A Dispute at First
Contrary to myth, Baseball may have had no single inventor
Who's on first? Not Abner Doubleday. The so-called founding father of baseball, it turns out, may never have even stepped up to home plate.
Skip the peanuts and Cracker Jacks. It's pure poppycock that the Civil War general invented the great American game in 1839 on a field in Cooperstown, N.Y., asserts Rod Nelson of the Society for American Baseball Research. Strike 1: As a West Point cadet at the time, Doubleday would have been court-martialed for going AWOL, even for so noble a pursuit. Strike 2: He left no record of possessing any interest in the game. Strike 3: By the time baseball impresario Albert Spalding seized on the tale in 1907, Doubleday had already been retired to that great stadium in the sky. Final score: a grand slam for publicizing the game but a shutout for truth.
Not only can you look it up, you won't even get an argument from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. Historians have uncovered references to the game as far back as the 1820s in New York City and 1791 in Pittsfield, Mass. "There is so much evidence the game was being played before 1839 in other places" and that the game evolved with no single inventor, says John Odell, a curator at the Hall of Fame, "how could we accept the Doubleday story?"
Then again, how did we come to swallow the Doubleday story to begin with? And if Doubleday didn't give us our national pastime, who did?
The answers lie less in national gullibility than in such other all-American qualities as patriotic pride, entrepreneurial zeal, and plain wishful thinking. And they in turn speak to why we still care who first uttered the immortal words, "Play ball!" "Baseball is like the lost uncle in the genealogical chart. We want to know where was he born, what was he like, would we recognize the game he played?" says historian John Thorn, editor of Total Baseball. "Good scholarship about any historical event is important," says former Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent, now compiling oral histories of baseball greats. Exploring baseball's roots, Vincent says, is just as valid as researching the origins of the Pilgrims.
Sticks and rocks. David Block, author of Baseball Before We Knew It, has followed the trail of bats, balls, and diamonds back to the first two references to baseball in England in the 1740s. He also cites evidence of far older, related games. "This probably goes back to the first time a cave kid hit a rock with a stick," he jokes. That makes the 14th-century images of bat and ball games reproduced in his book seem positively contemporary.
As for the Doubleday saga itself: In 1905, Abner Graves, a retired engineer from Denver, recorded his recollections of Doubleday's supposed achievements in response to Spalding's campaign to find and promote the American roots of the game. Spalding was especially eager to disprove assertions that baseball derived from the British game called rounders.
Today's fans might not care about those nationalistic overtones, but, says New York Times columnist George Vecsey, author of an upcoming history, "[they] mattered to the new American nation--and more than that, [they] mattered to Albert Spalding."
But does that mean Graves's story came entirely from left field? Peter Morris, author of A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball, discovered there was another Abner Doubleday--a cousin to the general and a Cooperstown-area resident in 1839. That would make it "plausible" that Graves played ball with that other Abner Doubleday, says Morris, at a time when the game was becoming increasingly popular.
Odder yet, Philip Block (David's brother) reveals that both Doubleday and Spalding's wife shared a devotion to the esoteric religion of theosophy. Elevating Doubleday, therefore, not only allowed Spalding to wrap his baseballs in red, white, and blue; it also helped make Spalding a hero to his adoring wife.
And who said baseball was boring?
This story appears in the August 14, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.