New books capture history, glory of baseball

Posted: March 30, 2011

GEN. GEORGE WASHINGTON played wicket with the troops at Valley Forge in early May 1778. Wicket involved a bat and a ball and a manicured path from the pitcher to the hitter, the sort of landscaping you saw back in the day in bygone ballyards, before AstroTurf, before high-def scoreboards, before $126 million contracts.

You didn't know that, did you? You thought baseball was invented in America in a Cooperstown pasture by a U.S. Army officer named Abner Doubleday. And if it wasn't Doubleday, then it must have been Alexander Cartwright, because there's a plaque in the Hall of Fame that credits him "with establishing many of the rules of baseball and adapting it from a children's game to an adult sport."

Myths, jingoistic fiction created to glorify baseball as American as apple pie, hot dogs, Chevrolets, squelching the obvious British connection with cricket, wicket, one old cat.

You want the truth, you have to read "Baseball in the Garden of Eden," a splendid new book by John Thorn.

Thorn is that rare archaeologist who can dig in ancient civilizations and then elegantly describe what he has found. He sprinkles sequins where other baseball historians scatter decimal points. He has been named baseball's official historian and he has written the best of the flutter of baseball books that arrive in the spring like so many robins.

In the 1850s, there were many versions of baseball, varying from region to region. Thorn credits Daniel Lucius Adams, William Rufus Wheaton and Louis Fenn Wadsworth with codifying the game, configuring the jumble into one set of rules.

But first he had to solve the mystery of Wadsworth. Thorn knew that Wadsworth played first base for the Gothams and the Knickerbockers from the early 1850s to 1862. And then, poof, he vanished. That baffled Thorn who writes that, "He is the man responsible for baseball being played to nine innings and with nine men."

It turned out Wadsworth had left New York in 1862 for Rockaway in Morris County, N.J., with his new wife, the wealthy widow Maria Fisher. He later became a judge in Union County. When his wife died, he began drinking and squandered a fortune estimated at $300,000.

After selling Sunday papers on the streets of Plainfield, in 1898 he committed himself to the poorhouse, where he died 10 years later without ever having had a single visitor.

Wadsworth's story is a bleak chapter in Thorn's brilliant book, crammed with irony. Baseball's popularity in those early days was fueled by gambling. And now, on the hallowed grounds of Valley Forge, where Washington played wicket with the troops, they're contemplating a casino.

Best of the new baseball biographies is "Campy" by Neil Lanctot, a West Chester baseball historian. It is subtitled, "The Two Lives of Roy Campanella," and it tells the sad story of a superstar big-leaguer transformed into a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic after a gruesome auto accident.

Campanella grew up in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia and he should have been signed by the Phillies. Instead, he became the second African-American to be signed by the Dodgers. He played in Jackie Robinson's huge shadow for years, and Lanctot describes the tense relationship between the men.

The hostility might have started with a barnstorming tour that featured Robinson, Campanella, Don Newcombe and Larry Doby. Campy agreed to a $5,000 guarantee, only to discover that Robinson had negotiated his own deal, $5,000 up front and a third of anything earned over $70,000.

The tour was a huge success, but the resentment never faded. Lanctot details the differences between the men, the jolly Campanella and the solemn Robinson. It is a thorough portrait, rich in detail, shimmering with warmth.

Best of the rest is "56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports" by Kostya Kennedy. This is a fascinating diary of DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak from start to finish, the summer of 1941, before a nation casting a wary eye toward the warfare in Europe.

It is a record that might live forever, and Kennedy tells the story slickly, including those inevitable lucky moments, the green light on 3-0 counts, the family gathered around a radio in San Francisco lusting for details.

We find out that DiMaggio was a chain smoker and a secretive fan of Superman comic books. His roommate, Lefty Gomez, was assigned to buy them each week and DiMaggio carried them around, tucked out of sight.

Gomez would needle him, saying, "Joe, you're just like him. He puts on his uniform and all of a sudden no one can stop him."

Send email to stanrhoch@comcast.net.

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