The boys of summer are at again. Whom can we bless for the Great American Pastime?
One thing is for certain. It wasn’t Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839 — as a self appointed commission of American patriots would have us believe. Let us dispose of the Doubleday myth before proceeding.
Doubleday was born in 1819 at Ballston Spa, N.Y., of a family outstanding in military and civil life. He attended school in 1835 at Cooperstown where he enrolled in engineering courses. He was appointed to West Point in 1838 and was graduated in 1842 with a commission in the artillery.
He served with distinction in the Mexican and Florida Seminole wars. He fired the first Union shot at Fort Sumter after the Confederate bombardment opening the War Between the States. He became a major-general and died in 1893.
It is noteworthy that in the 60 diaries Doubleday kept throughout his life, he does not mention baseball. In one letter to headquarters during the Civil War, Doubleday did request “recreational items for colored troops” that included a “magic lantern and baseball equipment.”
Doubleday would have become a footnote to the Civil War had it not been for another Abner with the surname Graves.
In 1905, a famous sportswriter named Henry Chadwick wrote an article contending that baseball evolved from the old English game of Rounders.
This upset Albert Spalding, one of the game’s pioneer players and a manufacturer of sports equipment. He was unable to accept a premise that the great American game did not originate in America.
Spalding organized a commission of seven prominent men, patriots all, to determine the “true origin” of baseball. The project was widely reported.
Heading the commission was Col. A.G. Mills of New York. He had played baseball before and during the Civil War and was the fourth president of the National League in 1884.
The commission was pretty much at a dead end until Abner Graves, a Denver mining engineer traveling in Akron, Ohio, saw a newspaper article about the commission. He sat down in his hotel room and on furnished stationery wrote the Mills Commission.
In the letter, Graves stated that he had observed Doubleday at Cooperstown in 1839 scratching a baseball diamond on the ground and instructing other young men how to play baseball with teams of 11 players and four bases.
Graves described how the ball used was homemade of stitched horse-hide stuffed with rags.
The Mills commissioners and Spalding were elated. They promptly proclaimed baseball was invented by an American, Civil War, Army officer. About as all-American as you can get.
Of no consequence was the lack of corroborating evidence. Graves shortly thereafter murdered his wife and was committed to an asylum for the insane.
Graves’ story was patently false. He would have been just five years old in 1839 and therefore not a reliable observer. Doubleday had entered West Point in 1838 and therefore was not present that year in Cooperstown.
It is possible that Doubleday was remembered at Cooperstown school — which Graves later attended – as having organized a baseball game among his fellow students. However, rudiments of the game – as we recognize it today — were already well known throughout the country.
Twenty-seven years after the Mills Commission triumphant report, a relative of Graves, rummaging through his old trunk, found an old baseball with torn hide over a wad of rags. Graves’ letter and torn baseball are displayed today as proof-positive at the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame.
Stick and ball games were recorded back in pyramidal times.
“Stool ball” was described in the 1085 Doomsday Book census of England. Variations were rounders, town ball, and one-o-cat.
On Christmas Day 1621, Governor Bradford at Plymouth Plantation noted that men of the colony “frolicking in ye street, at play openly; some at pitching ye ball, some at stoole ball and such-like sport.”
In 1744, John Newbery of London, England, published A Pretty Little Pocket Book “intended for the amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly.” A woodcut illustration depicted boys playing “Base-Ball” in which they progressed around posts.
George Ewing, a Revolutionary War doctor at Valley Forge in 1778, wrote: “Exercised in the afternoon intervals, played at base.”
A New York University librarian, George A. Thompson, Jr., recently found two New York newspaper articles of April 12, 1823, clearly relating to modern baseball.
The longer story, in the National Advocate, was composed of just four sentences:
“I was last Saturday much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game of ‘base ball’ at the Retreat in Broadway.
“I am informed they are an organized association, and that a very interesting game will be played on Saturday next at the above place, to commence at half-past 3 o’clock p.m. Any person fond of witnessing this game may avail himself of seeing it played with consummate skill and wonderful dexterity. It is surprising, and to be regretted, that the young men of our city do not engage more in this manual sport. It is innocent amusement, and healthy exercise, attended with but little expense and has no demoralizing tendency.”
The first organized baseball team was formed at New York City in 1845 by two, young friends. They were Dr. Daniel L. Adams and Alexander Joy Cartwright, an accounting clerk. They and other young, professional men met after work at Madison Square.
Adams and Cartwright settled on a set of rules in 1845 so there would not be endless arguments. Cartwright wrote them down.
At that time, the playing field was usually square with five bases. Because of the confined area, the diamond and four bases were adopted. Distance between bases was set at “42 paces” (about 75 feet) and the concept of foul territory was introduced. The practice of “plunking” a runner – hitting him with a thrown ball to “out” him –was abolished as ungentlemanly.
The Madison Square players formed the Knickerbockers Base Ball Club in September 1845. With rules in hand, the Knickerbockers advertised for opponents.
They met the New York Nine at the neutral Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 19, 1846.
The Nines won 23-l. The score indicated the game followed the rules of rounders, ending after 21 runs were scored rather than a specific number of innings.
According to contemporary reports, Cartwright umpired the game and enforced a six-cent fine — payable on the spot — for swearing.
Cartwright joined the California gold rush on 1849, but arrived there too late. On the way back home via ship he became ill and was put ashore at Hawaii. He liked the tropical climate so well, he sent for his family. He started baseball clubs throughout the islands, and became a prosperous businessman. He died there in 1892.
The Knickerbockers Club continued active under the leadership of Dr. Adams. He introduced the position of roving shortstop — for himself — to relay outfield throws. He designed the tapered bat and invented the hard baseball of “rubber cuttings and yarn” to facilitate thrown balls and make the curve ball possible. He set the distances between bases at 90 feet in 1857.
Also that year, he presided over a convention of ballplayers who decided that the winner of a game was the team that was ahead after nine innings. The following year the group adopted the name National Association of Ball Players.”
He pushed for a rule requiring a batter be called out if the ball was caught on the fly instead of the first bounce. This was hotly debated, but in 1860 it was decided fly balls were necessary if both teams agreed to it before hand.
Dr. Adams gave up his New York practice in 1865 and moved his family to Connecticut. He played his last, formal game of baseball in 1875 in an old-timers’ contest. He died in 1899 at age 85 in New Haven – still playing backyard baseball with his sons.
It is ironic that Cartwright, Spalding, and Doubleday are memorialized at Cooperstown while Adams is not — even though he devised all the modern rules of baseball.
Not to quibble. History is mostly agreed-upon legend, and baseball is as much icon as sport.