True Story Abner Doubleday Did Not Invent Baseball

About the true story behind the the legend that Abner Doubleday invented baseball.


Abner Doubleday Did Not Invent Baseball.

Baseball, the great American pastime, did not originate in America. Nor did Abner Doubleday, a Civil War army officer, have anything whatsoever to do with inventing it. Rather, the game is English in origin and was played long before Doubleday was born.

Around the turn of this century, few people were agreed on precisely how baseball had come to be. In 1907, sporting-goods tycoon Albert G. Spalding, formerly a major league pitching star, appointed a committee of seven to investigate the game's early history and settle once and for all where, when, and how baseball had originated. But the committee was a farce. Composed of politicians, businessmen, and ex-athletes rather than scholars, it was intended, not to ferret out the truth about baseball's beginnings, but rather to rubber-stamp the patriotic Spalding's unfounded belief that baseball was a purely American phenomenon.

Not surprisingly, most of the committee members quickly lost interest in the study, and by year's end its chairman, former National League president A. G. Mills, was working alone. Early in 1908 Mills submitted his findings to Spalding, and it was then that the Doubleday myth arose. Doubleday, Mills wrote, invented baseball, diagramed and laid out the first diamond, and supervised the first games in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839. He was an instructor at a local military academy, and the first players of the game were his students.

Spalding liked the report, for it meshed with his own notions of baseball's fundamental Americanness. But little in it had any basis in fact. No one-neither Spalding, nor baseball historian Henry Chadwick, nor anyone else-had ever heard of Doubleday. Doubleday, who had become a prolific writer of magazine articles on a wide variety of subjects in the years following the Civil War, had never penned a single word about the game he supposedly invented, nor could Mills attribute a single quoted remark about baseball to Doubleday. Significantly, Mills and Doubleday had been classmates at West Point, and it is not unlikely that Mills used his report simply to honor his friend.

Moreover, there is ample indication that baseball was played long before 1839 and that it originated in England, not in the U.S. A reference to "base-ball," along with a woodcut illustration of schoolboys playing the game, appears in A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, a popular children's book first published in England in 1744. In Princeton, N.J., "base-ball" was banned in 1786. The heroine of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, written in 1798, prefers "cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running around the country at the age of 14 to books." Other pre-1839 references to baseball on both sides of the Atlantic abound. It is now believed that baseball was simply an Americanization of rounders, a sport popular among English schoolboys and related to cricket.

The Doubleday legend might well have died had it not been for the efforts of baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and others to revive and publicize it as history in the mid-1930s. Interest in the game had been sagging, and attendance at the nation's ball parks was falling off. Landis and his colleagues came upon a dusty copy of the long-forgotten Mills report, which had set 1839 as baseball's year one, and immediately began plans for major centennial observances, culminating with the establishment in 1939 of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at Cooperstown. Landis's efforts did much to restore interest in baseball, and the museum today is a bottomless repository of information and memorabilia. That its location in Cooperstown is based altogether on fiction seems of little importance.

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