The Man Who Did Not Invent Baseball

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Abner Doubleday was born on June 26, 1819, at Ballston Spa, NY, whose promoters believed it would become America's Baden-Baden, Aix-les-Bains and Bath once the world knew of its alkali, sulphur and warm springs, "good for the treatment of rheumatism, gout, liver trouble, blood ailments, dyspepsia, and even cancer." Soldiering ran in the family. His grandfather fought for independence. His father, Ulysses Freeman Doubleday, had been mustered into the militia in the War of 1812 and was twice elected to Congress as a Jacksonian Democrat. Both of his brothers became colonels of volunteers in the War of the Rebellion.

    Abner graduated from West Point in 1842. His classmates included seven future Confederate generals, including James Longstreet and Earl Van Dorn. Doubleday served in the Seminole and Mexican Wars without disgrace or distinction. In the spring of 1861, he was assigned to duty at Charleston, SC. Capt. Doubleday apparently fired the first Union shot in reply to Confederate artillery fire at Fort Sumter. The Union army in 1861 consisted of 1098 officers and 15,259 enlisted men. There were only four generals. Within months, the army would explode to 2.5 million men. Generals were needed to command them and, as the history of the war indicates, sometimes anyone would do.

    Doubleday went from captain to brigadier general commanding a brigade of the First Corps, Army of the Potomac. On the first day at Gettysburg, when Major Gen. John Reynolds was shot dead from his horse by a rebel sniper, Doubleday took command. He fought competently throughout the day, maintaining his line in good order despite being pushed through Gettysburg to the low hills beyond. There, on orders from Major Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, he anchored his line on Seminary Ridge. Gen. George Meade, the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, had known Doubleday in the prewar army. As he lacked confidence in Doubleday's initiative, Meade relieved him of command. He held no further field command and served on staff in Washington to the end of the war. In 1865, he was brevetted major general for his services and survived the postwar reductions of the army to become colonel commanding the 35th Infantry, from which he was retired in 1873.

    Doubleday established San Francisco's first cable car company. A good writer, he published Reminiscences of Fort Sumter and Moultrie in 1876 and Chancellorsville and Gettysburg in 1882. He died in Mendham, NJ, on Jan. 26, 1893. He is buried at Arlington. His statue stands at Gettysburg.

    That is not why we remember him. The word "baseball" does not appear in any of his diaries, memoirs or articles. At least one historian speculates the word may never have passed Doubleday's lips. Nonetheless, an egotistical sporting goods king made him baseball's bastard father some 14 years after his death.

    Albert Goodwill Spaulding was a pitcher for the Boston Red Stockings. From 1871 to 1875, he won 207 games and lost only 56. He then became a manager, an executive and a sporting goods manufacturer. Spaulding was a bigoted enthusiast. He believed baseball a purely American invention, innocent of foreign derivation.

    Sportswriter Henry Chadwick published an article in one of Spaulding's publications, The Baseball Guide of 1903, that baseball was based on rounders, an English schoolboys' game. Rounders may be a form of cricket. It is mentioned as early as 1744 and described in some detail in the second edition of The Boy's Own Book, published in 1828. There are many versions of this game, which has no official rules: the number of players on a side, the number of bases, the distance between them and so forth, varied from place to place. One consistent element was that fielders might put out a runner by hitting him with a thrown ball between bases. It has been summed up as "a pickup game that was played by children."

    Spaulding published a rebuttal in his 1905 Guide, calling for a commission to investigate baseball's origins. Then he selected his own commission. Its chairman, A.G. Mills, had been president of the National League; two members were U.S. senators. The research, if one can call it that, was performed by James Sullivan, a hack writer for the American Sports Publishing Co., owned by Spaulding. The commission received a letter from Abner Graves, an 80-year-old retired miner in Denver. Graves claimed he had been a childhood playmate of Abner Doubleday. While living in Cooperstown in 1839, he had seen Doubleday directing a crowd of boys in a game with a limited number of players and distinct teams on each side.

    "Doubleday called the game Base Ball," he recalled, "for there were four bases in it. Three were places where the runner could rest free from being put out, provided he kept his foot on the flat stone base. The pitcher stood in a six foot ring. Anyone getting the ball was entitled to throw it at a runner between bases, and put him out by hitting him with it."

    His testimony was later verified, so to speak, by an object among his personal effects: a rotting baseball. Somehow, people assumed Doubleday must have touched it. Mills claimed to believe the letter, although he ignored Graves' statement that Doubleday's rules had permitted a player to put out a runner between bases by hitting him with a thrown ball. In fact, Mills claimed Doubleday had eliminated this practice.

    The commission's official report, dated Dec. 30, 1907, recognized the General as the inventor of baseball. In the words of the Marx Brothers, "Hooray for Captain Spaulding."

    However, as Ralph Hickok writes, "...there were, and are, a lot of problems with the story." There is no evidence Doubleday was ever in Cooperstown. He was educated in Auburn, NY. In 1839, he was at West Point, which then had no summer vacations. He never claimed to have invented baseball. He may never have seen a game. His obituary in The New York Times does not mention baseball. These facts were no problem for Spaulding. The commission's report was accepted as gospel for decades.

    In 1936, the baseball industry, the state of New York and the village of Cooperstown began constructing the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was scheduled to open in 1939, the centennial of Doubleday's alleged invention of the game. The state put up signs along the roads declaring Cooperstown to be the birthplace of baseball. The post office even issued a commemorative stamp.

    Amidst the commotion, one Bruce Cartwright wrote a letter of his own. He claimed his grandfather, Alexander H. Cartwright, a native New Yorker, had invented baseball in 1845 and provided his grandfather's diaries to prove it.

    Cartwright and some friends had been playing ball for a few years before they organized the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club on Sept. 23, 1845. Cartwright and a friend, Daniel L. "Doc" Adams, drafted what became the first codified baseball rules. Fines were established for misconduct: profanity, six cents; arguing with the umpire, 25 cents; disobeying the team captain, 50 cents.

    To be sure, there were some differences. They caught the ball barehanded (it was much lighter and larger than today's); there were no balls or strikes: the batter could stand at the plate all day until the pitcher threw the right kind of ball; and a ball caught on the first bounce was an out. The Knickerbockers played at least 14 intraclub games before their first real match against "the New York Club" at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken. They lost, 23-1.

    Other teams sprang up within months. By 1854, there were at least a half-dozen in the metropolitan area. By the late 1850s, more than 100 teams flourished in and around New York City alone. There were teams from Buffalo to Cleveland, Chicago, California and even the Minnesota Territory.

    Meanwhile, Cartwright left New York on March 1, 1849, for the California gold fields. He traveled overland and, as his descendant Alexander Cartwright IV has written, he "walked most of the way. He took a few balls and bats along with him on the excursion, and became a kind of baseball Johnny Appleseed, planting the seeds of the game across the land." He is said to have played with miners, storekeepers, Indians and settlers at frontier towns and Army posts along the way. He hated California and left San Francisco within five days for the Sandwich Islands (now called Hawaii). He spent the rest of his life there, becoming a successful businessman and founding the Honolulu Fire Dept. (he was chief for nine years). He also taught the Hawaiians how to play baseball. He died in 1892. A street is named after him, as is Cartwright Field, a small ballpark, and there is a bronze plaque in his honor at City Hall.

    As the Hall of Fame was being built, Robert Henderson, a New York Public Library researcher with a passion for baseball, presented his own evidence that baseball was derived from rounders. Most commentators agree his evidence was conclusive. Besides, even the Cartwright claims rest in ambiguity: the Delhi, NY, Gazette for July 13, 1825, has a notice listing the names of nine men challenging any group in Delaware County to a game of baseball at the home of Edward B. Chace for $1 a game. There are references to some kind of organized sport called baseball in Rochester and Genesee, NY, by the 1820s. By the 1830s, there were organized baseball clubs in Philadelphia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. We do not know the rules by which they played, but the name is the same.

    The Hall of Fame opened at Cooperstown in 1939. The so-called "Doubleday baseball" is still on exhibit. Baseball is the village's biggest business, bringing some 350,000 visitors a year. Local merchants still promote the Doubleday legend. The annual Hall of Fame game is still played on Doubleday Field. As recently as 1995, Montrew Dunham published Abner Doubleday, Young Baseball Pioneer. Alexander Cartwright was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939 for his contributions to the game. Doubleday, who has a monument in the Hall itself, has never been inducted.