Today in Baseball History: A lie about how baseball was invented is born
Until not too terribly long ago, if you asked most people about the origins of baseball, they’d say “a man named Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York in 1839.” They’d say that because, until not too long ago, there was a sign there, right next to the Hall of Fame, saying so. Somewhere around here I have a photo of my brother and I posing next to it from, like, 1983 or something.
That sign -- and the underlying belief it espouses -- is the product of one baseball’s bigger lies. “The Doubleday Myth,” as it has finally come to be known, about the game’s origin. A myth that was officially put out into the world on this date in 1908 when something called the Mills Commission released a report to that effect, erroneously establishing a baseball creation story that would stick in the public’s consciousness for nearly a century. A report the Mills Commission knew to be false to begin with.
To understand how such a report could be released, one has to understand the ethnic/racial dynamics of the sport in its infancy.
Baseball had been played pretty widely from the 1840s on, became semi-professionalized and then professionalized in the 1860s and 1870s, and was truly becoming the national pastime in the two decades after that. As the game grew in popularity, so too did the number of immigrants playing it. Irish immigrants, mostly. At the same time there was considerable -- and quite accurate -- sentiment that baseball had evolved from the English game rounders, which is primarily played by school-aged children.
Then, as now, there was a large segment of the population who simply could not tolerate the idea that something they considered truly American to be tainted by the influence of [shudder] foreigners, so they did what people who think that way do, then as now: they simply lied about it.
The first widely-accepted lie about baseball being a truly American sport revolved around Alexander Cartwright, who helped found and led the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in New York and who, in 1845, was credited with writing down the first rules of baseball. And to be sure, he did write down some rules and his club played some very famous early baseball games, but those facts were stretched into the erroneous idea that his rules were derived from the wholly novel -- and wholly American -- game of “town ball.”
Cartwright was certainly a baseball pioneer, but what he and his club were doing was not novel and did not come from some single, American-born game. Many people involved with baseball would cite Cartwright as its inventor, but the notion that it truly evolved from rounders and some other bat-and-ball games from the British Isles continued to hold currency. Especially after prominent sportswriter Henry Chadwick -- a native of England -- cited rounders as the progenitor of baseball.
Chicago Cubs president Albert Spalding and National League president Abraham G. Mills didn’t care for that idea. For ideological reasons they truly wanted -- truly needed -- baseball to be an American game. In 1889, Mills gave a speech in New York declaring that baseball was American based on “patriotism and research.” The audience to whom he spoke lapped it up and began chanting “No rounders! No rounders!” Clearly something other than facts and logic were animating the sentiment. The dispute would continue to boil for some time.
In 1905 Spalding called for an official investigation into how the sport was invented and he totally rigged the investigation in his own favor. The commission consisted of seven men, including Mills and six other men who he already knew to support his theory of baseball being a distinctly American game. He specifically excluded Chadwick and anyone else who had cited rounders as the source.
To give the appearance of rigorous research the committee solicited feedback from the public and received a number of letters from people who had played the game in the middle of the 19th century who offered their recollections. Most of the responses supported the rounders theory, so Spalding and Mills kept asking people until they found an answer they liked. They finally got one from a man named Albert Graves.
Graves wrote a letter in which he claimed that he had seen a man named Abner Doubleday create a diagram of a baseball field and then set up the first baseball game in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. Graves said that Doubleday had invented the game as a modified version of town ball, with four bases on the field and batters who attempted to hit balls thrown by a pitcher standing in a ring with a six-foot diameter. Spalding later pressed Graves for more information and, according to Spalding, Graves supplied him with all manner of information establishing that Doubleday had invented, and even named, baseball.
There were some problems with this, of course. A non-conclusive list:
- Graves was only five years-old in 1839, so the specificity of his memory about whatever it was he said Doubleday was doing was pretty questionable;
- Doubleday was a cadet at West Point in 1839 and there was no record of him making the 140 mile trip to Cooperstown, which would’ve entailed many days or possibly weeks away at that time;
- Doubleday was a notable man -- he attained the rank of major general in the Union Army during the Civil War -- whose correspondence and personal records were well-preserved, yet none of that correspondence and none of those records ever mentioned baseball;
- Mills was actually close friends with Doubleday but, prior to the Graves letter, never once mentioned a connection between his profession -- remember, he was the president of the National League -- and his friend Abner;
- Is it also worth noting that Albert Graves was later convicted of murdering his wife and spent his final days in an asylum for the criminally insane? Maybe! Maybe not! Just thought I’d add it here!
Doubleday died in 1893, long after baseball had become a professional sport of national scope, so if he had invented it, you figure he or someone who knew him would’ve said at least something about it, but no one did before Graves. Of course, Doubleday dying in 1893 also made it pretty convenient for Spalding and Mills to ascribe traits to him with no one being around to push back.
The Mills Commission accepted Graves story and issued The Mills Commission Report on April 2, 1908, proclaiming Doubleday the inventor of baseball. Not because it had any evidence to back it but because it provided the kind of mythical beginning to a sport they wanted to promote as fundamentally American. A pastoral game, created by a true Yankee who would become a notable American general, not some bastardized English game popularized by Irish immigrants in the grimy city. Heaven forfend.
The Mills report was almost immediately refuted by a number of baseball historians, but it remained the authoritative document on the creation for baseball for decades. Over time, however, more and more people poked holes in the story and then, eventually, began to blast holes in it. By the middle of the 20th century no actual baseball historian of any stature gave credence to the Doubleday myth.
Perhaps the most prominent historian to lambaste the Doubleday myth was John Thorn, who long wrote about its apocryphal nature. Here’s Thorn, writing many years ago in a biography of Doc Adams, who played for the New York Knickerbockers in the 1840s:
I know Thorn and I can tell you, he’s a funny guy, but I suspect he allowed himself to be even more freewheeling than usual with that passage simply because of how well-accepted it was by his peers by that time that the Doubleday story was bunk. It was a subject so thoroughly settled that he didn’t need to lay out a concrete case against Doubleday. It had already been done. It’d be like if an astronaut was talking about flat-earthers. He wouldn’t waste his time establishing the actual shape of the Earth. He’d probably make jokes. Like Thorn did the time he said “Abner Doubleday, Santa Claus, and Dracula, are equally mythic figures.”
All of which made it so shocking when, in October of 2010, then-Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig said this in response to a letter he received from a baseball fan:
Selig’s letter was leaked to the press. My personal view at the time was that Selig actually knew better but was offering his version of the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” thing and was trying to bolster a myth that had, at least for a time, served baseball’s interests. If that was what he was doing it didn’t come through and, in the event, Selig was roundly mocked.
In what I suspect was a response to that mocking, the following spring Selig announced the formation of a committee tasked with studying the origins of the game of baseball. On the committee: John Thorn, who had been named baseball’s official historian two weeks before.
I can’t immediately recall if the committee ever released some official document a la The Mills Report, but I do know that Thorn has written and spoken extensively about baseball’s origins, both on his own and in his capacity as MLB’s official historian, and at no time has he claimed that Abner Doubleday was the “Father of Baseball.” Indeed, if he ever did that, I’d suggest that he had actually been kidnapped and that was a code phrase he was using to alert his friends that he was in peril.
I also know that if there were any official baseball institution or figure who would be a final holdout for Doubleday it’d be someone associated with the Hall of Fame, what with its existence in Cooperstown being premised on the Doubleday myth to begin with.
Former Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson once said “There’s no way of pinpointing where the game was first played. Baseball wasn’t really born anywhere . . . the evolution of the game was long and continuous and has no clear, identifiable single origin.”
He said that over six years before Selig’s letter.
Also today in baseball history:
1931: Chattanooga Lookouts’ relief pitcher Jackie Mitchell, a 17 year-old girl, strikes out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the first inning of an exhibition game. Some claim it was a belated April Fool’s day stunt, accomplished with Ruth and Gehrig’s complicity. Others claim Ruth and Gehrig didn’t take Mitchell seriously and were caught flat-footed.
1972: Mets manager Gil Hodges dies of a heart attack at West Palm Beach, Florida, two days shy of his 48th birthday. Yogi Berra is named manager.
1976: The A’s trade prospective free agents Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman, together with a minor league pitcher, to the Orioles for outfielder Don Baylor and pitchers Mike Torrez and Paul Mitchell.
1996: On Opening Day, rookie Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter hits a home run off Dennis Martinez in New York’s 7-1 victory over the Indians at Jacobs Field.
2001: Roger Clemens becomes the all-time AL career strikeout leader, moving ahead of Walter Johnson when he punches out Joe Randa of the Royals, notching his 3,509 AL K.