"Inventing" Baseball: The Abner Doubleday Myth

Here’s the man. Below is the myth.

I’m kind of starting from scratch in this blog. I don’t want to assume things about myself or my audience. Even though I think most have heard of Abner Doubleday and the truth about the beginnings of baseball, I still want to go back and re-visit baseball’s beginnings. Therefore, this is the first in a series talking about various important people, events, etc. in the making of baseball. This won’t necessarily be as regular as the “This Day in Baseball History” or mini-bios, but they should come up at least once or twice a week for a while when I have some time. Today, we start with uncovering the truth about Mr. Doubleday.

Abner Doubleday was born on June 26, 1819 in Ballton Spa, New York. The son of a Congressman, Abner began practicing as a surveyor and civil engineer before enlisting in the United States Military Academy. He started out in coastal garrisons, fighting in the Mexican-American War, fighting in the Seminole Wars, and eventually ended up at Fort Sumter, where he shot the cannon that started the Civil War. Doubleday was even a hero at the Battle of Gettysburg.

But that isn’t what made him famous. Baseball made him famous. But did he really “invent” the game?

In 1905, Abraham G. Mills started the Mills Commission to look into the invention of baseball. Why would he call such a commission? Well, it started over an argument between Henry Chadwick, a Brit, and Al Spalding, an American. Chadwrick argued that baseball came from a British game called rounders, but Spalding believed baseball to be a purely American sport.

Chadwick, a journalist, was not against baseball in any way. He actually promoted the sport, but when drinking and gambling threatened to ruin it, he railed against the behavior and helped instill a sense of fair play throughout the sport. Spalding, on the other hand, was a powerful and ruthless mogul. He had been a pitcher in his playing days, but he was rich from his sporting goods company (I wonder which one that is). He campaigned to make it “America’s Game”, which obviously would have helped his bottom-line. This is not to say one man was right and the other wrong or one good and the other evil. Chadwick may have seen it his way because he was British and saw America as Britain’s child, inheriting its characteristics, and Spalding, in a fit of trying to make America its own entity (much like a child rebels against his parents to be its own individual), tried to force the issue. Who’s right? We may never know, and we still argue over it. In my experience, Brits think they invented the game and Americans think they invented it, as they both try to take credit for what has become a popular and profitable sport.

Back to Doubleday and the Mills Commission, Mills set out to discover the truth about the beginnings of baseball. A committee was set up to search through the evidence, and the winning story came from a man named Abner Graves. Graves claimed to be a friend of Doubleday at school in Cooperstown in 1839. There, he saw Doubleday scribbling a diamond on a piece of paper. His story was sent in and became the official story.

Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of counter-evidence. First, Doubleday never mentioned baseball in his diaries (while that isn’t exactly conclusive, you would like to think he would say something while alive, he died in 1891, about the sport that was becoming popular if he had invented it). Second, Graves’ story and reputation was sketchy. Later in his life, he killed his wife and went to an insane asylum (not exactly a sterling reputation). Third, there is no evidence Doubleday spent that year in Cooperstown (his parents had moved away, and he was in West Point and had not taken leave). Fourth, there is evidence of rules and pictures of fields that pre-date 1839.

But Mills had found his story. A young man from a small, rural town who attended West Point and had fought in several wars. Later, he found his “evidence”. A small, rotted ball had been found in Graves’ personal effects, and it was sent to and remains in the Hall of Fame as the “Doubleday Ball” because he may have touched it once.

So who really invented baseball? That’s an ongoing argument.

Did the English? There has been a reference in a diary from Lade Hervey in 1748 that stated “baseball”, but without any evidence as to what she is talking about, no one can be sure what she meant. Words change meaning, and someone could have come up with the word thinking they were being creative (I thought about God’s fart being the “Big Bang” before I saw it on Monty Python). As for rounders or cricket, there are a lot of differences between the sports. Cricket and baseball (I’ve seen games of both) have little in common other than a bat and outs. The way they play is significantly different. However, the fact that they do share similarities and that it is a British game does make one believe baseball could at least be an adaptation or improvement of the British game.

Did the Americans? The chances of it being a completely new game is doubtful. The similarities are there (few though they actually are), but someone may have taken some basics and included it in an idea they had for a game. It is plausible, though, that the game was completely new, and any similarities are coincidential. Chances are, someone had an idea for a new game, and they used a sport they liked, rounders, as a guide. Due to spatial concerns or limited number of players, they had to make due.

I guess we may never know. The historian in me cares, but the realist in me doesn’t.

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