On May 11, 1950, Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff introduced a bill to Congress to designate June 26th “National Baseball Day,” in honor of the birthday of Major General Abner Doubleday. Doubleday, of course, was at one time credited with inventing the game of Baseball. Sadly, the bill was never approved by Congress.
Yesterday, I took part in the Library of Congress’s online webinar entitled “Batter Up! Baseball at the Library of Congress.” Hosted by Peter Armenti of the LoC, the webinar covered the early years of the game, sharing a variety of slides from the LoC’s collection.
Bat and ball games have been around in a variety of forms for a long, long time. What I didn’t realize was that versions of bat and ball games went back as far as ancient Egypt (though, the concept of hitting a ball with some form of club is honestly very elementary, so I don’t know why this surprised me).
The webinar debunks the Abner Doubleday myth, which claimed Doubleday invented the game in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York, pointing out that early incarnations of baseball existed well ahead of the time of Doubleday’s supposed founding of the game. For example, a game known as “Base Ball” was referred to in The Pretty Little Pocket Book in 1787, though the images of the game in said book look nothing like today’s pastime.
Base Ball gets referenced in a number of sources after that, including this 1823 article:
Industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century contributed to the rapid growth of the game. Other sports, including horse racing and boxing, were popular at the time, but the appeal for these did not match the appeal of baseball. Over time, the separation between work and play grew more pronounced in America, and baseball became a popular form of leisure in the off hours of industrial workers. Over time, the rules of the game evolved, and in the mid-nineteenth century, the New York Knickerbockers were founded, leading to a greater standardization of baseball rules.
The webinar goes into the development and codification of rules, including the establishment the 90-foot distance between bases, nine players per side, the elimination of “soaking,” and so on. There were two versions of the game at first, the Massachusetts and the New York games, but in the end, the New York version of baseball won out.
In the meantime, baseball spread rapidly, including a club in San Francisco in the mid-1800s that became California’s first (known) ball club. The outbreak of the Civil War also contributed to the spread of baseball’s popularity.
Baseball was also being played within the black population in the late-nineteenth century, and women also participated in the game as well. The webinar did not go into a lot of detail regarding these, but it did at least touch on them.
In 1868, it became allowed (publicly) for players to get played (some players had been receiving under-the-table compensation prior to this). In September of that year, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first all-professional ball team, bringing an end to the amateur baseball era. The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players then became established in 1871, then today’s NL was established in 1876.
The Doubleday myth, as we know now, was the brainchild of Albert Spalding and the Mills Commission at the turn of the century. Spalding despised the idea that baseball evolved from the English game of rounders, as was argued by Henry Chadwick, and thus he set out to prove its American origins. Spalding released the commission’s findings of baseball’s origins in 1905. The results were deemed official by the end of 1907, then published in Spalding’s Base Ball Guide in 1908.
The webinar picks apart the arguments of the Mills Commission, pointing out that it is not possible that Doubleday could have invented baseball. Doubleday’s own lack of mentioning the game aside, the events outlined by the commission regarding baseball’s findings did not match up with the events of Doubleday’s life.
The webinar concluded with a brief question-and-answer session. The bit about ancient Egypt aside, I can’t say I learned much new from the session, which naturally is going to happen when you attend a webinar about something you like to study anyhow. However, it’s always nice to get a refresher on things, and the Library of Congress did a great job with this.
The first five men elected into baseball’s new Hall of Fame on February 2, 1936 were Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson, and Christy Mathewson. The Hall of Fame was scheduled to open in Cooperstown, New York in 1939 as part of baseball’s celebration of its “centennial,” that is, the centennial based on the myth of Doubleday’s invention of the game.
In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing base, a certain game of ball…Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…the game of ball is glorious. ~Walt Whitman
Thus begins the first disc of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns. This is a series that I’ve checked out from the library and started watching multiple times, yet never managed to finish. In an effort to change this, I’ve decided to commit myself to writing about each “Inning” of the series here. This way, I have a form of accountability to encourage me to get through the whole thing.
Approximately the first twenty minutes of the first disc serve as kind of a nostalgic, feel-good introduction to the series and the game. Images of Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and several others flash across the screen to a background of melodic music and various speakers ruminating about what an incredible game baseball is.
The First Inning then begins with the myth of baseball’s founding by Abner Doubleday. Burns describes the story behind Doubleday’s supposed invention of the game, then immediately refutes it, asserting that Doubleday likely never even saw a professional game. Baseball, rather, is most likely a direct descendant of two British sports: rounders and cricket. The game went through multiple variations until the founding of the New York Knickerbockers and the codification of rules by Alexander Cartwright. Henry Chadwick soon appears on the scene and becomes instantly enamored with baseball. Chadwick went on to invent the box score, using statistics to track players’ performances. The National Association of Base Ball Players was then formed to help maintain control over the sport and further codify the rules.
The outbreak of the American Civil War presented a disruption to organized baseball. On the other hand, it also served to help spread the game’s popularity as soldiers returning home at the end of the war took knowledge of the sport with them. In spite of the end of slavery, black teams found themselves banned from organized leagues. Women and girls, also, struggled for the right to play ball, as it was deemed too violent and dangerous for the fairer sex.
Burns chronicles the evolution of baseball from its status as an amateur pastime to a professional sport — a business. It is evident from his focus on the establishment of the reserve clause that Burns intends to delve into the subject further. It only makes sense to do so, of course, given the impact that this clause would have on the occurrence of so many events throughout the game’s history. Burns also puts some attention on gambling, which, as we know, would also impact baseball’s timeline of events.
The First Inning covers the development of the NL, the AA, the Players’ League, and the rise of Albert Spalding. A number of players are introduced, including Cy Young, Cap Anson, King Kelly, and John McGraw. We also meet Moses Fleetwood Walker and the bigotry he faced in the big leagues as a black player. This, followed closely by a discussion of Branch Rickey’s early life, present a foreshadowing recognizable by anyone familiar with the game’s history.
Most histories I have seen covering this period in baseball seem to treat the game with a kind of veneration. Personally, this is perhaps my favorite period in the game’s history to learn about, possibly in part due to this sense of awe that it brings out about baseball. So much of what happens next has already been established, yet there is still something pure and clean about baseball during the 19th century.
Every serious baseball fan has heard of Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Located in central New York, this town received its name from the family of American author James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans). Home to just under two thousand residents, Cooperstown is really little more than just a village that lies within the town of Otsego.
Cooperstown became the location for the Hall of Fame thanks to the myth of Abner Doubleday. Abner Doubleday was a Union general during the American Civil War who initiated the first shot of the war at Fort Sumter and later served in the Battle of Gettysburg. By many accounts, Doubleday was considered a war hero. In 1907, the Spalding Commission, headed by sporting goods titan A. G. Spalding, determined that it was Doubleday who invented the game of baseball in a cow pasture in Cooperstown in 1839. That cow pasture is now known as Abner Doubleday Field.
In the 1930s, Cooperstown native Stephen Carlton Clark approached the president of the National League, Ford C. Frick (who later became the Commissioner of Baseball), with the idea of establishing a Baseball Hall of Fame. As an art collector and affluent businessman, Clark’s motivation behind founding the Hall lay not only in his desire to celebrate and commemorate the sport, but also to boost the economy of his town, which suffered in the wake of the Great Depression. Frick approved of the idea, and in 1936, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Babe Ruth became the Hall’s first inductees. Stephen Clark donated funds towards the erection of a building, and the Hall of Fame’s official dedication took place on 12 June 1939.
Today, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum features more than 38,000 artifacts spread out over three floors. In the Plaque Gallery, nearly three hundred bronze plaques honor the achievements of the game’s Hall of Famers. The Hall’s motto is “Preserving History, Honoring Excellence, Connecting Generations.”
“The Doubleday Myth is Cooperstown’s Gain: Pastoral village has become the heart of baseball folklore.” National Baseball Hall of Fame. National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Web. Accessed 31 May 2013. http://baseballhall.org/museum/experience/history
“Stephen C. Clark, Art Patron, Dead: Noted Collector Was Singer Sewing Machine Heir–Set Up Baseball Hall of Fame.” New York Times 18 September 1960. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. The New York Times (1851-2002), p. 86.
When one thinks of the American Civil War, a number of key themes come to mind: North vs. South; the Union and the Confederacy; slavery; race; Gettysburg; Appomattox; and so on… One rarely thinks of baseball, and yet the game provided entertainment and escape during this tumultuous period in our nation’s history.
Contrary to what the Abner Doubleday myth would have us believe, baseball was already well-established by the time the “War Between the States” broke out, and it is believed that President Abraham Lincoln may have been one of the game’s first fans. At the very least, many historians agree that Lincoln most likely watched, and possibly even played, the sport. There is no doubt, however, that the game was already making its way into the national consciousness. The political cartoon below show Lincoln with the other three Presidential candidates, John Bell, Stephen A. Douglas, and John C. Breckinridge, in the fall of 1860. The men are depicted as ballplayers, and Lincoln, of course, has his foot on home plate, representing victory. He smugly tells his opponents, “Gentlemen, if any of you should ever take a hand in another match at this game, remember that you must have ‘a good bat’ and strike a ‘fair ball’ to make a ‘clean score’ & a ‘home run.’”
Baseball was a pastime shared by both North and South, and officers on both sides touted the sport as a distraction from the horrors of war, as well as a means through which soldiers could exercise. Interestingly, the outbreak of war encouraged the growth of the sport, as large concentrations of young men gathered together in encampments often found themselves in need of a way to pass the time. To solve the problem of boredom, men from New York took to teaching their fellow soldiers, who came from areas throughout the country, the rules and play of baseball. What was once advocated as a “gentleman’s game” now spread amongst men from a wide variety of backgrounds.
One of the most famous games that took place during the war was between the 165th New York Infantry and the New York Regiment All-Star nine. Played in 1862, approximately forty thousand soldiers showed up to watch the matchup in Hilton Head, South Carolina. That’s a crowd that surpasses attendance at most Major League Baseball games today! As the war raged on and nationalism grew stronger, baseball became increasingly viewed as patriotic. Competitions were sometimes viewed as representative of the conflict between North and South.
Playing ball in the middle of the war wasn’t always fun and worry-free, of course. Some soldiers learned to play the game in one of the many Civil War prisons. The teams of active regiments experienced constant changes in their rosters, as men were killed on the battlefield. Sometimes, the ballgames themselves were interrupted, such as one George Putnam wrote home about:
“Suddenly there was a scattering of fire, which three outfielders caught the brunt; the centerfield was hit and was captured, left and right field managed to get back to our lines. The attack…was repelled without serious difficulty, but we had lost not only our centerfield, but…the only baseball in Alexandria, Texas.”
When the war ended and soldiers returned home, many of them shared the game they had learned with their communities. A game that was once mostly confined to the New York area exploded throughout the country. Baseball became a force that helped to heal the rift in the country as many fans began to refer to it as “the national pastime.” Many new leagues formed throughout the nation. Referred to as the “Textile Leagues,” they resembled the minor league system of today. As baseball’s popularity became widespread, the foundation was laid for the establishment of organized and professional play.
According to legend, Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York (hence the reason Cooperstown serves as home to the Baseball Hall of Fame). A Union general during the Civil War, Doubleday is known for having fired the first shot in defense against the South at Fort Sumter, thus starting the American Civil War. It makes sense, when you think about it. Of course America’s game would be invented in America, by one of America’s own war heroes, right?
Eh… not quite.
Contrary to legend, baseball did not spring up out of nowhere, brought to America by a patriotic stork gifting us with our national pastime. More than likely, Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with baseball at all. Upon his death in 1893, Doubleday left behind a number of documents and letters, none of which mentioned baseball. Furthermore, references to games resembling the sport existed long before Doubleday was even born. For example, one soldier in George Washington’s army, George Ewing, wrote about his experience playing a game called “base” in April 1778 in Valley Forge.
In truth, baseball most likely evolved from the British games of rounders and cricket. Over time, different versions of bat-and-ball games evolved in America, going by names like “townball” and “roundball.” Different areas of the country also developed their own versions of the sport, including “the Massachusetts game” and “the New York game.” Not surprisingly, each state believed its own version to be better. By the time of the Civil War, the New York version of the game had become the most popular. The establishment of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) in 1858 marked the creation of baseball’s first centralized governing body, which helped ensure the spread of uniformity in the game’s play and rules.
So why the bogus myth about Abner Doubleday? In the wake of the Civil War, America experienced a surge of nationalism, not an uncommon occurrence following times of great calamity (think: 9/11, Iraq War, etc.). Business and political leaders alike sought out a means through which to help heal the division between North and South. The growing sport of Base Ball, which was becoming popular throughout all socioeconomic classes, seemed an obvious solution for this need. As part of his efforts to build up and promote the idea of baseball as “America’s game,” A. G. Spalding and the Spalding commission asserted in 1907 that baseball was a purely American game with no roots in British sports, and that Abner Doubleday was its inventor. In the years that followed, other baseball historians, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuated this nationalistic myth.
In spite of the research that has since revealed the Abner Doubleday myth, the Baseball Hall of Fame continues to hold fast to the magic that it created, as demonstrated on their website. And who can blame them? Part of the wonder and glory of Cooperstown is the idea that it was the birthplace of America’s National Pastime. Nevertheless, it is important to also keep in mind the facts as revealed by history. Legends can be fun and revealing on their own, but true history gives us a more accurate sense of who we are.