- 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
• Doubleday was not in Cooperstown in 1839. He was a cadet at West Point and had been since September 1, 1838. His only leave of absence during his four years there was from June 18, 1840, until August 28, 1840.
• Doubleday’s family was not in Cooperstown in 1839 either. They had left the village two years earlier.
But what about that “reputable gentleman” on whose testimony Mills bases the Doubleday-Cooperstown story? Who was this man?
HE WAS Abner Graves. In his letter to the Mills commission, Spalding described him: “Mr. Abner Graves was a boy playmate and fellow pupil of Abner Doubleday at Green’s Select School in Cooperstown, N. Y., in 1839. Mr. Graves, who is still living, says he was present when Doubleday first outlined with a stick in the dirt the present diamond-shaped Base Ball field, including the location of the players in the field, and afterwards saw him make a diagram of the field on paper, with a crude pencil, and memorandum of the rules for this new game, which he named ‘Base Ball.’ As Mr. Graves was one of the youths that took part in this new game under Doubleday’s direction, his interesting and positive account is certainly entitled to serious consideration.”
Perhaps the shakiest part of Spalding’s letter to the baseball commission is the sentence that describes Graves and Doubleday as “playmates.” Doubleday was born in Ballston Spa, New York,on June 26, 1819. Graves was born in Cooperstown on February 27, 1834. That makes Doubleday nearly fifteen years older than Graves. So in 1839 Graves was five years old and his “playmate,” Doubleday, was nearly twenty.
Graves had a long life. And this life, if Graves himself is to be believed, was colorful. At fourteen, Graves said, he rounded Cape Horn under sail. He said he was one of the first pony express riders. After the Civil War he was briefly in the cattle and farming business in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and spent the last thirty years of his life in Denver. He acquired coal properties in Wyoming, just across the Colorado state line. He was married twice, the second time when he was seventy-five and his wife, Minnie, thirty-three.
In June 1924 Graves, then aged ninety and so crippled he could not walk, shot and fatally wounded Minnie after a quarrel over her refusal to sign a bill of sale for their house.
In the hospital the dying woman sent her husband a message of forgiveness but she also cut him out of her will. Graves, who was admitted to an adjoining ward “a physical and mental wreck” according to the Denver Post , “lay muttering ‘I hope she dies’ as his wife neared death.” A jury judged Graves criminally insane, and he was committed to the state asylum in Pueblo. He died there in the autumn of 1926.
It is hard to figure out just why Graves would have dragged Abner Doubleday’s name into his baseball story. Perhaps this part of the fable involved a case of mistaken identity. There was another Abner Doubleday, a cousin of the general. Little is known of him, but in the 1893 “Biographical Review of Otsego County,” Cousin Abner is listed as the brother of a William Doubleday, who was born in 1823. Abner’s birthdate is not given, but his brother’s birthday puts him at least in the same generation as Graves. But we are still left with two school kids playing a game in 1839 that one of them “invented.”
The Mills report might have languished forgotten in a filing cabinet had it not been for the local pride and the almost unlimited pocketbook of a Cooperstown resident named Stephen C. Clark.
CLARK INHERITED a large chunk of the $500 million fortune left by his grandfather, Edward Clark, a partner of the sewing machine inventor Isaac Singer. By the 1930s the Clark family had built Cooperstown a fine hospital, a huge hotel with an 18-hole golf course, a gymnasium and recreation center, and an office building. Clark was convinced that tourism was the only way to boost the economy of the isolated village. But the Depression forced cancellation of Delaware & Hudson passenger trains that served the town, and only a trickle of well-heeled summer residents continued to make yearly visits to the area.
Before this desperate time, Clark had shown no interest in local baseball. He had contributed little to the 1923 drive to raise five thousand dollars to purchase what is now called Doubleday Field.
But in 1935 a seemingly minor discovery by a farmer in the tiny nearby hamlet of Fly Creek piqued Clark’s interest. The farmer, a relative of Abner Graves, was rummaging through a trunk in his attic when he found some old books and pictures, and a battered ball, all apparently belonging to Graves.
The baseball was like the ones used in the early days of the game. Clark, who was quite ready to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in acquiring his great collection of modern art, bought this historical tidbit for five dollars.
He had the ball mounted on a base and put it on public display; over the years the battered object became known as the “Abner Doubleday baseball.”