in recognizing other stories for what they are, some of which are legend."

The Times article, which goes into great detail chronicling the methods and timelines of baseball's three muses, is excerpted from Thorn's "Baseball in the Garden of Eden," an examination of the game's origins, which comes out on Tuesday.

Thorn is most fascinated by the life of Wadsworth, who passed away on March 28, 1908 -- eight days after the publication in Spalding's Official Base Ball Guide of the conclusions of a commission tasked with determining the game's origins.

While anointing Abner Doubleday, the commission's report included a reference that "a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is today, was brought to the field one day by a Mr. Wadsworth."

"There has always been a wish or a need to have Doubleday as the father of a sport that, in reality, was invented in Britain, or maybe even ancient Egypt," Thorn said. "People have said that if baseball wasn't invented in Cooperstown, it ought to have been, and that just about expressed my feelings, too.

"After Doubleday, they tried to find another reasonable father for baseball."

"Baseball in the Garden of Eden" is, in Thorn's words, a "detective story" which examines numerous other fascinating developments at the dawn of baseball.

For instance, the strange personal history of Albert Goodwill Spalding, a great pitcher prior to becoming a sporting goods giant, who was involved in an affair which produced a "love-child" -- whom he formally adopted 10 years later, thus adopting his natural son for the sake of propriety.

"Who covered up what and when? It's a great story. Why go to all the trouble?" Thorn asked rhetorically. "In the end, it came down to baseball being so important to the culture, everyone wanted to cover up the truth about 'Uncle Harry.'"

Then, there was the role of gambling in the emergence of baseball as a national pastime.

"Gambling was really important to the rise of baseball. It was a force for good at the very beginning," Thorn said. "Then it turned into a force for bad, so it is still baseball's original sin."

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.