With "Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game," baseball's greatest historian, John Thorn, disperses the misty haze that obscures so much of the game's beginnings. "In no field of American endeavor," Thorn writes, "is invention more rampant than in baseball, whose whole history was a lie from beginning to end." Baseball as we know it was not invented, he writes, but "appears to have sprung up everywhere, like dandelions, and we cannot now expect to identify with certainty which of these hardy flowers was truly the first." It evolved out of the English games of cricket and rounders, and also out of several American versions, including "the Massachusetts game" and "the New York game."

Even "sporting men" did their part. Without gamblers, "Baseball could not produce culture heroes and might never have risen to its status of national pastime."

Thorn dispenses with one myth after another -- the absurdity that Abner Doubleday invented the game scarcely survives the first chapter as new founding fathers are given their due. In 1899, "Forefather Doc Adams died; in his last days he told an interviewer 'we pioneers never expected to see the game so universal as it is now become. ... It is an important industry.'" One can only imagine what Doc would have thought if he could have seen players from coast to coast, many from the Dominican Republic and even Japan, making $15 million a year playing in stadiums whose price tags could have been the GNP of many countries at the end of the 19th century.

Thorn writes with authority, precision and humor. "Baseball in the Garden of Eden" is as relaxing as watching a good game, and Thorn takes time to stop and enjoy all of the cultural side paths that emanate from baseball's vast left field, including a poem published on June 3, 1888, in the San Francisco Examiner, for which its then anonymous author was paid $5. It would become a "ballad for the republic" known today as "Casey at the Bat." The author, a magna cum laude from Harvard named Ernest Lawrence Thayer, never made another dollar from his writing.

"Why," Thorn asks, "do the origins of baseball matter today?" Because, he writes, "Baseball provides us with a family album older and deeper, by many generations, than all but a relative handful of Americans can claim for their own lineage, because the charm of baseball today is in good measure its echo of a bygone age."

The most important and one of the most enjoyable baseball books of 2011.

Allen Barra's latest book is "Rickwood Field: A Century in America's Oldest Ballpark."