Guys Who Didn’t Invent Baseball Part II: Abner Doubleday
In Part I of the Guys Who Didn’t Invent Baseball series, I discussed how in the mid 19th century the idea that baseball began as an English game was uncontroversial, even if the exact relationship between it and rounders was a bit unclear; and how by the turn of the 20th century this was ideologically unacceptable. Albert Spalding put out a call for a commission to determine once and for all the origin of baseball: to uncover the American boy genius responsible for the glory that is baseball. Here in Part II, I will show how they arrived at the official conclusion that Abner Doubleday was this boy genius.
The commission was duly constituted in 1905 under the chairmanship of Abraham G. Mills. (It is sometimes called the Spalding Commission, since Spalding proposed it, but more usually it is called the Mills Commission, after its chairman.) The final report was issued three years later.
The important thing to understand about this whole affair is that the fix was in. I don’t mean the specific conclusion was predetermined. Some modern writers have hinted at this, but I don’t think this matches the evidence. What I mean is that the range of permissible conclusions was constrained, with the rounders origin conspicuously outside this range. This comes through in two ways: the membership of the commission and its research methodology.
Mills himself was actually a pretty reasonable choice. He was an all-round competent guy. He was involved in baseball since the amateur days. In the early professional era he sort of lurked in the background. He came to the fore in 1882 when he was elected National League president after William Hulbert died. Some private correspondence of Harry Wright survives. Wright was thrilled that they managed to persuade Mills to take the job, and they were practically begging him to stay from year to year. He only stayed two years, because he had a real career outside of baseball, ending up the Vice President in charge of sales for the Otis Elevator Company. He kept his hand in baseball, so he was a natural choice to chair to commission.
He quite notably was not a historian. This alone is not necessarily a problem. You want an organizer to run an operation like this. The problem lay in the rest of the membership. They were all guys in the same vein as Mills: men of social standing, with some connection to baseball. They included two former senators, another former NL president, and so forth. They were there to lend gravitas. Who was there to do actual historical research? No one. There were no library dives. We will see in Part IV what a single research librarian turned up, once he set himself to the task. Also notably absent was Henry Chadwick, who was the one person likely to provide an embarrassing dissenting voice.
This brings us to what they actually did. “They” is generous. Mills and his secretary did all the actual work. In fairness, Mills was conscientious within the tacit limitations of the project, but these limitations defined the whole operation.
They solicited reminiscences from old-timers. Some they solicited directly, while for others they put out a call in the press. This is a worthwhile research technique. Go visit the old-timers and carry a tape recorder, and you are an oral historian. They got some interesting material in reply. The problem was that this was specifically done in the context of investigating baseball’s origin. The implication was that this occurred within living memory: the 1820s at the earliest. 18th century children’s games need not apply. The respondents understood the implication, and this colored their responses.
Before we see how this played out, I will first turn to what was known going in about the history of early baseball. In Part I, I mentioned The Book of American Pastimes by Charles Peverelly, published in 1866. This was very influential over the decades. It was not widely available, but it was widely enough known that anyone interested in the subject would come across it eventually. The section on baseball consists mostly of pretty dry entries for individual clubs, with data such as the club’s date of founding, officers, and lists of games played. The notable exception is the entry for the Knickerbocker Club. The Knickerbockers were acknowledged as the senior baseball club (often confused with being the first baseball club) and so Peverelly included an expanded narrative of their early history. He tells of their founding on September 23, 1845, the codification of their rules, and so forth. As an added bonus, his information turns out to be accurate. We know this because many of their internal records survive. They were a going concern until 1882, by which time the historical value of their records was obvious. They were given to Henry Chadwick, who eventually gave them to Spalding, who bequeathed them to the New York Public Library, where those parts that haven’t been stolen remain to this day.
Mills knew the history of the Knickerbockers. This placed the origin of baseball at no later than 1845. Mills nearly declared the Knickerbockers the collective inventors of the game, despairing of finding a better candidate. This is another tell about what was really going on. He received ample correspondence describing earlier baseball games. Why did he reject them? He didn’t say, but in light of what he went on to accept, it is obvious that what he really was looking for was a good story. Collective action by the Knickerbockers wasn’t all that good a story, but it was the best he had, until he received a letter from one Abner Graves.
Graves was a mining engineer living in Denver, but raised in Cooperstown, New York. He saw a newspaper report about the commission and its solicitation of information. He responded with a letter that provided the good story that Mills was seeking, set about 65 or 70 years earlier, including the definitive declaration “The American game of ‘Base Ball’ was invented by Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, New York…”
This letter proved a godsend for Mills. It provided just the compelling narrative he was looking for. Even better, Abner Doubleday was a Civil War hero (or at least close enough for the purpose). He had been at Fort Sumter, reputedly laying the first Union gun to open fire. He later was a division commander at Gettysburg, defending Cemetery Ridge. This was perfect. This whole exercise was about baseball wrapping itself in the flag, and here it turns out the game from its very origin was all-American. Doubleday also hit the sweet spot of not being too famous. A claim that Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant had invented baseball would be too obviously not believable. Associating it with a lower-tier Union general was impressive while still being credible.
Just to be explicit about this, the claim that Doubleday invented baseball is bullshit. Indeed, he had about as little to do with baseball as it was possible for an American male of his generation to have. The one documented link is that he once requisitioned baseball equipment for his men. When this surfaced there was the predictable response of “See, I told you so!” but this is nonsense. Lots of army officers of the time requisitioned baseball equipment. Recreational equipment to maintain morale was not a 20th century invention. Other than this, there was no link made between Doubleday and baseball, much less the invention of baseball, before the Mills Commission came along.
Graves has gotten a bad reputation, among those persons perceptive enough to reject Doubleday as the inventor of baseball. He comes across as the greatest liar in the history of the game. (It cannot possibly help that he went on to kill his wife and be declared criminally insane.) This is not entirely fair. Worse, it is unenlightening. As I analyze his letter, it has three important elements:
(1) He describes how as a young boy, he was taught baseball by an older boy, and he includes a description of how it was played.
(2) The older boy was Abner Doubleday.
(3) The older boy had invented the game.
The first element is entirely plausible. Indeed, it is largely unremarkable. Similar accounts can be found from the 1880s and ‘90s, if you know where to look. The description of the game is a bit garbled, but this is hardly surprising given the passage of time, and it is clearly recognizable as a description of pre-modern baseball. Were this all there was to the letter, it would be interesting to specialists, but otherwise forgotten.
The second element is probably bogus, but forgivably so. Suppose you went to high school with Barry Bonds and played on the same team; and suppose someone on the team hit an amazing towering home run. You are going to remember that it was Bonds who hit the ball, even if a search of the records would reveal that it was actually Joe Shlabotnik who did it. This is simply how our memories work. I give Graves a pass on this.
The third element I blame on the system. Graves remembered being taught how to play baseball. He had been told that baseball was invented around that time, so he was delighted to realize that he had been in on the very beginning of the game. His conclusion was reasonable, given the premise.
So I don’t blame Abner Graves. I blame Spalding and Mills: not merely for credulousness; not merely for latching onto a story that matched their preconceived notions; but for promulgating a story that they had to know was false. I say this because they both knew Doubleday personally. They ran in the same crowds. Spalding and Doubleday were both involved with Theosophy, an early introduction of Buddhism to America. Mills and Doubleday were even tighter, belonging to the same post of the Grand Army of the Republic (the Civil War version of the modern VFW). Mills had organized the honor guard and been a pallbearer at Doubleday’s funeral in 1893. Here were two men very prominently associated with baseball, and who knew Doubleday personally, without even getting any hint of his supposed involvement.
Both would later on pretty much admit, or at least hint, that they knew the story was bullshit. Spalding a few years later wrote a history of baseball (in which he systematically exaggerated his own role, but that is another story). Here is what he wrote about Doubleday inventing baseball:
I have no intention, in this work, of reopening the discussion which waxed so warm a short time ago, as to the origin of the game. It would be an act of disloyalty to the Commission that was appointed at my suggestion…were I ever again to enter upon the details of that vexed controversy–except in order to prove the righteousness then rendered.
This is hardly a resounding affirmation. Mills gave an interview in 1926 in which a reporter asked him what evidence he had for Cooperstown as baseball’s birthplace. He replied
None at all, as far as the actual origin of baseball is concerned. The committee reported that the first baseball diamond was laid out in Cooperstown. They were honorable men and their decision was unanimous. I submit to you gentlemen, that if our search had been for a typical American village, a village that could best stand as a counterpart of all villages where baseball might have been originated and developed-Cooperstown would best fit the bill.
This is pretty much an open admission that the story was adopted because it was the story he wanted to tell, and its actually being true was irrelevant.
There is a final irony to the apotheosis of Abner Doubleday. There were two Abner Doubledays, distant cousins to one another. The Abner Doubleday who grew up in Cooperstown was the other one: not the Abner Doubleday who went on to become an army general. That one grew up in Elmira. I’m sure that Graves didn’t realize this. Even back then, you wouldn’t expect “Abner Doubleday” to be a name you would encounter often.
The Doubleday story provoked skepticism, and even outright derision, even at the time. In Part III I will discuss how the Alexander Cartwright story was a reaction to it, and Part IV how the competing stories were merged and survive to this day.
P.S. Cooperstown is an absolutely lovely town, and the Hall of Fame is well worth visiting. If you aren’t a baseball fan, but like opera, there is the Glimmerglass Festival. If you are a Last of the Mohicans fan, James Fenimore Cooper lived and is buried there. The town was founded by his father, whose story is also pretty darned fascinating. For the baseball fans among you, I belong to the school of thought that the Hall proper–the room with the plaques–is the least interesting part. The sports museum part, however, is excellent, and the research library is a serious scholarly enterprise. If you can, go in the Spring or Fall. The place is overrun with tourists in the Summer, and the Winters are unspeakable. Cooperstown had diddly to do with the invention of baseball, but it is a nice place to visit. It beats having the Hall of Fame in Hoboken.