- 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
Clark was inspired: he began to make plans for a full-scale baseball museum. He assigned Alexander Cleland, of his estate office staff, to scour the country for baseball relics. Cleland soon got together with Ford Frick, the sports reporter who by then had worked his way up to the presidency of the National Baseball League. “Quietly, in 1935,” Frick wrote, Clark “called a meeting of village fathers, historical society officials, and legal and financial experts who handled the various foundations representing the vast Clark holdings. ” Clark proposed the organization of a national baseball museum and promised personally to pay for erecting a building to house the collection.
Frick had no trouble selling baseball’s powers, the owners of the major league teams, on Clark’s plan. They were worried: the Depression was hurting baseball attendance, and they were receptive to any plan that might boost the gates. Before the end of the year they had set up a one-hundredthousand-dollar fund to stage a seasonlong celebration in 1939 of baseball’s “centennial.” Meanwhile, Clark agreed to have his family’s Scriven Foundation put up the money—just forty-three thousand dollars—to build a museum, and he donated the land for it.
In the middle of his plans for the baseball centennial, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was jolted by a letter that brought into serious question the propriety of holding such a celebration at all.
The letter came from Bruce Cartwright, who pointed out that it was his grandfather, Alexander Cartwright, Jr., a charter member of the Knickerbocker Club of New York, and not Doubleday, who drew the first baseball diamond. He also pointed to the rules that Cartwright and his committee had written for modern baseball in 1845. (Diagram and rules are on file today in the National Baseball Museum library. ) Alexander Cartwright and not Doubleday, he said, should be honored as the originator of the modern game of baseball.
It is not clear whether the startled Judge Landis ever showed Cartwright’s letter to the major league owners. It is clear that Cartwright was on firm ground in making his claim. The documentation of Alexander Cartwright’s accomplishments in organizing the game of baseball as it is played today is all a matter of record.
The first game of baseball under the Cartwright committee rules was played on June 19, 1846, on the old cricket grounds at Elysian Fields, a summer resort in Hoboken, New Jersey. Scorecards of this game, on file in the library of the National Baseball Museum, show that the Knickerbockers lost to the New York Baseball Club, 23 to 1, in a four-inning game.
This is history, not the surmise of a “reputable gentleman” who ended his days in an insane asylum after giving his testimony.
Frick, who was eventually to succeed Landis as commissioner, and the crusty old judge were out on a limb after the Cartwright letter arrived. Frick had committed himself completely to the Cooperstown myth. Landis, as the final authority on professional baseball, had not done his historical homework. They had a bomb on their hands that could explode any day.
But it never did. Bruce Cartwright died a few weeks later, and the letter went into a file cabinet. An “Alexander Cartwright Day” was quickly appended to the centennial program, and Cartwright was among the first to be honored with a plaque in the new Hall of Fame of the museum as a “Father of Modern Baseball.” Too much money and prestige had been committed to do more than that.
And so the myth goes on.