The Baseball Myth

The following article is reprinted from The Best of Uncle John' Bathroom Reader.

According to traditional baseball lore, our national pastime was invented by Abner Doubleday, in Cooperstown, New York. Was it? Not even close. Here's the story.

Baseball team, circa 1870s.


At the turn of the century, baseball was becoming a popular pastime ...and a booming business. Albert G. Spalding, a wealthy sporting goods dealer, realized that the American public would be more loyal to a sport that had its origins in the U.S. than one with roots in Europe. So it became his mission to sell baseball to Americans as a completely American game.


In 1905, Spalding created the Special Baseball Commission to establish the origin of baseball "in some comprehensive and authoritative way, for all time." He appointed six cronies to serve on it: Alfred J. Reach, head of another sporting goods company; A.G. Mills, the third president of the National League; Morgan G. Bulkely, first president of the National League; George Wright, a businessman; and Arthur P. Gorman, a senator who died before the study was completed. James Sullivan, president of an amateur athletic union, functioned as secretary for the commission.

In 1907, the commission issued its report, which it called "The Official Baseball Guide of 1906-1907." One member, A.G. Mills, declared confidentially that it "should forever set at rest the question as to the origin of baseball." But the truth was, they had done almost no research. Their files contained just three letters-one from Henry Chadwick, an Englishman who had helped popularize baseball; one from Spalding himself; and one from James Ward, a friend and supporter of Spalding.


In his letter, Chadwick pointed out the obvious similarities between baseball and a game called "rounders", a popular sport in England as well as colonial America. Rounders was played on a diamond with a base in each corner. A "striker" with a bat would stand behind the fourth base and try to to hit balls thrown by a "pecker". If he hit the ball fair, the striker could earn a run by "rounding" the bases. If the striker missed the ball three times, or if his hit was caught before touching the ground, he was "out". After a certain number of outs, the offensive and defensive teams switched. Ring a bell? It didn't with Spalding and his men. The commission, which selected Chadwick's letter to represent the "rounder's contingent", quickly dismissed it, because Chadwick was born in England.


In deference to Spalding, James Ward supported the theory of American origin, though his letter stated that "all exact information upon the origin of Base-Ball must, in the vary nature of things, be unobtainable." His testimony amounted to no more than a friendly opinion.

In his own letter, Spalding argued vehemently that baseball had been created by Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. "The game of Base-Ball," he said, "is entirely of American origin, and has no relation to, or connection with, any game of any other country." On what evidence did he base his argument? On the letter of a mystery man named Abner Graves, a mining engineer from Denver, who, Spalding said, recalled Doubleday inventing the game 68 years earlier (Graves was over 80 years old when he gave his account).


In his report, Spalding stated that Graves "was present when Doubleday first outlined with a stick in the dirt the present diamond-shaped field Base-Ball field, including the location of the players on the field, memorandum of the rules of his new game, which he named Base-Ball."

However, none of this romantic imagery was actually in the Graves letter-no stick and no "crude pencil diagram of the rules." Spalding made the whole thing up. Nor was Graves present at the first game, as Spalding claimed. Graves stated in his letter, "I do not know, nor is it possible to know, on what spot the first games was played according to Doubleday's plan." Graves's letter simply recounted the rules of the game and how he though Doubleday "improved" an already existing game called "Town Ball". Spalding cleverly embellished and promoted the old miner's tale to make it the stuff of legends.

Spalding was also clever enough to know that Doubleday, a famous Civil War general, was "legend material" and would be an effective marketing tool in selling the myth. "It certainly appeals to an American's pride to have had the great national game of Base-Ball created and named by a Major General in the United States Army," wrote Spalding.


In fact, no record anywhere associated Doubleday with baseball before 1905. Circumstantial evidence indicates that the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown probably should be somewhere else.

*Doubleday entered West Point on September 1, 1838, and was never in Cooperstown in 1839.

*Doubleday's obituary in The New York Times on January 28, 1893, didn't mention a thing about baseball.

*Doubleday was a writer, but never wrote about the sport he supposedly invented. In a letter about his sporting life, Doubleday reminisced, "In my outdoor sports, I was addicted to topographical work, and even as a boy amused myself by making maps of the country." No mention of baseball.


The article above is reprinted with permission from The Best of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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