Interview With Author Tom Gilbert

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by Larry McCray, September 2021

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Tom Gilbert published How Baseball Happened* in October 2020. It includes an introduction by John Thorn -- " a brilliant new approach to our game and its author tells a hundred stories you haven't heard before". Origins researchers will especially appreciate Tom's familiarity with the social and demographic context of the middle 1800s. (One example: What was Elysian Fields all about?) For more on the book, see Tom's webpage at https://howbaseballhappened.com.


Protoball: You majored in Latin and Greek in college. What can you say about your pathway from that choice to the idea of writing a book on where 1800s base ball came from?

Tom Gilbert: Well, few people I know are working in a job or profession related to their undergraduate major, but in my case I think there is more of a connection than meets the eye. The Classics major is uniquely interdisciplinary -- touching on literature, language, history, economics, science and almost everything else -- which both suited me and I think led me to the unusual angle that I followed in investigating the origins of baseball. It was natural for me to ask who, rather than what and when; and to look at baseball not solely as a sport but as a social phenomenon with implications, influences and repercussions far outside the white lines.


Protoball: The baseball world long endured a creation myth -- that the game was invented in Upstate New York by something of an American war hero. Researchers find little solid evidence to support that claim. But do you find other commonly-held ideas about the game's early days that you think may be lack factual support? Are there other current notions that seem suspect?

Tom Gilbert: The creation myths were invented for a clear purpose-- to help market amateur and later professional baseball. Incidentally, we should also include the myth that Harry Wright's late1860s Cincinnati Red Stockings are the "first professional club" or somehow major league/pro baseball's forbears. There is also the ridiculous idea that 19th-century baseball defeated cricket because it somehow suited the American character better, or whatever. There are other vast areas of wrongness in baseball history, as there are in all history. For me, writing history always starts with a question: when I first set out to find an answer, I doubt to myself that I will find anything interesting or new -- yet I have never failed to do so. It is a pretty safe assumption that, no matter what the subject, we historians will have got all or some if it wrong, whether through ignorance, laziness or lack of imagination.


Protoball: Would you advise other writers to publish a book during a pandemic?

Tom Gilbert: Only if they dislike travel and personal public appearances. Promoting my book during the time of COVID-19 was a technological challenge, but it worked out. I am a homebody and learned to enjoy doing dozens of radio and online interviews per day for weeks and weeks. I don't know if my book sold more or less because of COVID, but it is possible that more people bought and read books because they were stuck in the house. I also do not know if it made any difference that fear of epidemic disease was a key theme of my book, but that fear drove the development of baseball in ways that are hard to appreciate.

__________

  • Thomas W. Gilbert, How Baseball Happened: Outrageous Lies Exposed! The True Story Revealed! (David. R. Godine, Publisher, Boston, 2020).