The Myth of Abner Doubleday and Baseball

Copyright Scott Nelson

Copyright Scott Nelson

Baseball season is in full swing here in the United States, despite the chilly weather we’re still seeing in the northeast.  This week, we celebrate that great American tradition by paying homage to Abner Doubleday.  For many years, Abner Doubleday was considered the inventor of baseball.  That story is pure legend.  The truth of his life, however, is much more interesting.

Doubleday eventually found himself on administrative duty in Washington.  He was a staunch supporter of Abraham Lincoln and rode with him on the train to Gettysburg, where Lincoln delivered The Gettysburg Address, one of the key speeches in American history.  After the war, Doubleday commanded troops in Texas and San Francisco, where he eventually became president of the American Theosophical Society, whose members included Thomas Edison.  He spent much time writing, eventually penning two major works on the Civil War.

Doubleday’s connection to baseball  comes from a 1907 report claiming Doubleday invented the sport in a cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York in 1839.  In the years leading up to the report, a vicious debate raged in the United States on the origins of baseball.  Had baseball been invented in the United States or was it a variation on a British game called rounders?  National League president Abraham G. Mills and Chicago Cubs president Albert Spalding certainly didn’t want to believe the game was British.  Sportswriter Henry Chadwick, a native of Britain, believed the game had indeed evolved from rounders.  He outlined similarities between the two games in a 1903 article.  A commission was formed to research the truth–a committee of men handpicked by Spalding.

Enter Abner Graves, an engineer told the Akron Beacon Journal in 1905 that Doubleday had invented the game.  Graves said he saw Doubleday diagram the game of a baseball field.  Spalding wrote to Graves asking for proof.  Graves told Spalding that no copies of the diagram survived and that almost all of the players were dead.  He did, however, send Spalding a diagram he claimed looked just like the one Doubelday had drawn up.  That was enough for Spalding, the 1907 report by Mills gave Doubleday–and America–credit for inventing the game.

There are some problems with that version of history.  Doubleday wasn’t in Cooperstown at all during 1839.  He was a cadet at West Point–a first year cadet, to be exact, one who would have rarely been given leave.  Doubleday left a prodigious body of written work, with only one mention of baseball–in 1871.  Graves, if he did see the diagram, would have been five in 1839.  Graves was also committed to an insane asylum as an old man.  Mills’ bias was obvious, too.  Remember the Theosophical Society?  Mills donated money to the organization.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the myth is resoundingly resilient.  The National Baseball Hall of Fame was built in Cooperstown, New York in 1939, site of Doubleday’s mythical first game.  In 2010, Tim Arango of the New York Times revealed that Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig had written a letter, satating: “I really believe that Abner Doubleday is the ‘Father of Baseball’.”  History is forgotten, but myth dies hard…especially when there is money to be made.

This week’s statue was photographed by Abner Doubleday’s 5th great-grand nephew, Scott Nelson.  The statue stands on Reynolds Avenue.  The statue stands nine feet tall on an eleven foot tall granite base.  The sculptor was John Massey Rhind.  It was dedicated on September 25, 1917 by the State of New York.