Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott
In “Playing First: Early Baseball Lives at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery,” Thomas W. Gilbert asks: why are so many important early baseball players buried in the same place?
One simple answer is that the game was played at the time almost exclusively in New York and its neighboring city Brooklyn, and indeed was often referred to as the “New York game.”
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The latest from baseball writer Gilbert focuses on the sporting and non-sporting lives of the first players, who were amateurs living in the pre-merger New York City and Brooklyn in the 1850s and ’60s.
“Their accumulated life stories constitute the social and historical context for the birth and rise of America’s first modern team sport. They are also fascinating in themselves,” Gilbert said. “These men built baseball, but also built the industries, culture and institutions of two great cities. Most of them fought in the Civil War, not all on the Union side.”
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Among them were Henry Chadwick, pioneer journalist and creator of baseball statistics and the box score, James Creighton, who gave us modern pitching and the strike zone, and Asa Brainard, pitching star of the undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings.
Said John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball: “A good idea has many fathers; baseball is such an idea, and an astonishing number of these pioneers came home at last to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Tom Gilbert’s ‘Playing First’ pays them tribute, not only as ball players but as men in full. It is a brilliant, indispensable book.”
As for his own sporting activity and other passions, Gilbert said: “I am way past it as a baseball player, so I now play weekend softball, the baseball equivalent of methadone maintenance. I speak and read several languages, living and dead. I cook every day because I am fussy about what I eat. I love the un-amplified human voice, so it’s been a rough century or two for me and popular music. Like many mid-19th century amateur baseball players, I am active in local politics and socialize with firemen.”
He added about his Irish roots: “My grandmother told me that the writer Brendan Behan was her cousin, which must be true because she had a very low opinion of him. I visited Ireland once and had such a good time that my Irish friends here were annoyed.”
Date of birth: Aug. 6, 1957
Place of birth: Cherry Point Marine Air Station, N.C.
Spouse: Lisa Gilbert
Children: Wesley Gilbert and Susannah Gilbert
Residence: Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Published works: “Playing First: Early Baseball Lives at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery”; “Roberto Clemente; Baseball and the Color Line”; “Pete Rose”; “Elysian Fields” and others
What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
In terms of productivity, ideal conditions for writing are from about 10 p.m., when my wife goes to bed, to 3 in the morning. It’s quiet. I have my best ideas in my sleep; and for some reason, I remember them clearly when I wake up.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Learn a lot about something, no matter how obscure.
Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.
“Son of the Morning Star,” by Evan Connell; Madison Smartt Bell’s Haiti trilogy; “Confederacy of Dunces,” by John Kennedy Toole.
What book are you currently reading?
“Submission,” by Michel Houellebecq.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
“At Swim-Two-Birds,” by Flann O’Brien.
Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.
“The High Hard One,” by Kirby Higbe.
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
What book changed your life?
Bill James’s “Baseball Abstract.”
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
The Comeragh Mountains.
You’re Irish if…
Traditionally, in Greenpoint you’re Irish once they figure out you’re not Polish or Italian.