Winner of the Casey Award: Best Baseball Book of the Year
“Explores the conditions and factors that begat the game in the 19th century and turned it into the national pastime . . . A delightful look at a young nation creating a pastime that was love from the first crack of the bat.”—Paul Dickson, The Wall Street Journal
The fascinating, true, origin story of baseball—how America’s first great sport developed and how it conquered a nation. Baseball’s true founders don’t have plaques in Cooperstown. The founders were the hundreds of uncredited amateurs—ordinary people—who played without gloves, face-masks or performance incentives in the middle decades of the 19th century. Unlike today’s pro athletes, they lived full lives outside of sports. They worked, built businesses and fought in the Civil War.
The wrongness of baseball history can be staggering. You may have heard that Abner Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright invented baseball. Neither did. You may have been told that a club called the Knickerbockers played the first baseball game in 1846. They didn’t. You have read that baseball’s color line was uncrossed and unchallenged until Jackie Robinson in 1947. Nope. You have been told that the clean, corporate 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings were baseball’s first professional club. Not true. They weren’t the first professionals; they weren’t all that clean, either. You may have heard Cooperstown, Hoboken, or New York City called the birthplace of baseball, but not Brooklyn. Yet Brooklyn was the home of baseball’s first fans, the first ballpark, the first statistics—and modern pitching.
Baseball was originally supposed to be played, not watched. This changed when crowds began to show up at games in Brooklyn in the late 1850s. We fans weren’t invited to the party; we crashed it. Professionalism wasn’t part of the plan either, but when an 1858 Brooklyn versus New York City series accidentally proved that people would pay to see a game, the writing was on the outfield wall.
When the first professional league was formed in 1871, baseball was already a fully formed modern sport with championships, media coverage, and famous stars. Professional baseball invented an organization, but not the sport itself. Baseball’s amazing amateurs had already done that.
Thomas W. Gilbert’s history is for baseball fans and anyone fascinating by history, American culture, and how great things began.
“Explores the conditions and factors that begat the game in the 19th century and turned it into the national pastime. The book explains how almost all conventional wisdom about baseball’s origins and formative years is wrong. A delightful look at a young nation creating a pastime that was love from the first crack of the bat.”
―The Wall Street Journal
“Baseball has fabricated its own history several times over, but its origin story matters. In this entertaining narrative, Gilbert shows how the game was developed by amateurs, in part to introduce healthier habits and the sporting life in a country that didn’t really have either.”
―Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“In How Baseball Happened, Thomas W. Gilbert brilliantly gathers hidden treasure long buried in newspaper accounts and diaries to present a rich and nuanced picture of American baseball as it grew and blossomed. Along the way, he explodes myths that have long shaped our understanding of this great game. This is a tart and funny trip through the raucous and aspiring culture that shaped baseball, with its volunteer firefighters, urban professionals, bloodstained butchers, and brawling gamblers.”
—Edward Achorn, author of Every Drop of Blood, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, and Fifty-Nine in ’84
“A brilliant new approach to our game and its author tells a hundred stories you haven’t heard before.”
—John Thorn, Official Historian, Major League Baseball
“Tom Gilbert gives us a lively and often funny account of how baseball became THE national sport. At once irreverent and loving, Gilbert explodes baseball’s founding myths while painting a rich portrait of a forgotten America. For baseball lovers and history buffs alike.”
—Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World
More on How Baseball Happened
- Podcast interview with Thomas W. Gilbert | Baseball by the Book