- Historic Sites
The Man Who Didn’t Invent Baseball
Abner Doubleday had an eventful life, but as far as we know, he never gave a thought to the game with which his name is so firmly linked
June/july 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 4
SOME TWO hundred and fifty thousand people a year come to the little village of Cooperstown, in upstate New York, to visit the National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame. They are drawn by the large, brick museum on Cooperstown’s Main Street, and many still cherish the belief that this is the place where baseball began; here it was invented and first played. The inventor is supposed to be the Civil War general Abner Doubleday; he is supposed to have thought up the game in 1839.This is a doublebarreled historical falsehood. Coopers town is not the birthplace of baseball, and Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with the invention of baseball.
Cooperstown, a community of twenty-four hundred people, was founded in 1787 by William Cooper, father of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper, and some of the local scenes figure in the Leatherstocking Tales. But how did Cooperstown and Doubleday get tangled up with the national pastime?
The blame can be placed primarily on three men: Albert Goodwill Spalding, the sporting goods magnate; Stephen C. Clark, an extremely wealthy resident whose chief goal in life was the promotion of tourism in Cooperstown; and Abner Graves, a ne’er-do-well who liked seeing his name in the paper. The three men never knew one another.
Let’s start with Spalding. By the 1880s he had gone from a successful baseball career—he was the nation’s top professional pitcher in the 1870s—to the presidency of the company that was, as it boasted, the “Largest Sporting Goods House in America.” Its success was largely due to Spalding’s talent for promotion. The company’s major profits came from the sale of baseball equipment, and the big, bluff, extroverted man never stopped pushing the game, chiefly through his Baseball Guide , the most widely read baseball publication of its day.
In 1903 the Guide ’s editor, Henry Chadwick, published an article that traced the evolution of baseball from rounders and cricket. As soon as Chadwick’s article appeared, Spalding himself wrote a rebuttal in the Guide . Baseball, he declared, was invented and first played in America and owed nothing to any English predecessor. He made a suggestion: “Let us appoint a Commission to search everywhere that is possible and thus learn the real facts concerning the origin and development of the game. I will abide by such a commission’s findings regardless.”
So a six-man commission was appointed—by Spalding. Among its members were A. G. Mills of New York, the third president of baseball’s National League; Sen. Morgan G. Bulkeley of Connecticut, former governor of Connecticut and first president of the National League; and James E. Sullivan of New York, president of the Amateur Athletic Union.
The commission began its work in 1905. Through newspapers and sporting publications it invited anyone who was interested to send information on baseball’s origins. For two years letters came in from all over the country. They were for the most part reminiscences of old ballplayers. As commission secretary, Sullivan was in charge of collecting and checking the material. From time to time he released tidbits to the press, but month after month went by with no tangible results. But at long last, after persistent prodding from Spalding and others, Mills issued the commission report. It was dated December 30,1907, and was really nothing more than a rather informal letter from Mills, commission chairman, to Sullivan
The relatively brief transcript of commission correspondence that Mills compiled shows that his report was based on very little substantive data. Basically there were three letters: one from Chadwick, stating his own views about the origin of baseball; one from Spalding, summarizing the skimpy evidence he submitted in support of his American origin theory; and a third from John Montgomery Ward, shortstop, lawyer, and moving spirit behind the short-lived Players’ League, supporting Spalding’s theory.
Mills, in his report, refers to a “circumstantial statement by a reputable gentleman, according to which the first diagram, indicating positions for players, was drawn by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839.” Then he goes on to eulogize Doubleday, whom he knew personally. And finally he states flatly that “baseball had its origins in the United States” and that “according to the best evidence obtainable to date” the game “was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N. Y. in 1839.”
Whatever original material (if any) Mills based his report on, besides the letters submitted by Spalding, Chadwick, and Ward, will never be known. All the correspondence was destroyed in a fire in 1911. But the transcript that was compiled for Mills survives, and so does the data compiled by Spalding. There are, to say the least, certain flaws in the Mills report:
• Mills and Doubleday were friends for thirty years, yet it was not until about twelve years after Doubleday’s death that Mills learned through a “circumstantial statement” from an unnamed gentleman that Doubleday “invented” baseball.
• After retiring from the Army in 1873, Doubleday wrote a number of articles for newspapers and magazines. None dealt with baseball.
• Doubleday left sixty-seven diaries; not one of them mentions baseball.