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October 7, 2015

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The story of the early history of baseball would not be complete without looking into one of the strangest events ever to take place in the long history of the game...

Photo of Boston Players

In 1904... Al Spalding, the former major league pitching ace who had since gone on to become a baseball executive and a wealthy manufacturer of sporting equipment, decided that it was demeaning that this great American pastime had found it's origin in an English children's game called Rounders. So, the following year, he assembled some like minded friends, including two U.S. Senators, and had them establish themselves as a commission to look into the origins of baseball... with their ultimate purpose being, if possible, to give it an American ancestry. And that's just what they did!

The commission, which was chaired by former National League president A.G. Mills had apparently never heard of Alexander Cartwright, or if they did, completely ignored him and declared a deceased American Army General and Civil War hero by the name of Abner Doubleday to be the inventor of baseball. Unfortunately, the commission had no real evidence to support this conclusion, as a matter of fact there has never been any real evidence that Doubleday had much, if anything, to do with baseball.

The commission based their findings on a letter they had received from an elderly man by the name of Abner Graves who claimed to have been a boyhood friend of Doubleday's.

Graves, a mining engineer from Colorado who was well into his eighties, stated in his letter that; sometime around 1839 (as he put it "either the spring prior to or following the 'Log Cabin and Hard Cider' campaign of General William H. Harrison for the presidency"), he had seen Doubleday directing some "20 to50 boys" around in a Cooperstown N.Y. school yard while they were playing a game of Town Ball, which was a form of Rounders. Because, as Graves claimed, Doubleday had the boys form themselves into teams with eleven players on each side, and that four bases had been used in the game, Graves was convinced that he had been witnessing the actual invention of baseball.

Even though the game Graves described involved the practice of "soaking" runners, or throwing the ball at them to get an out... and the fact that Town Ball had been played in North America for at least seventy-five years prior to 1839, sometimes with definite sides or teams, and sometimes with just one player against the whole school yard, using any number of bases... and furthermore, the fact that Doubleday never in his whole life had been known to even utter the word baseball apparently made no difference to the commission. They accepted Grave's story and, in 1907, declared Abner Doubleday, as the game's inventor.

Doubleday, the gallant Civil War hero, had turned out to be a convenient figurehead for the commission, in their quest to give the game an all-American heritage.

Al Spalding

Albert Goodwill Spalding
Pitcher - Executive - Owner
Sept 2, 1850 - Sept 9, 1915

It could be said of Al Spalding, that, he never met an opportunity to make money out of baseball that he didn't like. Born in Byron Illinois in 1850, Albert Goodwill Spalding grew up to become a star pitcher in baseball's first professional league, the National Association. (From 1871 to 1875, pitching for the Boston Red Stockings he won 207 games and lost only 56... an average of 41 wins per season!)

When the National League came into being in 1876, Spalding initially managed the Chicago club, and then went on to become an executive with the team and then eventually owner of the franchise. He was one of baseball's great entrepreneurs. In 1876, along with his brother and brother in law, he established the firm of A.G. Spaldlng and Brothers which started out as a sporting goods store in Chicago and then evolved into a major manufacturer of sporting goods.

Spalding had no qualms about using his influence as a baseball executive to promote his business (among other things he gave the National League free baseballs, and even paid them a dollar for each dozen they used, in turn for the league designating his ball as the "official" ball of the league... this, of course, helped to create a great demand for Spalding baseballs by the public.

He also became the publisher of the "Official League Book" which carried league rules, and additionally he published "Spalding's Official Base-Ball Guide", an annual collection of team and individual records which was known to feature articles which pushed Spalding's viewpoint on many baseball issues... and helped to sell massive amounts of Spalding sporting equipment.

As a baseball executive he helped to work out the territorial scheme that kept clubs from competing with each other for the same fans, and was instrumental in breaking up the Player's Brotherhood, which had called for the first players' strike in 1890.

Al Spalding organized the great world baseball tour of 1888-89, where he took his Chicago club and players from other teams on a tour around the world in order to promote the great American game of baseball. On the six month junket they visited such places as Australia, Ceylon, Egypt, Italy, Prance and Britain. They played some 42 games before an estimated 200,000 people, and the game itself generally received mixed reviews. After witnessing a baseball exhibition at London's Kensington Oval, Britain's Prince of Wales stated that baseball was "an excellent game" although he considered cricket to be "superior".

Spalding partially retired from baseball in 1901, when he moved to California, joined a religious cult and eventually made an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate.

Spalding also helped to create and promote the ridiculous Doubleday Myth. In 1905, acting on his own authority, Spaldlng put together a commission to investigate the origin of baseball. He remained behind the scenes, pulling all the strings, and two years later this commission came to the remarkable conclusion that a deceased Civil War hero by the name of Abner Doubleday had invented baseball when in fact Doubleday had never, in his whole life, had anything whatsoever to do with the game. Spalding died in Point Loma California in 1915. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

Abner Doubleday

Abner Doubleday

Don't Blame Doubleday!

Just who was Abner Doubleday anyway? Well, he was born in Ballson Spa, N.Y. in 1819, went to school in Auburn N.Y. and then entered the West Point Military Academy in 1839. In a notable military career, Doubleday rose to the rank of General during the Civil War and is credited with firing the first Union shot in defence of Port Sumter. He then went on to distinguish himself in battles at Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg.

Not only is he not known to have ever played baseball, Doubleday, who was also an excellent writer and public speaker, never made a single reference to the game in all of his writings and speeches. Furthermore, after he died all of his diaries were examined and there was no mention of baseball was found there either.

But then, Doubleday never claimed to have invented baseball. He died in 1893, some 14 years before Spalding's commission came to their remarkable conclusion, and he certainly wasn't around to refute their findings.

As baseball historian Harold Peterson so aptly puts it: "Abner Doubleday didn't invent baseball. Baseball invented Abner Doubleday."

Hall of Fame Founded on a Myth

When the Mills Commission published their findings in 1907, it, of course, made headlines in newspapers all across the land, and the Doubleday story was soon accepted by sportswriters and the general public as being the truth.

The Doubleday myth persisted until the mid 1930's when, due to a remarkable series of events, it was finally shot down.

In 1936, construction was underway in the small village of Cooperstown N.Y. for a building which would house a National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was to open in 1939 as part of a celebration to mark the centennial of Abner Doubleday's alleged invention of the game, right there in Cooperstown, one hundred years earlier.

Stephen C. Clark

Stephen C. Clark

The man behind the Hall of Fame was Stephen C. Clark, a wealthy Cooperstown resident and Doubleday myth believer, who, in this monumental endeavor, had obtained the support and cooperation of such baseball notables as Ford Frick, then president of the National League, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and American League President William Harridge.

A few years earlier Clark had established a small baseball museum in Cooperstown. (In the museum, along with other early baseball artifacts, was an old homemade baseball that had been found in an attic trunk in a nearby village. The ball was believed to have once belonged to Abner Graves. It was therefore assumed that Doubleday himself must have at some time actually touched the "magic" ball... and therefore, it became known as the "Doubleday baseball".)

It was also in 1936, three years before they actually had a building, that the Hall of Fame began inducting baseball greats... Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson were the first to be honored.

Cover of Opening Day Program

Cover of Opening Day Program

Early Hall of Fame Inductees

Early Hall of Fame Inductees

This incredible gathering of baseball talent consists of : Top row - left to right - Honus Wagner, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie, George Sisler, Walter Johnson. Bottom row - left to right - Eddie Collins, George Herman "Babe" Ruth, Connie Mack, Cy Young.

Things were looking just great in Cooperstown for the forthcoming combined opening of the new building and commemoration of baseball's "centennial"... an elaborate celebration had been proposed for the summer of 1939. A pageant portraying baseball's historical highlights was planned and an all-star game between some of baseball's all-time great players was to be held. The State of New York had declared Cooperstown to be "the birthplace of baseball" and had helped to publicize the event by printing pamphlets and putting up road signs to that effect. The U.S. Government got into the act by issuing a special postage stamp to commemorate the event.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Centennial celebration...

When news of the forthcoming festivities got out, it caused quite a stir among baseball historians, a number of whom began to publicly declare that the Doubleday story was nothing but pure baloney... the most notable of these baseball scholars was Robert W. Henderson of the New York Public Library who immediately published irrefutable evidence that baseball had indeed been derived from Rounders.

Meanwhile in far off Hawaii, Alexander Cartwright's grandson Bruce heard about the planned celebration. He knew enough about his late ancestor's achievements to fire off a letter to the centennial organizers explaining his grandfather's role in the development of the game.

The centennial organizers researched Cartwrlght's claim and it's legitimacy soon became apparent. As a result, Alexander Cartwright was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1938 for his contributions to the development of the game. (Abner Doubleday, on the other hand, has never been inducted to the Hall of fame.)

The Cartwright revelation did not stop the impending Centennial ceremonies though, over $100,000 had already been invested, so the organizers just toned things down a bit and, in June of 1939, went ahead and held the festivities anyway!

The Doubleday myth, which has never quite died out over the years, is still alive and well in the small friendly village of Cooperstown, where the local merchants do their best to cash in on the three to four hundred thousand visitors who flock there each year to visit the Hall of Fame.

Ever since it's opening, the Hall of Fame, unfortunately has done very little to tell the real story of the origin of baseball and to discredit the Doubleday fable... As a matter of fact they have always promoted the Doubleday story, and still do today.