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Rewriting History: Why I made a minor, tiny, virtually insignificant change to The Utility of Boredom

An updated edition of Andrew Forbes's book The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays is now available.

If, in the near future, you were to purchase a copy of The Utility of Boredom, and if, let’s say, you or someone you know already owned a copy of same, purchased at some point between now and back in April of 2016, when the book was initially published, and if you were to open both of those hypothetical copies of the book to the essay entitled “Madison Bumgarner and the Beautiful Lie,” and more specifically to pages 50 and 51, you would find that I, with the full backing of Team Invisible, have made a minor change to the text.

In a nutshell, the original text credited a man named Alexander Cartwright with concocting and then writing down several key rules that took baseball from a simple recreation to more or less the sport we still know, play, watch, and write about today. This was, I’ll say, the received wisdom for a long time, once scholars bothered to dissect the original creation myth (young Abner Doubleday, in a farmer’s field in Cooperstown, New York, in the summer of 1839). Cartwright, a member of the seminal New York Knickerbocker clubs of the 1840s, has long been credited with rule changes (distance between bases, length of game, size of teams) which, once cemented in place, allowed the game to flourish.

More recent scholarship, though, has clarified things, and ousted Cartwright from the founder’s role. Most notably, the excellent John Thorn – who, as the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, inarguably possesses the coolest title on the planet – has dug deep into contemporary records and accounts and replaced Cartwright’s name with that of Doc Adams, another Knickerbocker. Thorn’s work was confirmed with the discovery of “baseball’s Magna Carta,” the document entitled “Laws of Base Ball” which provided the smoking gun linking Adams, a convention of baseball players and organizers in 1857, and the codification of the amended rules. What we know now is that baseball is both older and younger than the Cartwright story allowed.

My change, when viewed in the context of the scale of the large, loud, fast and messy lives we lead, is exceedingly minor. I grant you this. Just a few words, really. And such hair-splitting. You’re deep in the weeds on this one, Andrew, you might say to me. And I would agree with you. You’re not wrong.

But I’d counter with two things. The first is that my formal education culminated in the awarding of a degree in history, and if such an education teaches a person anything, it’s that careful attention to very small details is vitally important in the study of the past. The second is that my book, while not aimed solely at baseball people (which is to say cranks, fanatics, SABRmetricians, or hardcore seamheads) certainly hopes to find an audience with baseball people, and if there’s anything that baseball people are known for it’s quibbling and bellyaching over very, very minor details (take, for example, the decades-long effort to determine just how many RBI Lou Gehrig amassed).

More broadly, though, I’d just say that it’s important to me that we get things right, where possible. Implicit in the agreement between writer and reader is the veracity of a book’s claims; if the authorial voice espouses shaky facts, can it be trusted at all? When better information is available, isn’t it the writer’s responsibility to present it to the reader? And if I’ve failed to do that, what are you to make of the hundreds of other claims the book contains?

Alexander Cartwright didn’t invent baseball. When I wrote The Utility of Boredom I believed he was at least partly responsible for making the game into one I’d recognize. Those were the facts as I understood them. But I’ve come to believe a newer set of facts, or a truer set. And given that I knew that The Utility of Boredom was due to begin a new print run, I saw an opportunity to correct that, and it’s to the credit of the Invisible apparatus – that is, the people – that they were on board with the change, minor as it may seem.

The final, and not insignificant reason for making the change was that I am knee deep in the work of producing a follow-up to The Utility of Boredom. With luck I’ll have The Only Way is the Steady Way, a new volume of baseball writing, ready to go in time for its publication date in March of 2021. There resides in my mind the small but fervent hope that John Thorn might agree to look over that new book, and even bless it with kind words, should he see fit to do so. Were he to agree to do that, it’s not crazy to think that he might look into the earlier book, too, and the thought of John Thorn reading a mention of the Cartwright story in my book was, quite honestly, keeping me up at night. So now I’ve set the record straight.

Andrew Forbes is the author of The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays, Lands and Forests, and What You Need, which was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and named a finalist for the Trillium Book Prize.

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