Guys Who Didn’t Invent Baseball Part I: Ideology
If you know one thing about the origin of baseball, you know that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday. The story goes something like this: In 1839 the game sprang from young Abner’s head in Cooperstown, New York. He took his new game to his friends, who initially resisted, but finally agreed to try it. They were immediately hooked, and the rest is history.
If you know two things about the origin of baseball, you know that the Abner Doubleday story is total bunkum. You know that baseball actually was invented by Alexander Cartwright. The story goes something like this: In 1845 (or perhaps 1842: it isn’t entirely clear) the game sprang from young Alex’s head in New York City. He took his new game to his friends, who initially resisted, but finally agreed to try it. They were immediately hooked, and the rest is history.
I am here to teach you a third thing about the origin of baseball: The Cartwright story also is total bunkum. You are welcome.
The actual origin of baseball is no great mystery, and pretty straightforward. Baseball began as an English folk game, first documented to the second quarter of the 18th century but presumably older than that, arising out of the cultural soup of English folk games. It was brought to America by the colonists as part of their common cultural heritage. It was played through Anglophone North America in innumerable local versions. One particular variant arose in New York City in the late 1830s and was codified by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1845. This “New York game” began spreading across the country in the late 1850s and by the late 1860s had completely taken over (at least for organized adult play). It is the direct ancestor of the modern game.
So where did the Doubleday/Cartwright stuff come from? One might reasonably suppose that it was simply a botched first try at baseball history, made out of honest ignorance. The truth is more interesting. The origin of baseball was known all along, at least in broad outline, but was rejected as ideologically unacceptable.
This is the first of a planned four part series. Don’t say you weren’t warned. This part will trace the rise of the ideology that mandated the creation of a new origin story. The second and third parts will show respectively how Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright were the lucky winners of this lottery. The fourth part will examine why people are still repeating this nonsense today.
The story begins with baseball’s rise in cultural prominence in the late 1850s. There were at that time newspaper items on both sides of the Atlantic with chatty discussions of the gossip of the day. The rise of baseball got its share of mentions. The tricky part is that the term “baseball” was by that time obscure in England. It was the original name for the game, but in the early 19th century the word was supplanted by a new name, “rounders.” By the 1850s “baseball” was a provincialism, only used in a few distant and unfashionable counties. So these gossip items that mentioned baseball in New York would sometimes explain, for the benefit of the London readers, that this was rounders. This was not a controversial claim. It was as matter of fact as noting that American “gasoline” is British “petrol.”
For the next step, I will first introduce Henry Chadwick. You already know what he looked like: he is that devilishly handsome fellow whose visage beams out from my avatar. He was born in England and moved to Brooklyn when he was twelve. He became a reporter and soon specialized in sports and was reporting on baseball by 1858. He emerged from the Civil War years as the preeminent baseball writer. He had gravitas and influence: was chairman of the rules committee, and nearly singlehandedly created the fundamentals of baseball scoring. His influence faded in the 1870s, and by the 1880s he was regarded by his colleagues as something of an old fogey. He stuck to the profession (he needed the money) and gradually transitioned into Elder Statesman status, and was regarded as the authority on the history of the game. He posthumously leveraged this into election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the only reporter in the hall proper. (For fans of Victorian social history, he was the half-brother of the reformer Edwin Chadwick.)
The understanding that baseball and rounders were the same thing did not last long. Chadwick edited the first of a long series of baseball guides in 1860. He included a discussion of the history of the game, where he stated that baseball derived from rounders. He was pushing the New York game in particular. This formula treated the New York version as a distinct game from the broader baseball/rounders family. The formula is defensible if we take “rounders” to refer to the early versions in general, though this is more nuanced than was the general understanding. In any case, baseball-from-rounders soon became the standard account, generally accepted through the 1870s.
Several things changed to bring this standard account into question. The first was changes in the game. In 1860 Americans understood baseball as a family of closely related games, of which the New York game was the leading member. Chadwick’s hint that it be treated as a distinct game was entirely successful, and the other forms of baseball were quickly forgotten. The term “New York game” was abandoned as unnecessary: it was simply “base ball.” At the same time its rules were evolving rapidly. The result was that the family resemblance of baseball to rounders became less and less obvious. Another baseball reporter, Charles Peverelly, published in 1866 The Book of American Pastimes devoted to the four great American sports: Rowing, Yachting, Cricket, and Baseball. (This book will come into play heavily in Parts II and III.) The section on baseball included the standard account of its origin from rounders, complete with a description of rounders to make the connection obvious. Twenty years later, John Montgomery Ward (who was, among other things, a star pitcher and early baseball labor agitator) wrote a book, How to Become a Player, which touched on baseball’s origins. He used a similar description of rounders to argue the opposite point: that they were so different as to be clearly unrelated.
The second was English attitudes: they pissed the hell out of the Americans. American baseball teams visited England in 1874 and 1889, filled with evangelistic fervor. This meant interacting with the cricket establishment. Reading the English accounts, the cricket establishment seems to have been on good behavior: generally polite, and appreciative of the baseball players’ strong points. (Baseball places more emphasis on fielding than does cricket even today. This made a very favorable impression on the cricketers.) But the Americans also ran up against English cricket culture, which made a clear distinction between “gentlemen” (amateurs, from the gentry class) and “players” (professionals, from the working class). The Americans were all professionals, so the English automatically placed them in the “players” category, meaning the help: highly skilled and valued help, but the help nonetheless. This ran up against American ideals of egalitarianism, with predictable results.
This combined with the commonplace English observation that baseball was a developed, “scientific” version of rounders, which wasn’t necessarily intended to be condescending. It was obviously true, so if one Englishman wanted to explain baseball to another Englishman, describing it as a scientific version of rounders was perfectly straightforward. The problem was that rounders was played by both boys and girls, and among adults only the working class played it. The result was that the Americans inevitably took the observation as being snooty aristocratic Englishmen looking down their noses. A strong prejudice resulted to deny any connection between baseball and rounders.
The third factor was the rise of jingoism, and how baseball interacted with that. America was feeling its oats following the Civil War, leading up to the Spanish-American War and the emergence of the United States as a world power. Britain was widely–and often enthusiastically–viewed as a likely enemy. At the same time, baseball continued its rise in American culture. It had been called a national pastime since the 1850s. At first this just meant that it was a pastime that was played nationally, as opposed to a regional activity. This gradually shifted to its being The National Pastime, embodying the spirit of America, etc., etc., etc.
Put these together and the standard account, that American baseball came from English rounders, became simply unacceptable. In the 1880s we start to see the standard account denied. Ward’s book was an early example of this.
What was the alternative? This was the Age of Edison, with the myth of the lone inventor struck by a flash of genius. This was mostly bollocks, but that’s not the point. This was how people thought progress occurred. This model was adapted to baseball. No one quite convinced themselves that bat and ball games were anything new, but they imagined a clear gap between Baseball and Not Baseball, with some lone genius making the leap.
Who was this lone genius? There was surprisingly little speculation. Ward posited his existence, but didn’t try to identify him. This could have gone on indefinitely, but for one problem. Chadwick was still there, plugging away. He was still editing annual guides, and publishing syndicated columns. During the season there was actual baseball to write about. But what about during the off-season? You can fill up October into November by talking about last season. Then in November and December you have the winter meetings. Come March you write about next season. But this still leaves January and February. One solution was chew the fat about seasons long past. Chadwick was hardly alone in this, but he was alone in persistently pushing the baseball-from-rounders story long after everyone else had dropped it, and he was too prominent to simply ignore.
This came to a head in 1905 when Albert Spalding decided something needed to be done. Spalding had been a star pitcher in the 1870s, then became a club owner and sporting goods magnate (which is what he is best known for today). Spalding was the publisher of those guides that Chadwick was editing. They were old friends, and again, Chadwick needed the money, so Spalding wasn’t going to simply cut him off. (I write this in the interest of fairness: Spalding could be a real dick in other ways.) But Spalding also was an enthusiastic proponent of the American boy genius theory. Spalding proposed to lay the argument to rest by creating a commission to investigate the origin of baseball and settle the matter once and for all.
From this commission would come both the Abner Doubleday story, through the front door, and the Alexander Cartwright story, through the back. Stay tuned for the next installment of this gripping tale.