The Magazine

Diamond Mythology

No, baseball was not invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown.

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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We human beings seem to crave creation myths. The tale of Adam and Eve moved people for millennia, and still seems thrilling and sad, even though we know all about natural selection. And we still talk, however jokingly, about Abner Doubleday as the inventor of baseball. The Doubleday myth sprang from baseball’s official Mills Commission, which more than a century ago accepted a farfetched story by a man named Abner Graves, who recalled that Doubleday had introduced baseball on a field in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. In 1908, at the height of screeching-eagle American jingoism, the commission ruled that the National Pastime was not some weedy outgrowth of the British game of rounders but, rather, an all-American product from the brain of an all-American hero, a Civil War general who aimed the Union’s first shot of the war from Fort Sumter.

Old Baseball Photo

The Independent Base Ball Club, Mansfield, Ohio, 1867

Getty Images

Almost immediately, skeptics debunked the legend with the ease of a Christy Mathewson striking out a third-rate bush leaguer. The bookish, narrow-chested Doubleday was studying at West Point at the time, and was not very likely to have gone AWOL to teach a game of his invention to scruffy kids in Cooperstown—especially since he never mentioned that detail in all of his copious writings during the rest of his life, long after baseball emerged as an American institution. Fortunately, that failed to stop enterprising locals from capitalizing on the idea and opening the National Baseball Hall of Fame in that bucolic village on the centennial of Doubleday’s supposed introduction of the sport to a spellbound world. Still, even the Hall of Fame had its standards, and declined to admit Doubleday to the ranks of the immortals.

More “scientific” baseball students shifted their attentions to Alexander Cartwright, a member of the amateur New York Knickerbockers club, who is supposed to have been the first man to diagram a field while helping to shape its rules. Cartwright did get a plaque at the Hall, and was exalted as the “real” Doubleday in a 1973 biography, The Man Who Invented Baseball. Unfortunately, the author quoted family sources of dubious connection to the facts—and Alexander has gone the way of Abner in recent years. It seems that Cartwright himself never knew or spoke of his role as baseball’s inventor, while virtually every fact of importance on his Hall of Fame plaque is wrong. Even the Knickerbockers’ sacred rules may have been cribbed from those of earlier clubs.

Now, amidst an explosion of research into baseball’s early days, John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s newly appointed official historian (and a talking head on Ken Burns’s Baseball series), weighs in with his own candidates for creation immortality. In Baseball in the Garden of Eden he stresses that no one “invented” the game, while advancing the contributions of such obscure figures from the 19th-century New York baseball scene as Daniel Lucius Adams, William Rufus Wheaton, and others who helped take one of many variations of a bat-and-ball sport and shape it into something like the game that today’s fanatics adore. Once their New York-based game took hold, Thorn writes, exciting versions of “baseball” played in New England and Philadelphia “disappeared in an instant, more mysteriously than the dinosaurs.”

Loaded with footnotes, this book may be as authoritative an analysis of baseball’s origins as we are likely to get for some time—unless the armies of 19th-century scholars from the ranks of the Society for American Baseball Research turn up yet more material that has been overlooked for the last century and a half. And indeed, Thorn is heading a new commission for the major leagues designed to supplant the less stringent work of the Mills Commission.

Baseball in the Garden of Eden is roughly divided into three parts: looking at baseball’s origins, offering a crash course in the 19th-century major league game, and exploring the links among baseball magnate and sporting goods mogul Albert G. Spalding, the Mills Commission, Doubleday, and the Theosophical Society, of which both Spalding and Doubleday were prominent members. Thorn’s obsession with the society seems both belabored and excessive, to my taste, and none of this is told in a gripping narrative fashion. Still, much here will be interesting to those who want to learn how baseball grew into what we know.