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Baseball’s Archaeologist

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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What if everything we think we know about the history of baseball is wrong? What if despite the carefully cultivated image of its manly origins—long mustachios and tobacco-juice-stained vests—it was a game played by women as well as men? What if the game was invented 100 years before Abner Double-day allegedly took bat to ball? And, perhaps most astonishing, what if our national pastime was first played in England?

Senator George W. Pepper of Pa. at the bat - enjoying a game [of baseball] with

Senator George W. Pepper of Pa. at the bat - enjoying a game [of baseball] with the Page boys at the Capitol, 25 March 1924

David Block, baseball’s archaeologist, is the man whose life work amounts to a systematic debunking of Santa Claus. The subject of a long profile by Bryan Curtis for the excellent sports site Grantland, Block has been hammering away at baseball’s foundation stories for two decades now. For his 2006 book Baseball Before We Knew It, Block scoured libraries and bookstores for volumes, writes Curtis, that “mentioned baseball, books historians might have missed.” 

Block found “baseball” cited in a number of mid-18th-century books published decades before there was any mention of “rounders,” the English game baseball is typically said to have descended from. Wrong, Block found. Baseball is descended from baseball. Early baseball, Curtis writes, “wasn’t written about because it was mostly the stuff of commoners. Baseball was everywhere. The newspapers didn’t cover it because it was so mundane.”

Where does that leave the legendary figure believed to be baseball’s founding father, Abner Doubleday? As it turns out, the man who first made the claim, Abner Graves, “was a crank.” Nonetheless, A.G. Spalding, who chaired baseball’s first origins committee, ran with the story because he and Doubleday were fellow members of the Theosophical Society, a spiritualist group founded by Madame Blavatsky (best known for her influence on William Butler Yeats). It seems that Madame Blavatsky stands behind two of the greatest literary works of the 20th century—Yeats’s oeuvre, and the just-so story of baseball’s origins. 

Block’s point is that baseball wasn’t invented. Rather, it simply evolved, perhaps a vestigial reminder of the first man who picked up a rock to protect his home or hunt for prey and raised it over his head to throw. Paradoxically, Block’s deconstruction of baseball’s origins brings the game into perfect alignment. Without a clock to limit time, and only foul lines to limit space, baseball stretches out theoretically into an eternal future—and now we know it may reach just as far back into the past. 

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