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A READING LIFE

But who was on first first?

When I was young I was introduced to the game of rounders at one of the Irish schools I ended up in, assured beforehand that it was just like baseball. I can still feel my American consternation under the drizzling sky. The batter's box was well outside the baselines -- a place of exile, it seemed to me. The ''bases" themselves were four sticks stuck into the muddy field-hockey pitch we played upon. The bat was dinky and was swung with one hand; the ball was puny and if you hit it you ran the bases the wrong way round, a journey made all the more ignominious by the requirement of bringing the bat along. ''Miss Powers! You mustn't throw our bats! Miss Powers! You've gone the wrong way again!"

That's what I remember: baseball, indeed. Little did I know that it was from just this melancholy plight that the great player, entrepreneur, and impresario Albert Spalding had hoped to save me. In 1888 he led a group of professional baseball players on a tour around the world, including to Dublin. His purpose was threefold: to demonstrate at home and abroad that baseball was the American sport par excellence, to seed the game upon foreign soil, and, not at all incidentally, to enlarge the market for his sporting-goods business. This wild expedition is the subject of Mark Lamster's wonderful ''Spalding's World Tour: The Epic Adventure That Took Baseball Around the Globe -- and Made It America's Game" (PublicAffairs, $26).

At one level the book is an account of a bizarre journey filled with event, often comic, all fascinating. Lamster presents the story in engaging, witty prose, accompanied by excellent photographs and larded with period press accounts in all their purple glory. At another level, the book seizes upon a tour that concentrated in itself not only the spirit of international exposition and commercial optimism that marked the age, but also the concerns of early professional baseball.

Spaulding's tour presented the game as a brisk, democratic sport played by modern, heads-up professionals. No mere boys' game, it possessed scientific gravitas in the box score, batting average, and resultant statistical dimension. This central ingredient had been the contribution of one of the tour's most revered members, Henry Chadwick. Unfortunately, not every part of this progressive American package reflected the realities of the business. In fact, the players had become pretty much the property of the owners with the introduction in 1880 of the reserve system. Still, the rule was young, and this was the time when its unwholesome fruit might have been nipped in the bud. Such, indeed, was the intention of tour member John Montgomery Ward, head of the Brotherhood of American Base Ball Players.

Now into the story enter the arrogance, perfidy, and greed of the club owners, qualities for which they are so justly renowned. With the charismatic, indefatigable Ward safely on the high seas, the owners at their annual meeting back in New York agreed to a new oppressive measure for holding down player salaries. Was Spalding, himself owner of the Chicago White Stockings, involved? Was the tour a device, at least in part, to neutralize Ward? Lamster argues convincingly that Spalding was as blindsided by the owners' plans as was Ward. Still, as soon as he and his fellow Brotherhood members learned of the owners' nefarious doings, they commenced plotting, and the upshot was the Players' League, a failed venture in the end but one that might not have seen the light of day at all were it not for the tour.

Another question very much at large at the time was: How American was baseball, in fact? What were its roots? Two answers were represented on the tour: Chadwick, born in England, saw the game's origin lying in rounders, while Ward, a native of Pennsylvania, claimed that it was all American, having evolved to its present complexity from simpler bat-and-ball games with no debt to rounders. At the time of the tour, Spalding, as Lamster points out, ''diplomatically supported Chadwick, but coached his endorsement in a veil of nationalist pabulum." After actually watching a game of rounders in Liverpool during the tour, he came to agree with Ward that baseball did not originate there. Later, intrepid marketer that he was, he connived at the attractive myth that the game had been the brainchild of Abner Doubleday, who, as a Civil War hero, was exactly the ticket.

As it happens, Doubleday's fitness for the role of sole begetter of the great American game was further enhanced in Spalding's eyes by his having been a fellow Theosophist. That connection is only one of the subjects scrutinized and developed by David Block in his truly magnificent ''Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search for the Roots of the Game" (Bison, paperback, $16.95). This is without question the book for anyone at all interested in the history of the world's greatest game or, for that matter, in the manufacture of history.

Among other things, Block debunks the idea that rounders was baseball's progenitor, showing that the games represent two branches off a common stock, with the name, at least, of ''base-ball" preceding that of rounders by nearly a hundred years. Though the proof of this has lain before historians' eyes, so many of them have simply not been able to take it in any more than a pre-Copernican could grasp the evidence of the firmament. Witness ''The Oxford Companion to Sports and Games" quoted by Block: ''The earliest known literary reference to rounders was in 1744 when 'A Little Pretty Pocket-Book' included a woodcut of the game and a verse under the name 'Base-Ball.' "

''So, the question is," observes Block, ''if it looks like baseball, and is called baseball, what is it? Rounders?" Not any longer.

Katherine A. Powers, a writer and critic, lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@earthlink.net.

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