Guys Who Didn’t Invent Baseball Part IV: Since the Mills Commission


This is the fourth and final installment of my Guys Who Didn’t Invent Baseball series. For the previous installments, see Part I, Part II, and Part III.

To recap, baseball originated as an English folk game. It was brought to America by colonists as part of their shared English cultural heritage, and rose to prominence as an organized adult activity in the mid-19th century. The English origin gradually became politically unacceptable, and was replaced by the story of baseball being invented by some all-American boy genius. A commission was formed in 1905 under the chairmanship of elevator executive and former National League President Abraham G. Mills, ostensibly to investigate broadly the origins of the game but really to identify the boy genius.

Mills was delighted to discover that this turned out to be his old friend, Civil War hero Abner Doubleday, who had somehow neglected to mention this to Mills while still living. Indeed, Mills was so delighted that he enthusiastically overlooked how thin was the evidence for the story, the considerable evidence contradicting the story, and the story’s general implausibility. Doubleday was duly presented to a grateful nation as the founder of its pastime.

In the meantime, senior sportswriter, curmudgeon, and all-round party-pooper William Rankin presented an alternate candidate for boy genius: Alexander Cartwright. Cartwright had the advantage over Doubleday of having actually played baseball, but that was about it. Rankin based his argument on a creatively reimagined interview of forty years previous, which in turn described events over twenty years before that. Rankin produced a verbatim rendering of the interview in glorious detail, discreetly overlooking the inconsistencies with his earlier accounts of the same interview. And so history was made.

This brings us up to the end of Part III. We have two contradictory stories of the invention of baseball. The Doubleday version has official imprimatur, but the Cartwright appears to be documented better. What is the baseball public to do?

The solution was to reconcile the two versions via the simple method of making shit up. Cartwright typically was assigned the role of assistant to Doubleday (likely in recognition of Doubleday’s stature as a war hero and out of deference to his being the official story). Here is a version in which Cartwright is placed in Cooperstown as a schoolmate assisting Doubleday:

Back in 1839 Abner Doubleday along with Abner Graves, Alexander Cartwright and several other lands [sic] who were attending the private school [in Cooperstown] which is now known as Phinney’s lot… (Source: Morning Olympian, July 21, 1916)

Ultimately the more common approach was to divide the job. Doubleday invented baseball but then Cartwright perfected it. Here is one version, from no less a source than Kenesaw Mountain Landis himself:

It was in 1839 that old Abner Doubleday gave bases to the game. It was about 1840 that Cartwright figured 90 feet was the best distance from home to first, from first to second, from second to third and from third on back to home. (Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 9, 1934)

Another development arose at about the same time. A new element was added to the Cartwright myth. Up to then there were two parts to it: (1) Cartwright invented baseball, and (2) Cartwright founded the Knickerbocker Club to play his new game. Recall that the first part is complete bollocks, but the second part is merely mostly bollocks. Cartwright really was a founding member of the club, and is credibly credited with having been the guy who suggested to the group that they form a club.

For the third part, recall that he was a Forty-niner, traveling by wagon train to California to get in on the action. He soon realized that spending a day standing in an ice-melt stream isn’t as much fun as it sounds, so he went to Hawaii and became a merchant instead. There he befriended the royal family before participating in the coup that overthrew them. Here is the early version of the third part of the Cartwright myth:

Early in 1849 the gold rush to California started, and Cartwright heard the call. On March 1, 1849 he joined a party of adventurers who were crossing the plains. They proceeded to Pittsburgh, where during a stay while supplies were bought, taught the game of baseball to the young men of the town. It was an immediate success. During stops at St. Louis and Independence, Mo., he also introduced the game. (Source: Jonesboro Daily Tribune, August 1, 1922)

This was later expanded to his leaving a trail of baseball activity behind him as he progressed across the continent and to Hawaii. This is not bullshit: it is outright falsification. Cartwright, like may forty-niners, kept a journal. The original was destroyed after his death, but there are several copies. There is the version that includes mentions of baseball, and the version that doesn’t. It was doctored either to insert baseball references or to delete them. My barber Mr. Occam says it was the former, even before we point out the complete absence of any other record of this baseball activity, including in journals by other people on the same wagon train.

What we see here is the introduction of Alexander’s grandson, Bruce Cartwright, Jr., into the narrative-building. A committee was formed in 1935 to plan a celebration of the upcoming supposed centennial of baseball, culminating in the dedication of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Bruce began a campaign to promote Alexander’s case, enlisting the Honolulu city manager, whose office, through some mysterious process, gave credibility to Bruce’s argument. Furthermore, at about the same time, Frank G. Menke, a prominent sportswriter, was preparing the Encyclopedia of Sports, in which he gave Cartwright credit.

This was awkward. The whole reason to put the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was that this was where Doubleday invented the game. Arguments that he did not invent it after all were not met with enthusiasm. The solution was to fall back on the version Kenesaw Mountain Landis told: Doubleday invented baseball, but Cartwright subsequently made several changes, resulting in “modern” baseball. They had no idea what changes these were, so they made shit up, resulting in this:

Cartwright Alexander Plaqu_0

This is a remarkable artifact, and not just for the unfortunate chin-strap. It is, in the face of stiff competition, the most fictional of all the plaques in the Hall of Fame. They spelled his name right, but the rest is nonsense. Furthermore, there were ample resources available even at the time to show this. The most glaring example is the claim that Cartwright set the game at nine innings. That actually was done in 1857, long after Cartwright had left the scene. The Knickerbocker rules ended the game after one side reached 21 runs. A trip to a good research library would have turned this up without any great difficulty. They simply did not care. The plaque is bullshit, in the strict Frankfurtian sense of the word. What they cared about was establishing a narrative that would satisfy all the interested parties.

This worked just fine for the next thirty years or so until Sports Illustrated writer Harold Peterson got into the act. He returned to the pure Cartwright version touted by Rankin and supplemented by the bogus journal entries. He produced an article, “The Johnny Appleseed of Baseball,” followed by the first full length biography of Cartwright, The Man Who Invented Baseball, a title that pretty much sums it up.

This is a frustrating book. Peterson clearly put a lot of work into it. He came up with a lot of evidence of early bat-and-ball games to show that the idea of Doubleday inventing baseball was absurd. Then he turns around and had Cartwright doing it instead. The way these books do this is to establish the early bat-and-ball games, then identify some innovation to these games and declare this innovation to be the dividing line between baseball and not-baseball. But nobody until recently had any clear notion of what innovations happened when, so people just guessed, like on the Cartwright plaque. The results are pretty much what you would expect.

Nonetheless, the Peterson book brings us up to today, so far as the vast majority of baseball fans are concerned. There are two groups: the ones who think that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, and the ones who look on the first group with pitying condescension, since the cognoscenti know that it was Alexander Cartwright.

The kicker is that the people who were really in the know were skeptical all along of the claim that Cartwright invented the game. There are two parallel traditions of baseball history. The popular tradition came from sportswriters and gelled in the early 20th century. The Doubleday and Cartwright stories competed within this tradition. An academic tradition arose later. The idea of baseball history as a subject for serious academic study came late and haltingly. The earliest proponent was Robert W. Henderson, of the New York Public Library, who in 1947 published Ball, Bat and Bishop: The Origin of Ball Games. Henderson is very big on debunking the Doubleday story, and nominates Cartwright instead for the position of baseball’s “saint.” This is often taken as him endorsing Cartwright as the inventor of the game, but this is to not read him carefully. He never says Cartwright invented the game, and only mentions in passing the weaker version that Cartwright wrote the first rules. What he actually talks about is Cartwright’s role in founding the Knickerbockers. And really, it is obvious from context that he figures people need a figurehead, and he throws Cartwright’s name out there as the least bad candidate.

This sets the pattern of the academic tradition. There is a lot of interest in debunking Doubleday Cartwright slides by in all the excitement. He gets mentioned in the club founding role. No one in the academic tradition actually claims that Cartwright invented the game, but neither does this version get explicitly debunked. My take is that everyone knew the story smelled fishy, but Rankin’s Duncan Curry interview looked too good to dismiss out of hand. So far as I know I am the first person to get down into the weeds to track down the various versions of that interview and sort out how this fly-infested pile of dung came to be.

Nowadays there is a dedicated group within the Society for American Baseball Research interested in early baseball, including its origins. Within this group there is a typical pattern. Our young acolyte begins believing, as most sensible people do, in the Cartwright story, dismissing as nonsense the Doubleday story. And why should they not? The Cartwright story has long been presented as the sophisticate’s baseball history, with seemingly credible authority backing it. But upon gaining entrance into the mysteries, our acolyte gradually becomes uneasy. Then one day comes enlightenment: the Cartwright story is bullshit! And so it is. I went through this process myself, and it was startling, sending me on my journey to track it down and share it with you. You are welcome.

P.S. Upon re-reading this before posting, it occurs to me that I should qualify my commentary on the academic tradition. This is but a subset of academics writing on baseball history. When I talk about the academic tradition of baseball history, I mean works by academics who regard sports history as their field of study. But lots of other academics are also baseball fans without baseball history being their field of study, while possessing a charming faith in their omni-competence. The result is that my mental list of the best baseball history books and my complementary list of the worst baseball books are both filled with academic authors. Non-academics rarely manage to break into either. And don’t let an impressive imprint fool you. The absolute worst baseball history book I know was published by an Ivy League press.

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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