Simon and Schuster, 2011, $26.00
Harper, 2011, $25.99
only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America.”
—James Baldwin, “The Discovery Of What It Means To Be An American,” 1959
Baldwin’s most valuable contribution may well be his heartfelt perspective on how we, as Americans, are consistently locked in a desperate battle for self-definition. Still a young country, we have a decidedly adolescent need to proclaim who we are, and what we value. An immense portion of that American identity rests in institutions that we claim as our own, almost as a calling card to the rest of the world. Who would we be without Motown, Detroit steel, or Hollywood? None among these, however, receives the kind of reverence we bestow upon our “national pastime”: baseball.
The story of baseball is very much the American story, born of heroic strength, skill, and of course that legendary “good-old American ingenuity.” Baseball seems, at times, more a secular religion than a game. With painstaking devotion, Saugerties resident John Thorn’s Baseball in the Garden of Eden delves into a dangerous task in any religious history: separating the myth from the fact.
Thorn is Major League Baseball’s official historian, and that credibility is essential here, as this detailed tract proves very clearly that the genesis of baseball, as we have come to learn it, is far from accurate. Everything that is baseball—from Abner Doubleday’s Cooperstown brainstorm in 1839 to the game’s identity as a purely American invention—is a carefully constructed series of fictions, designed to bolster baseball’s powerful presence in America’s narrative. Focusing primarily upon the 19th century, Thorn dissects a plethora of conflicting documentation. He offers irrefutable proof that baseball was played in the US long before 1839; and that, contrary to nativist claims held as fervently today as 150 years ago, its roots can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt.
If baseball is America’s Olympus, the New York Yankees franchise is its Zeus. A juggernaut of epic lore and success, the Yankees are both passionately loved and despised, but—like the all-father—impossible to ignore. Charley Rosen’s Bullpen Diaries is undeniably a labor of love. Rosen’s discourse is an insight into the details of the 2010 Yankees season: a compendium of statistics, analyses, and a focus on the unique role of the relief pitcher (particularly Hall-of-Fame-bound current closer, Mariano Rivera), along with a healthy dose of Yankee lore and tidbits from former stars. Rosen is primarily a basketball man—an NBA analyst for FoxSports, he has coached with the legendary Phil Jackson, as well as at Bard College and SUNY New Paltz. But he grew up in the shadow of the Bronx’s Yankee Stadium, and his outright passion for the game of baseball, and the Yankees themselves, is infectious.
You don’t need to be a baseball fanatic in order to enjoy these books; to appreciate the juxtaposition of story and history is enough. Thorn’s assertion that “baseball is an odyssey in which a protagonist braves the perils between bases before ultimately coming home, like Ulysses,” is the stuff that moves readers, especially American ones.