Abner Doubleday Did Not Invent Baseball

I’ll just repeat that:

Abner Doubleday Did Not Invent Baseball.
If you’ve somehow missed it, Commissioner Bud Selig thinks otherwise. There is a chance that’s not actually a letter from him, since the man with whom he was corresponding was principally interested in the recent faked iconography problem at the Hall of Fame – so, who knows, maybe this is a faked Selig letter.
There is in fact no actual evidence that baseball was “invented” or that if it somehow was, Doubleday had any involvement in it – certainly not in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839, insomuch as Doubleday conclusively wasn’t in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. The story was latched on to in 1905 when, with anti-British attitudes in this country at a relative height, a Commission was created to disprove the theory that the sport evolved from the British games of cricket and rounders (which, if you have eyes, you already know it obviously does).

The one tangible piece of supposed evidence upon which the “Mills Commission” finding rests is shown below:
This is the Abner Graves baseball, submitted to the Mills Commission by an octogenarian of the same name, who claims he and his buddy Abner Doubleday used it in 1839 while Doubleday was inventing the game (fortunate he had this ball ready in advance, huh?). That the baseball seems professionally – possibly even mechanically – stitched, and more reminiscent of the ones used in the 1850’s or 1860’s, didn’t deter the Mills brothers. It was evidence and it wasn’t English.
The Graves ball is of course so central to the history of the game that when I was a kid it used to sit in that little wooden throne near the Hall of Fame entrance. It was so important that the then-curators apparently were overzealous in securing it to the base and there has now been a molecular exchange between the ball and the wood and it’s now a damn freakish Baseball/Wooden Pedestal Hybrid, and they have to keep it in the refrigerated archives, and wish it into the cornfield son, wish it into the cornfield!
Bud Selig, whom I have come to like very much, is not the only person who still believes in this absurd bit of creationism (but nearly). I can name you a dozen things he still believes in about which I’m far more worried, like the idea that making some teams play tough inter-league opponents while others play easy ones, doesn’t completely eat away at the authenticity and legitimacy of the pennant races exactly the way soft schedules eat away at the authenticity and legitimacy of the BCS.
So if Bud believes, great. Maybe he’d like to buy the above depicted Wood-e-Ball. I’m sure the Hall would be happy to off-load the thing.


  1. kguenther@epix.net

    I’ve seen evidence that they played a form of baseball at Valley Forge, so the idea that it wasn’t “invented” until 1839 is preposterous. Not only that, but if Abner Doubleday had actually “invented” baseball, don’t you think that he might have mentioned it in his autobiography, given the sport’s popularity when he wrote it? Once again, it’s an example of why Bud Selig really isn’t qualified to be Commissioner–and perhaps the owners should select someone who truly wants the job. After all, I’ve heard that being baseball commissioner was George W. Bush’s dream job; he can’t screw it up any worse than Selig has done.


  2. purplekoosh@gmail.com

    …and wish it into the cornfield son, wish it into the cornfield!
    This was a really good post, Keith!
    (Seriously, references like this are why I adore reading your blog.)
    –@kshandra from Twitter

  3. ampersnd@panix.com

    I strongly recommend David Block’s book “Baseball Before We Knew It” if one is interested in this issue? his theory is that baseball didn’t actually come from cricket or rounders, but rather all those games come from a common medieval stick-and-ball ancestor. He also spends a lot of time picking apart the Doubleday story and how it became accepted as fact. Good stuff.

  4. dberry49er@gmail.com

    I think the only modern sport that we can pin to a single inventor with any accuracy is basketball and James Naismith. Everything else evolved out of older sports. Sometimes, much older. I was doing a little research on the Ninth Crusade today, and found that the first known mention of the game of cricket came in 1272.

  5. x8349@yahoo.com

    I don’t have a copy handy, but I believe it was David Block’s book “Baseball Before We Knew It: A Search For the Roots of the Game” (the cover has a reproduction of a woodcut from ca. 1300 of two boys playing what looks like baseball) in which I read that the man who erroneously started the myth that baseball descended from rounders did so because when he grew up in England he saw people playing rounders then when he emigrated to America he saw people playing baseball. Since he saw them in that order he apparently decided that the first one begat the second one. He was a journalist, so when he wrote his this speculative history of baseball, people did what they always do — they assumed that they read it somewhere so it must be true. Block’s book also details the bizarre circumstances of the origin of the Doubleday myth. Essentially, an old man wanted attention and gave his “eyewitness testimony” which nobody has ever managed to purge from the public consciousness. At one time Jane Austen’s father ran a boarding school for boys. In a letter to her sister a year or two before or after 1800 she wrote: “I watched the boys play base-ball today.” She never visited Cooperstown.

  6. ajmilner@cavtel.net

    Abner Doubleday had a younger cousin who lived in the Cooperstown area c. 1839 who was named… Abner Doubleday. It’s plausible that Abner Graves saw *this* Abner D. organize some sort of rules for baseball in Cooperstown as a boy, and 65-odd years later mixed up him with the *other*, more prominent Abner.

    I also heartily recommend Block’s book.

    Welcome back, Keith.

  7. paradise_giants_fan

    What about Alexander Cartwright? He is buried here on Oahu and there is a baseball field named for him near my place. I believe he is credited with writing down a list of rules and drawing a diagram of a diamond playing field in 1845 while he was a fireman in New York. Around here (Honolulu) he is considered the Father of Modern Baseball. And now for something completely different….it’s good to know you’ll be back on air Tuesday Keith. (couldn’t resist the Python reference)

  8. nyylogogirl

    That thing looks more like a Revolutionary War cannonball dredged out of the Delaware River. The British lost that battle, too.

    If Mr. Selig is interested, I have a bridge to sell him…or two or three. Isn’t it public knowledge that baseball goes back to prehistoric times? Certainly, he’s seen the Flintstones or been to a Phillies game. [burn]

  9. dorothyjanemills@comcast.net

    I’m embarrassed for Bud Selig; he’s back in the 19th century. The first scholar to prove that baseball was not invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839 was Robert W. Henderson, a librarian, who cleared it up in 1939. Since then the scholars of the Society for American Baseball Research (I’m a member) have published dozens of articles and books documenting baseball’s existence long before Doubleday supposedly created it. (Many of us have spoken at Cooperstown.) Baseball: The Early Years, which my late husband Harold Seymour and I published with Oxford University Press in 1960, reprints a charming woodcut from a book published in 1744 showing children playing what the publisher labeled “Base-Ball.”

  10. johndodge@dwt.com

    Of course Abner Doubleday didn’t invent baseball. Al Gore did.

    (I just thought I’d post the obvious rejoinder before one of my deservedly-still-celebrating conservative friends did. Next up, the debate over Doubleday’s birth certificate!)

  11. historymike

    johndodge, I thought the inventor was a Muslim socialist from Kenya!

    More seriously, though, the Soviets used to claim to have invented it, and in his marvelous Fireside series, Charley Einstein reprinted an English poem from the eighteenth century that was clearly about baseball. For all we know, the neanderthals played it!

    Keith, good to have you back. I think you could have handled the origins of this whole thing a lot better, but MSNBC ended up screwing it up so badly, you’d think they were Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman.

  12. rhuff1119@msn.com

    I see that Block’s book has been recommended multiple times and for good reason. I would only add to the list Peter Morris’s “But Didn’t We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870.”

    This is another readable and comprehensive recounting of the evolutionary development of the multitude of various regional versions of rounders.

  13. pjk1848@gmail.com

    You say that the Baseball Hall of Fame’s “Doubleday Baseball” is “one tangible piece of supposed evidence upon which the “Mills Commission” findings rest…”
    In fact, Spalding and the Commission were long dead when the “Doubleday Baseball” was “found” and purchased by HOF founder Stephen C. Clark for $5 bucks or so in the 1930s when it was found in a trunk in Fly Creek, NY that “allegedly” belonged to Abner Graves. Clark put that same ball on display in a Cooperstown Village building and the National Baseball HOF and Museum was born. The ball did nothing more but perpetuate the Mills Commission findings (a quarter century before) and draw visitors to see the ball in Cooperstown. The ball had no verified link to Doubleday or Graves, it was a fabrication.
    Also, the HOF hasn’t buried the ball, it was a featured item in their “Baseball As America” exhibition that toured the country for a decade.

  14. pjk1848@gmail.com

    Graves never claimed to have any ball. He did however claim (in a Nov. 17, 1905 letter to AG Spalding) that:

    “Just in my present mood I would rather have Uncle Sam declare war on England and clean her up, rather than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball.”

  15. marshall98144

    Amazing… I think I was in grade school (in the ’50s) when I learned the Doubleday story was double-talk malarky. But isn’t the Commish sorta’ obligated to believe the “party line”?

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