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Who Invented Baseball?
The boys of summer are at it again. Who can we bless for the Great American Occupation?
One thing is certain. There was no Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, NY, in 1839 — as a self-appointed committee of American patriots would have us believe. Let’s dispel the Doubleday myth before proceeding.
Doubleday was born in 1819 at Ballston Spa, NY, of a family prominent in military and civil life. He attended school in 1835 at Cooperstown where he enrolled in engineering courses. He was appointed to West Point in 1838 and was graduated in 1842 with a commission in the artillery.
He served with distinction in the Mexican and Florida Seminole wars. He fired the first Union shot at Fort Sumter after the Confederate bombardment opening the War Between the States. He became a major general and died in 1893.
It is noteworthy that in the 60 diaries that Doubleday kept throughout his life, he does not mention baseball. In one letter to headquarters during the Civil War, Doubleday requested “entertainment items for colored troops” that included “a magic lantern and baseball equipment.”
Doubleday would have made a footnote to the Civil War if it weren’t for another Abner with the surname Graves.
In 1905, a famous sports journalist named Henry Chadwick wrote an article claiming that baseball evolved from the old English game of Rounders.
This upset Albert Spalding, one of the game’s pioneer players and a manufacturer of sports equipment. He was unable to accept a premise that the great American game did not originate in America.
Spalding organized a commission of seven distinguished men, all patriots, to determine the “true origin” of baseball. The project was widely reported.
Headed the commission was colonel AG Mills of New York. He played baseball before and during the Civil War and was the fourth president of the National League in 1884.
The commission was almost at a dead end until Abner Graves, a Denver mining engineer traveling in Akron, Ohio, saw a newspaper article about the commission. He sat down in his hotel room and wrote the Commission of Mills on furnished stationery.
In the letter, Graves stated that he observed Doubleday at Cooperstown in 1839 scratching a baseball diamond on the ground and instructing other young men how to play baseball with teams of 11 players and four bases.
Graves described how the ball used was homemade from stitched horsehide stuffed with rags.
The Mills commissioners and Spalding were delighted. They promptly proclaimed baseball was invented by an American, Civil War, army officer. About as American as you can get.
The lack of corroborating evidence was of no consequence. Graves soon after murdered his wife and was committed to an insane asylum.
Graves’ story was patently false. He would have been only five years old in 1839 and therefore not a reliable observer. Doubleday entered West Point in 1838 and therefore was not present that year in Cooperstown.
It is possible that Doubleday was remembered at Cooperstown school — which Graves later attended — as organizing a baseball game among his fellow students. However, rudiments of the game – as we recognize it today – were already known throughout the country.
Twenty-seven years after the triumphant report of the Mills Commission, a relative of Graves, rummaging through his old trunk, found an old baseball with torn fur over a rag. Graves’ letter and torn baseball are on display today as proof positive at the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame.
How Baseball Began
Stick and ball games were recorded back in pyramid times.
“Stoolball” was described in the Doomsday Book census of England (1085). Variations were round, town ball, and one-o-cat.
On Christmas Day 1621, Governor Bradford in Plymouth Plantation noted that men of the colony were “frolicking in ye street, at playing openly; some at throwing ye ball, some at poop ball and such like sport.”
In 1744, John Newbery of London, England, published A Pretty Little Pocket Book “intended for the amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly.” A woodcut illustration depicted boys playing “Base-Ball” in which they progressed around posts.
George Ewing, a Revolutionary War doctor at Valley Forge in 1778, wrote: “Exercised in the afternoon intervals, played in base.”
New York University librarian, George A. Thompson, Jr., recently found two New York newspaper articles from April 12, 1823, clearly relating to modern baseball.
The longer story, in the National Activist, was composed of just four sentences:
“Last Saturday I was much pleased to see a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of ‘baseball’ at the Retreat in Broadway.
“I am informed that they are an organized association, and that a very interesting game is to be played on Saturday next at the above place, which will begin at half-past 3 p.m. Any person who cares to attend this game may profit by seeing .. it was played with consummate skill and wonderful skill. It is surprising, and unfortunate, that the youth of our city are not more engaged in this manual sport. It is innocent fun and healthy exercise, attended with little expense and has no demoralizing tendency. “
The first organized baseball team was formed in New York in 1845 by two young friends. They were Dr. Daniel L. Adams and Alexander Joy Cartwright, accounting officer. They and other young, professional men met after working at Madison Square.
Adams and Cartwright decided on a set of rules in 1845 so that there would be no endless arguments. Cartwright wrote them down.
At that time, the playing field was usually square with five bases. Due to the limited area, the diamond and four bases were adopted. Distance between bases was set at “42 paces” (about 75 feet) and the concept of foul territory was introduced. The practice of “plunging” a runner–hitting him with a thrown ball to “out” him–was abolished as ungentlemanly.
The Madison Square players formed the Knickerbockers Base Ball Club in September 1845. With rules in hand, the Knickerbockers advertised for opponents.
They met the New York Nine at the neutral Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 19, 1846.
The Nine won 23-l. The score indicated that the game followed the rounders’ rules, ending after 21 runs had been scored rather than a specific number of innings.
According to contemporary reports, Cartwright refereed the game and enforced a six-cent fine — payable on the spot — for swearing.
Wagoner joined the California gold rush on 1849, but got there too late. On the way back home by ship he fell ill and was landed in Hawaii. He liked the tropical climate so much, he called his family. He started baseball clubs throughout the islands, and became a prosperous businessman. He died there in 1892.
The Knickerbockers Club continues to be active under the leadership of Dr. Adams. He introduced the position of roving shortstop — for himself — to relay outfield throws. He designed the tapered bat and invented the hard baseball of “rubber cutters and thread” to make pitched balls easier and make the curveball possible. He set the distances between bases at 90 feet in 1857.
Also that year, he presided over a congress of ball players who decided that the winner of a game was the team that was ahead after nine innings. The following year the group adopted the name National Association of Ball Players.”
He pushed for a rule requiring a batter to be called out if the ball was caught on the fly instead of the first bounce. This was hotly debated, but in 1860 it was decided fly balls were necessary if both teams agreed to it beforehand.
Dr. Adams gave up his New York practice in 1865 and moved his family to Connecticut. He played his last, formal game of baseball in 1875 in an old man’s game. He died in 1899 at the age of 85 in New Haven – still playing backyard baseball with his sons.
It’s ironic that Cartwright, Spalding, and Doubleday are remembered at Cooperstown while Adams is not — even though he invented all the modern rules of baseball.
Don’t argue. History is largely an agreed-upon legend, and baseball is as much an icon as a sport.
6 April 2003
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