How much do you know about the history of the game of baseball? I thought I knew a lot, but after reading Baseball: The Early Years by Harold Seymour (Oxford University Press 1960), it turns out that what I knew was just a lot of jumbled anecdotes, odd statistics, and answers to trivia questions. Reading Seymour's work, volume one in a series of three, is like sitting with a master of the history of the game.
As a game and as an idea, baseball is just about as American as you can get. In that, it's something (rounders) that already existed someplace else (England), that was adapted and tinkered with until it was different enough to be called an original creation. And though Organized Baseball (as the professional leagues came to be known) created and promoted the Abner Doubleday myth as a fictitious centennial in conjunction with the opening of the Hall of Fame in 1939, Seymour is completely thorough in researching the true creation of the game through its many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century incarnations: rounders, town ball, and base.
I had heard about this book because Zev Chafets mentions it as the de facto baseball history text for the library and research staff at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in his book Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame (Bloomsbury, 2010). Does it matter that Baseball was published in 1960, fifty-one years ago? Hardly. If anything, its age strengthens what it has to say. In 1960, the 1880s were only eighty years in the past; the history it describes was still relatively fresh.
It says on the dust jacket of my copy that "[Dr. Seymour] ... received a masters degree and Ph.D. from Cornell University, where he was the first to be awarded a doctorate for a thesis on the history of baseball." Though used mostly as a 'gee wilikers' nugget to help sell the book, this is an important point. Harold Seymour was not some ghost writer, some fly-by-night hack someone hired to write a book about baseball. He was a scholarly individual who happened to have firsthand experiences with professional baseball, and was interested in it and how it came to be the most-loved sport in the country.
I would recommend Seymour's Baseball not just because it's a thorough telling of the game's earliest days, but because it gives life to the men behind the history. It's a lively read, one full of characters each fully vested in the success of the sport. Men like the early amateur Knickerbockers, who were stubborn when faced with spreading the game across the country in a professional way, and power-wielding individuals like Al Spalding, Henry Chadwick, John M. Ward, and Bancroft Johnson. Or my new favorite nineteenth-century loose cannon, the Saint Louis Browns' Chris Von Der Ahe; he's well-deserving of his own biography.
There are very few baseball books that could be called 'definitive' without much argument. Harold Seymour's Baseball: The Early Years is on this very short list.