The Cooperstown Myth

Abner Doubleday's Legend Strikes Out

by J. M. Pressley
First published: September 18, 2007

The late Major General Abner Doubleday was being lauded as the inventor of baseball at the turn of the century. Doubleday himself, however, would have known as well as anyone that the story was an utter fabrication.

He was a West Pointer, a career officer who served ably in the Civil War. He fired the first Union shot in defense of Fort Sumter and saw significant action at Gettysburg. And in 1939, he was the subject of a U.S. postage stamp commemorating the centennial of his creation of the national pastime. The late Major General Abner Doubleday was being lauded as the inventor of baseball at the turn of the century. Doubleday himself, had he survived into the twentieth century, might have been taken aback by the attention, however. He would have known as well as anyone that the story was an utter fabrication.

The Mills Commission

Following the 1903 publication of a Henry Chadwick article that traced baseball's evolution from the British game of rounders, Albert G. Spalding suggested to Chadwick that they form a commission to determine the exact origins of the game once and for all. Spalding desired a more patriotic origin for what he saw as a quintessentially American invention. Headed by former National League president Abraham G. Mills, it became known as the Mills Commission. The group of prominent baseball men conducted an extensive search for the true beginning of the sport. It amounted to an open call for theories from across the country.

When the men received a letter from a 71-year-old Cooperstown native who claimed to be a witness to the game's creation, the commission had an ideal story. Abner Graves wrote that in the spring of 1839, his childhood friend Doubleday had picked two teams for a game resembling Town Ball, which had been played in America since the 1700s. Doubleday, according to Graves, had taken a stick, drawn a diamond-shaped field in the dirt, and diagrammed the basic defensive positions. Doubleday had also supposedly drawn the field diagram on paper and jotted down the first rules for the game he called "Base Ball."

Despite some misgivings of Mills and a strong dissenting opinion from Chadwick, Spalding and the others seized upon the letter as the proof they needed. The commission released its 1907 report as the authoritative word on baseball's creation. Baseball was an American game invented by an American hero.

The Legend Unravels

Prevailing evidence, even under cursory examination, refutes the account of Abner Graves. Doubleday's family had moved from Cooperstown the year before he was supposedly inventing the game, and in 1839, he was attending West Point as a cadet. Not one of Doubleday's extensive personal writings even mentions baseball in passing. Mills himself had known Doubleday for thirty years after serving with him in the Civil War, yet had never heard Doubleday make any such claims.

As for Graves, born in 1834, he would have been five years old—and fifteen years the junior of his supposed childhood friend—when Doubleday was allegedly inventing the game. Graves would die in a mental asylum in 1926, having been judged criminally insane after fatally shooting his wife.

Compounding all this, a 1930s letter from Bruce Cartwright to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis contended that Cartwright's grandfather had more of a claim as baseball's inventor than Doubleday. Alexander J. Cartwright founded the Knickerbocker Club of New York as a social fraternity for gentlemen in 1842. They played an altered version of rounders/town ball for entertainment and relaxation. His committee had drawn up an 1845 codification known as the "Knickerbocker Rules," and there was documented evidence recording the first game played under these rules. The Knickerbockers lost 23-1 to the New York Nine in a four-inning game played at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey on June 19, 1846.

Bruce Cartwright died soon after sending the letter, and the celebration of Doubleday continued unabated (although baseball officials would concede an "Alexander Cartwright Day" as part of the centennial along with a commemorative plaque at the Hall). However, in June of 1953, Congress officially credited Alexander Cartwright with inventing the modern game.

Why Doubleday?

The inconsistencies of the Doubleday myth were always there for anyone to see. Still, baseball officials had a vested interest in perpetuating it. The Great Depression was in full force, and baseball needed Doubleday and his centennial to boost attendance and gate receipts. There were already plans drawn up for a Baseball Hall of Fame to be located in Cooperstown, specifically to mark the quaint American village where the first baseball diamond had been laid out according to the official report.

Abner Doubleday would continue to be touted as the inventor of the game, if for no other reason than to save the commissioner's office the embarrassment of having to admit that they hadn't actually done their due diligence in checking facts. In the end, baseball simply had too much invested in Doubleday to allow much room for the truth.

Blibliography

Alvarez, Mark. The Old Ball Game. Alexandria, Virginia: Redefinition Books, 1990.

Peterson, Harold. The Man Who Invented Baseball. New York: Scribner, 1969.

Tofel, Richard J. "The Innocuous Conspiracy of Baseball's Birth." Wall Street Journal. July 19, 2001. A20.

Salvatore, Victor. "The Man Who Didn't Invent Baseball." American Heritage. Vol. 34, Issue 4, June/July 1983.