- 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.
• 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.”
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.