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.

Grover Cleveland at Buffalo, New York City Hall

Copyright Brady Carlson

Copyright Brady Carlson

American history classes were once rife with presidential errata.  In my school days, presidential trivia was the bedrock of learning about the American experience.  Some of the first bits of knowledge generations of American school children learned concerned presidents.  These bits and pieces of presidential lives loom large in American history: Washington’s cherry tree, Lincoln’s fence rail, and Roosevelt’s big stick are all touchstones for students of American history.

In the course of human affairs, though, some presidents get lost in the shuffle.  One of the eras that seems to burst with forgettable presidents is the late 19th Century.  We at Monumental Photography refer to these men as The Muttonchop Presidents.  The Muttonchop Era began March 4, 1877 with the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes and ended March 4, 1897 with the inaugural of the clean-shaven William McKinley.  In between, the U.S. was led by Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and Grover Cleveland (again).  Arthur was the only one to have true muttonchops, but all men represent a period when facial hair was the norm for the U.S. President.  The prior two presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, were the first two presidents to wear beards.  They, however, are not include on the list of forgettable presidents–freeing millions of humans from bondage and winning the American Civil War tends to make a man stand out in a crowd.  The Muttonchop Presidents were remarkable men in their own right, however, even if they do get lost in a sea of Gilded Age grooming habits.

This week, we look at Grover Cleveland in front of City Hall in Buffalo, New York, courtesy of photographer Brady Carlson.  Cleveland holds the distinction of being the only U.S. President to be elected to two non-consecutive terms, which makes him both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.  Cleveland was elected president in 1884 and 1892.  In between those elections, he was defeated by Rutherford B. Hayes.  Opponents of the Electoral College take note: despite losing the electoral vote, Cleveland received 48.6 percent of all votes, while Harrison had just 47.8.  So, the winner was the loser–or the loser was the winner, depending on your point of view.  It was the third time in U.S. history that had happened.  It would not happen again until 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore.

Cleveland was a shrewd politician and a conservative icon in the days before Fox News.  he was pro-business, fiscally conservative, and a champion of political reform.  He took on–and defeated–the boss politics and patronage systems running rampant both in his home state of New York and nationally as chief executive.  His crusade for reform as Mayor of Buffalo and, later, as Governor of New York was so popular that an entire wing of the Republican Party threw their support to Cleveland in the 1884 election.  This group was given one of the greatest nicknames in U.S. political history, the Mugwumps.

The statue pictured was one of two by sculptor Bryant Baker at the dedication of Buffalo’s new City Hall in 1932.  The other statue is of Buffalo native and forgettable 13th President Millard Fillmore.  Cleveland’s statue is a bronze statue on an engraved polished granite base.  On the rear of the base is inscribed: “I have tried so hard to do right.”

A guy named Grover with great facial hair whose followers were called Mugwumps–it sounds like the makings of a great alt-country act.  This guy should have much more cred with the hipsters.  Long live the Muttonchop Presidents!


14 Things You Didn’t Know About the Winter Olympics

It has been a busy week here as my documentary “Dixie” moves through the editing process. I have had time to take in the Winter Olympics, though. There is snow piled a foot and a half high outside my window as I write this, so you can probably guess that I enjoy winter sports. The winter games are a particular treat when they roll around every four years. In honor of the 2014 Olympics, here are 14 things you didn’t know about the Winter Olympics.

 I. The predecessor to the Winter Olympics were the Nordic Games, an international winter sporting event held eight times between 1901 and 1926 in Sweden and Norway.

 II. The Nordic Games were the brainchild of Victor Gustaf Balck, a Swedish military officer and the “Father of Swedish Sports.” He also had a fantastic handlebar mustache. I know a lot of you are into those these days.

 III. The man responsible for the first Winter Olympics was an Italian count, Eugenio Brunetta d’Usseaux. As Secretary of the International Olympic Committee, he pushed for a winter program to be added to the 1908 Olympics. He managed to get a winter sports week added to the games in 1916, but these were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I. The count never lived to see the first Winter Olympics in 1924. He died in France in 1919.

 IV. The first Olympics in 1924, held in Chamonix, France were not Olympics at all. The games, called International Winter Sports Week, were held by the French Olympic Committee . They were retroactively named as the first Winter Olympics.

 V. The last medal of the 1924 Winter Olympics was awarded in 1974. American skier Anders Haugen was given a bronze medal when an error in the score of the original bronze medalist was discovered.

 VI. Equestrian skijoring was demonstrated in the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. The event features a horse guided by a rider pulling a skier, sans poles, holding onto a tow rope.

 VII. Skijoring is not the only winter event sent to the land of defunct sports. Sled dog racing was demonstrated in the 1932 Lake Placid, New York games.

 VIII. The man responsible for bringing the 1932 Winter Olympics to Lake Placid was Godfrey Dewey. Dewey was the son of Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. Melvil also founded the Lake Placid Ski Club in 1895.

 IX. American Eddie Eagan is the only athlete to win a gold medal at both a Summer and Winter Olympics in different events. Eagan won a gold in boxing during the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium and won gold again as a bobsledder during the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

X. The 1936 Winter Olympics, hosted by Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany, awarded the largest medals ever for any Olympics. Medals were 100 millimeters in diameter, 4 millimeters thick, and weighed 324 grams.

 XI. All three Axis Powers of World War II were awarded Winter Olympics during the war. The 1940 games were to be hosted by Japan, but were canceled after the Japanese invasion of China. In spring of 1939, the IOC gave the games to Germany, but Germany’s invasion of Poland put an end to those plans and the games were canceled. The 1944 games, scheduled for Italy, were canceled in 1941 due to World War II.

 XII. The 1976 games had trouble finding a host site, as well. The games were originally awarded to Denver, Colorado in 1970. Colorado voters, worried about the cost and environmental impact of the games, rejected a $5 million bond to fund the games. The games were then given to Whistler, British Columbia. Whistler, too, declined to host. The games were eventually held in Innsbruck, Austria.

 XIII. Taiwan is the only country to ever boycott a Winter Olympics. The island nation sat out the 1980 games when the IOC declared the country must compete as Chinese Taipei in international sporting events.

 XIV. Warm weather at this year’s Sochi games have been a topic of much discussion. These games are not the first to deal with unseasonably warm weather. The 1924 opening ceremonies in St. Moritz, Switerland were held in a blizzard. Later in the week, temperatures as high as 77 degrees caused cancellation of one event. In 1964, The Austrian army carried 20,000 ice bricks to Innsbruck for the luge and bobsled runs due to a lack of snow.


Eddie Eagan.