SSTN Interviews Author Thomas W. Gilbert
Today we share our interview with Thomas W. Gilbert who is the author of many baseball books, including Baseball and the Color Line, Roberto Clemente and Playing First. His most recent work, How Baseball Happened, won the Casey Award for best baseball book of 2020; it takes a new look at the historical and cultural context of baseball’s beginnings. He and his sweet-tempered wife Lisa live in Brooklyn, New York. Like many mid-19th century baseball players, Tom plays ball for fun and exercise, goes on shooting excursions in the country, socializes with firefighters, and is active in local politics.
Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.
You are welcome Paul.
To begin, please tell us how you became a baseball fan.
Playing baseball always came first for me. Even today I would rather play pickup softball in the park than attend a World Series game. My earliest memory of watching pro baseball was viewing the 1964 World Series on a foggy B&W television. I really became a fan in my 20s, after moving to Brooklyn — it was my interest in history in general that led me to baseball, which was born in the NYC area in the early 1800s.
At what point did you decide to focus on writing about the sport?
Speaking of pickup softball, I was playing in a game in Prospect Park Brooklyn in the mid 1980s, when my apparently provocative opinions about MLB led a teammate who was a magazine editor to offer me a job writing a column about the Yankees. This took me to Spring Training and into the press box. After a few years of this, I was able to interest a publisher or two in my ideas for baseball books, mostly biography and history. I found this a lot more interesting than journalism.
Please tell us about How Baseball Happened, a book that won the Casey Award as the best baseball book of 2020. Without a “spoiler alert,” how did baseball “happen?”
Don’t get me started. Number one: baseball was not “invented” at any known time or place or by any known single person. The sport’s so-called origin myths were made up to serve baseball’s marketing needs and were always known to be false, even by those who first told them. That is pretty interesting and it takes up the first 2 chapters or so of my book. In fact baseball was the product of a kind of social movement, broadly based and including different constituencies — a movement that began in NYC and Brooklyn, and spread outward from there in the 1850s and 1860s.
The how, why and who have a lot to do with economics, politics and culture and surprisingly little to do with sports and games as such. The two most important ideas that drove the baseball movement were the idea that we needed a national sport as an instrument of national cultural unification; and that American adults needed to exercise in order to improve their health, which was in a fairly appalling state in the mid-19th century. Believe it or not, it never occurred to any of baseball’s founders that the sport could make money or become a vast entertainment business. Even the phenomenon of the fan took early baseball by surprise.
I enjoy the myth and majesty of Cooperstown and Abner Doubleday and all of that, even though I know that Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with the founding of baseball. I remember being a teenager and touring Fort Sumter and hearing about how Abner Doubleday was there. I have also toured Gettysburg many times and always visit his statue there. Why do you think, of all the people, he was chosen as the “inventor” of baseball?
Doubleday was picked by MLB to replace the older origin myth of Alexander Cartwright and the Knickerbockers. The purpose of both myths was to reinforce baseball’s respectability and prestige, as well as to block any suggestion that the sport was not 100% American.
Henry Chadwick among others have speculated that baseball might have evolved from an English game called Rounders. I don’t believe it, but baseball as an institution had always marketed baseball as 100% native-born American, and the Rounders theory undermined this and were fighting words.
The beauty of picking Doubleday in particular is that while he had absolutely no interest or involvement in baseball whatsoever, he was a well-known Civil War hero — to doubt his role as baseball’s inventor was to risk appearing unpatriotic. I love Cooperstown, but baseball as a sport was born in the city, not a charming village.
What can you share about the history of the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, the site where the first professional baseball game was actually played. Why did the New York team come to New Jersey to play?
Very simply because they were running out of space to play in lower Manhattan. The story of the Elysian Fields is much more interesting than that, though; I devoted an entire chapter to it. But it was NOT the site of the first inter-club game or the first professional game. It is important for other reasons.
I can’t wait to learn more!
You write, a lot, about baseball’s early days. Why, do you believe, are people so drawn to baseball and its stories, legends, and people?
Because it was our first national team sport, and because it created the very first American sports fans. The fan was literally an unknown phenomenon before the late 1850s, when the NYC-Brooklyn baseball rivalry attracted the first real crowds. I suppose another reason is that baseball succeeded in its mission to use sport as an instrument of national unification. Not only is baseball old, something passed on through generations, but it (and its successor sports) may be the only thing we can all talk about without getting into a nasty political argument.
Please share, if you can, the current projects you are working on? When will we see you next book?
HBH is coming out in paper in March 2022; by then I will have another project in the works. Would love to discuss it with you then!
I can’t wait!
There’s a lot of talk about baseball needing to be “fixed.” Is baseball broken? If you were the Commissioner of Baseball what change(s) if any would you make to the current game?
On a tactical level, I believe the game should always be given the chance to self-correct. Uppercutting and swinging for the fences at the expense of contact, for example, or defensive over-shifting, I am sure can be dealt with by managers and players and analytics departments. MLB has other, broader problems that are not self-correctable because of the conflicting economic interests of owners and players, as well as the interests of the fan. Some of these boil down to the disconnect between the owners, who act as a monopoly in order to guarantee profit and control; the players, who live in a Darwinian world of compete, succeed or die; and the fans, who want their club to go all out to win every game. When MLB proposes not only a kind of salary cap, but also a salary FLOOR, then I think something is seriously, seriously wrong.
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?
Jim Creighton, who invented modern pitching, transformed the game and died at 21. He played for the first Brooklyn club, the Excelsiors.
In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
Rickey Henderson! I had the honor of meeting him when he played for the Yankees. If God decided to make the perfect baseball player, I believe the result would look a lot like Rickey. Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up?
The Yankees, but I switched to the Cardinals for a few years when NY traded Roger Maris to St. Louis. That worked out well for me, because the Cards were a budding dynasty and my Yankees fell on hard times in the late 60s and early 70s.
Who was your favorite player?
Bob Gibson. I was a pitcher and I tried to be as mean and intimidating as Gibson.
What is your most prized collectible?
I don’t collect anything
Who is your favorite musical group or artist?
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
I love food and love to cook – mostly Italian food. My favorite pizza by far is New Haven CT pizza (Modern, Pepe’s, Sally’s)
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
Let’s all play more and watch less! Sitting is bad for your health.
Great advice. Thank you for spending this time with us. I cannot wait to talk about your next book in the spring!