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Monday, May 17, 2004

The Doubleday Myth

Abner Doubleday. So goes the answer to one of the most frequently asked questions in all of sports trivia, "Who invented baseball?" Although Doubleday was bestowed this honor it is now known (and has been since the story originated) that Doubleday probably knew very little of the game and certainly did not "invent" baseball in a farmer's pasture in Cooperstown, New York in 1839.

I first remember being taught this particular myth in a baseball book given me by my parents when I was 8 or perhaps 9 years old. I recall the book being replete with all the legends of baseball including Babe Ruth's famous "called shot" in the 1932 World Series versus the Cubs. Only later did I realize the this legend too was likely not historically true. From eyewitness accounts (although the number of "eyewitnesses" has grown throughout the years to where hundreds of thousands of people would have had to cram into the 32,000 seats on the corner of Clark and Addison in Chicago) it is known that Ruth was being taunted viciously by the Cub players and was probably motioning to either the bench or the infamous Cubs pitcher Charlie Root instead of indicating the eventual resting place of the next pitch some 400 feet away. In any case these legends have served to add an aura of magic to the game for millions of fans and provide historical context and so it is difficult to treat them too severely.

But before we relate the true origin of baseball and its significance we should examine the myth and how it was propagated and by whom. The whom was A.G. Spalding, one of the first great pitchers in baseball. Although his early statistics are incomplete his record from 1871-1877 was an impressive 255-68 while pitching for Boston and Chicago. For his only full season for which complete statistics are available, the same summer Custer and the Seventh Calvary were being routed by Sitting Bull and the Sioux, Spalding was 47-12 for Boston, pitching 53 complete games and 529 innings. His ERA was 1.75 and he struck out only 39 while walking a paltry 26. Of course the game was played differently then, the pitcher had nine balls to work with and it was an unwritten rule that batters would do their utmost to put the ball in play. As a result many fewer pitches were thrown which is why Spalding could throw 529 innings without his arm falling off.

After his playing days Spalding founded the sporting goods company that bears his name and published the annual Spalding's Official Base Ball Guide. He was a powerful influence at the time and he, along with others, felt that baseball needed a founding father, a seminal event with which to identify with. In 1907 a commission was set up to investigate the matter and publish a report. After having little success Spalding himself delivered a letter from one Abner Graves in Colorado who claimed that Doubleday had laid out a field in Cooperstown in 1839, explained the rules and designated the game "base ball". And so with no other evidence the Mills Commission as it was known (it was chaired by A.G. Mills) in 1908 declared that "base ball had its origins in the United States" and that the "first scheme for playing it, according to the best evidence available to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday, at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839." A ball of sorts was also produced that claims to have been from that first game.

And so the myth was born inspite of the protestations of the likes of Henry Chadwick, an entrepreneur and baseball pioneer who, being born in England, knew that baseball actually was an amalgam of sorts from several varieties of English stick and ball games. The reason this theory with so little supporting evidence held the day was likely twofold, the comfortable idea of "base ball" being a purely American sport, indeed it was the national pastime already, and the person of Abner Doubleday himself. Regarding the former, Spalding was quoted as saying,

"[Baseball is] the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determinism;
American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm;
American Pluck, Persistency, Performance;
American Spirit, Sagacity, Success;
American Vim, Vigor, Virility"

To say that Spalding was patriotic would no doubt understate the case. Regarding the latter "selection" of Doubleday himself, although frequently sited only as a Union officer who served in the Civil War, in actuality, was a captain in the artillery stationed at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina in April of 1861. It was his duty to order the first shot fired in response by the United States government in that history shaping conflict. It certainly didn't hurt the image created by the myth that a war hero invented the game. At the time, of course, Doubleday himself didn't know to what event history would forever link him and in fact his contemporaries didn't either as is shown by his New York Times obituary which does not mention baseball.

Did Doubleday draw out a field in 1839 in Cooperstown? Perhaps, but he certainly didn't invent the game. Baseball primarily evolved from to two English stick and ball games, the well documented upper class game "cricket" and the more unfamiliar working class games "rounders", "feeders" and not surprisingly "base ball". Interestingly, baseball may owe more to the working class games since they generally moved faster, lasting only a couple of hours, since by definition the working class cannot spend all day in leisure activities. Cricket is a much more slowly paced game and can go on for days at a stretch. Many references, however, have survived in English literature to these games and while it is clear that they were not baseball as we know it, neither were they so foreign as to suppose that the American version is not related. For example, in Northanger Abbey written in the late 1780's Jane Austen remarks: "It is not very wonderful that Catherine...should prefer cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country, at the age of fourteen, to books." And even prior to this across the Atlantic the diary of George Ewing, a soldier in the Continental Army at Valley Forge in 1778 writes that on April 17 they played a game of "base" which was no doubt related to the game of "baste ball" played at Princeton in 1786 and described by a student.

It is more than conjecture that variations of cricket, rounders and the like made their way across the Atlantic with the earliest settlers and differentiated from there. It is just possible that Doubleday could have called his fellows together for a game of "base ball" or "base" or "baste ball" or any of several other popular regional games that were known as "town ball". But if baseball does indeed have a founding father than perhaps the mantle should belong to Alexander Joy Cartwright. His New York team drew up a set of rules in 1845 which gave the game a look most like our current version. While the game already had 4 bases (actually only four wooden stakes) and three strikes he introduced the concept of tagging runners for outs rather than "plugging" them, actually hitting them with a thrown ball. Lest we think tagging was invented out of necessity because of injuries by thrown balls, it should be noted that the "ball' of that time was little more than a leather case with rags stuffed inside. You could no more injure a player by "plugging" than you could by throwing a bean bag at someone. This innovation led the way to harder balls which could be hit for distance. You could say that it was the first incarnation of "lively ball" era. Secondly, Cartwright pioneered the concept of foul lines and foul territory. Before this time batters could hit in any direction and in one form of the game, the game did not end until the winning team had 100 "tallies" or runs. This allowed the game to become a spectator sport. Finally, Cartwright's version of the game set the bases in a diamond spaced at 90 feet apart which serendipitously turned out to be the ideal distance, an equilibrium which has balanced offense and defense for 150 years.

One can argue whether form follows function but it is true nonetheless that the even the fastest runners in today's game are nabbed by half a step when a middle infielder playing at normal depth fields a ball cleanly and makes a strong throw. What if the bases had been placed at 75 feet or even 80? Would the balance of the game been so shifted to offense that games would today last an interminable 4 hours (although with the reduced strike zone today they are lengthening almost yearly)? Would Ricky Henderson have hit .450 and Ty Cobb have hit .500! Perhaps these are moot points but it serves to show one of the great virtues of baseball - continuity. We have the luxury of making such conjecture because the basics of the game have been stabilized for so long. No other sport, indeed scarcely another facet of American life has been so continuous. It is often said that if a player from the 1870's were to be resurrected today, he would immediately recognize baseball and little else. The mere fact that we can debate, whether Aaron was a better hitter than Ruth? Henderson faster than Cobb? Ryan harder throwing than Walter Johnson? is a thing to be celebrated and revel in. The codification of the basics of the game that led to this happy state can be traced to A.J. Cartwright and what came to be known as the New York Game.

Many innovations were to be forthcoming including the adoption of gloves (little more than batting gloves at the time) in 1875 by a first baseman by the name of Charles Waite. Perhaps Waite needed the glove to stay in the league as he hit only .150 in parts of 4 seasons with 4 different teams. Indeed many things have changed including the distance and height of the pitching mound, the number of balls, the types of pitches thrown, the uniforms, the ball, night baseball, helmets, batting gloves, Astroturf and more but much has remained constant and more importantly the essentials of the game have been unchanging - three outs, 90 feet and three strikes. The rest as they say, is history.

Perhaps it is not at all bad that the Doubleday myth gained prominence. After all, the Baseball Hall of Fame is now located in that small upper state New York village of Cooperstown. The town itself is a wonderful place for the immortals of baseball to be enshrined because it serves to remind us of the historical characteristics of baseball - small towns, green grass and plenty of fresh air. Somehow the Hall of Fame would be entirely out of place in the metropolis of New York City and it would be sacrilegious to think of the annual induction ceremony anyplace else.

I remember vividly the summer vacation when I was 14 in which my family visited Cooperstown and thinking that this small town could not possibly hold the greats of baseball; Ruth, Cobb and the rest. The day was perfect and could have lasted all summer as far as this Iowa boy was concerned. I poured over the displays as if they were sacred texts. However, what stands out most in my mind was seeing the golden bat awarded to Willie Mays for his 1954 National League batting title along with his New York Giants cap from that season. In that season Mays won the title from his teammate Don Mueller .345 to .342 and went on to win the MVP and make "The Catch" off the bat of Vic Wertz (and the arm of Don Liddle) in game one of the 1954 World Series.

I was not old enough to have seen Mays play and in fact was born as his career was fading in the late 60's but I had read everything I could about him and he became my idol. Seeing that award and even more so his cap, was a sort of connecting experience for me, validating that yes it had actually happened and it made it come alive. In my mind it provided a link between the great players of the past and the current stars of the present and opened up a wider view of the world in which to place historical events. Looking back I now see how baseball has contributed much to my intellectual growth by first sparking that interest in a bigger world.

This truly then is one of the great virtues of baseball, the connecting of the past with the present, the continuity of different eras, and the proposition that a 14 year old boy could so closely identify with and cherish the accomplishments of 30 years before as if they were contemporaneous. The true origin of baseball is not nearly as important as the impact of the game itself on both our culture and on individuals. The fact that the American Doubleday did not invent the game in no way diminishes the profoundness or effect of baseball on this country.


Gould, Stephen Jay. "The Creation Myths of Cooperstown". From Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. © 1991 W.W. Norton and Company.

Will, George F. Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. © 1990 Harper Perennial.

James, Bill. The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. © 1988 Villard Books.

Dickson, Paul. Baseball's Greatest Quotations. © 1991 Harper Perennial.


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