Tom Gilbert, Greenpoint’s Prolific Baseball Historian

Playing First by Thomas W. Gilbert, book cover

It is richly ironic that Tom Gilbert’s home on North Henry Street lies in what was once the outfield of the Manor House, where Greenpoint’s legendary national championship team, the Eckford Club, once played. Gilbert—who was born and raised in North Carolina but has lived in Greenpoint since 1983—is passionate about baseball, especially its early history. He has written books about Roberto Clemente and Pete Rose, but I find his writing on early baseball most fascinating. Gilbert wrote an intriguing book about early baseball and its connections to Green-Wood Cemetery called Playing First. Many of the founders of baseball are buried in Green-Wood and reading Playing First makes a visit to Green-Wood so much more rewarding.
One of the things that makes Gilbert’s work so interesting is that he not only knows baseball history, he knows American history and he weaves baseball history into the larger epic of American history. He said, ” Early baseball is especially fascinating to me because of my passion for history. Both the sport of baseball and the city in which I live were substantially built in the early and mid-19th century — and by some of the same people! Because of its longevity, baseball has absorbed much of the history and culture of New York City and America.”

Tom is presently working on a book about how baseball evolved from a folk game played only in the NYC area to a national professional sport in a matter of 15 years. The Greenpoint-based Eckford club thirved for a time during that epoch, winning the national championship twice in 1862 and 1863, but they were forced out of existence by the professionalization of baseball. Gilbert has researched the life of the fascinating baseball poineer Greenpointer Frank Pidgeon and includes him in Playing First. Pidgeon was opposed to the professionalization of baseball, but he was on the losing side of history. One of his teammates, Al Reach, saw things differently. Reach wanted to become rich playing the sport and he did. Reach would become the first admitted professional baseball player in 1864 and he would later become a millionaire as the owner of the Philadelphia Phillies. Reach has been enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Even if you are not a huge baseball fan, Gilbert’s work is fascinating to read. He makes brilliant connections between the game and American culture and history. Reading Gilbert’s work not only gives his readers a deeper appreciation of baseball, but a fascinating treasure trove of facts and personages from American history. We cant wait to read his next book on the origins of the national past time.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over twenty years and is the author of a history of the area Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past.

1 Comment

  1. paul says:

    Baseball is usually the first thing that immigrant children, especially boys identify as being American.

    Immigrant girls may not be as versed with the stats and details of the game but they are not far behind re its’ importance.

    That you Geoff for another important post.

    Reply

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