“Pastime Lost: The Humble, Original and Now Completely Forgotten Game of English Baseball”
The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press, 320 pages, $29.95, to be released June 1
At the publisher’s website, at Amazon.com, at BarnesAndNoble.com, at Powells.com
The review in 90 feet or less
First, some other history to review:
In 2005, when first-time author Block came out of the blocks with “Baseball before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game,”
one might have thought Einstein’s theory of special relativity had been compromised by some barista working at Einstein Bros. Bagels.
Block, described as “a retired systems analyst and amateur baseball historian,” had already been quoted in a 2004 New York Times piece about his research into baseball’s origins. Once his book landed, the New York Times circled back to laud it for the way Block “attacked baseball’s literary record with methodical zeal. The result is a joyfully discursive romp through the history of ball sports and a compelling new theory of the game’s origins.”
MLB.com included the research in a documentary called “Base Ball Discovered,” calling the “landmark book … generally recognized as the authoritative work on the subject of baseball’s origins.”
It was designated as an “Outstanding Academic Title of 2005” book by the American Library Association. And Tom Shieber, the senior curator at the Baseball Hall of Fame, said the book was “to me probably the single most important baseball research of the last 50 years, if not more.”
Recently, MLB historian John Thorn said Block’s “Baseball Before We Knew It” was one of five books on the game he’d whole-heartedly recommend for anyone who wants to know about the sport. In his endorsement, Thorn writes: “David is very systematic and careful in his elucidation of fact. … We haven’t heard the last of David.”
So, we waited.
In 2013, The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis produced an update on Block’s work. But in the sequel of all sequels, what are we left to do?
Pardon the interruption, but Block, a San Francisco native who could be mistaken on the street at Tony Kornheiser, has a confession to make in Chapter 22 of his new book, on page 230, which might have been overlooked in his preface.
Block says he made “mistaken claims” in “Baseball before We Knew It” about how what he terms English baseball and the game of rounders, calling them essentially the same pastime.
“That use of the name ‘baseball’ as the ‘nom de jeu’ for that pastime faded away by the middle of the nineteenth century,” he explained. “If I have failed to make my revised opinions on these two points eminently clear, than my expository skills are woefully amiss. … I now believe the eighteenth-century game of English baseball lingered on as a popular picnic pastime to the end of the nineteenth century and beyond.”
Hence, this book explains better how “baseball” and “rounders” were two distinct activities in England as far back as the 18th century. And through much more research, enabled by current technology, Block is now able to produce an entire new book about that finding.
“Whether this is enough to justify my obsession with the game I leave for you to decide,” he adds. “I leave for you to decide but at least it provided a diversion to keep me busy for more than a decade.”
Indeed, there are many pages dedicated to plenty of otherwise lost artifacts that reference this “baseball” thing, spelled in several different versions, that was played in England.
“There is now no doubt in my mind that English baseball and rounders were distinct games,” Block adds in the intro. “For those who have read my first book and are looking for a sequel, you may be disappointed. Specifically, there is very little in this book about American baseball. Also, please be advised that in this new volume I have found the occasional need to repeat information from previous writings.”
Rinse. Repeat. Rinse again.
Gotta admit, a lot of words that are more important than just splitting hairs went into this attempt to clarify one’s clarification.
Would a 2,000 word magazine piece in a SABR publication have sufficed this “for the record” discovery?
Is there really still too much unknown to justify something of this magnitude? Does it really add to the book already produced 13 years earlier?
Humbly, that’s for those who have the time to pour over the process and feel as if they’re part of the Block Party trying to unearth more information.
How it goes down in the scorebook
As Thorn writes in a bookjacket endorsement of “English Baseball,” there is “now joy in Nerdville, for David Block has unearthed the true ancestor of America’s national pastime – happily named Baseball and not Rounder’s. If you believe, as I do, that all great institutions are most interesting in their murky beginnings, you must read this awesome, indispensable book.”
Block is a SABR rock star, lifting more rocks to find more history as we speak.
We weren’t nerdy enough to actually plow through the entire piece, but felt we captured enough to say: By all means, English baseball needs clarification. Now, back to other literary excavation …
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