Abner Doubleday, Baseball, and the 151st Anniversary of the Civil War


Today, April 12, 2012, is a sort of convergence point for a number of my most valued hobbies and interests. As a Civil War history enthusiast, it marks the 151st anniversary of the essential beginning of that 4-year struggle. The first Union shoot – a cannon blast from Fort Sumter in response to the Confederate attack in Charleston Harbor – was aimed by Captain Abner Doubleday, about whom I’ve written most of a book. And Doubleday was for many years considered the father of the great, great American game of Baseball – hence the location of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

So there is no way I can let this date go by without a posting on Doubleday and baseball. And since this writing is going to end up longer than most, here is the conclusion for anyone who can’t read to the end: Doubleday was an effective Civil War General who had nothing to do with inventing the game; he was more of a boy scout than a little leaguer; he would have demanded credit for it if he did invent it; baseball is more about evolution than creation; Doubleday may have only ever written the word “baseball” once in his life.

If I ever do get around to publishing my book on Doubleday, the baseball part of his story will be the shortest chapter. I knew when going into the project that the General had no serious connection, but no book on Doubleday could be complete without at least some explanation as to how his name got attached to the great American pastime.

Part of my research took me to the archives room at the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005. A summer intern met me at the door and escorted me to the inner sanctum. There, an archivist, hearing what I was interested in researching, said to me, “I’ll get you the Doubleday file, but I’ll tell you right now there’s not much in it.”

Whereas Abner Doubleday would ultimately write extensively in the latter years of his life, a subject he did not address was the origins of baseball. But others surely have and continue to do so today. Though now largely discredited as the inventor of the game, he remains a sort of Paul Bunyan or John Henry folklore figure for the sport.Baseball’s founding is in fact more about “evolution” than “creation”—having evolved from a variety of bat and ball games played in American towns probably for even decades before Doubleday.

So how does an admittedly non-athletic, even somewhat portly person of military fame, who never claimed to be associated with a sport that had gained public and professional prominence long before his death, end up as the George Washington of the great American pastime? Only a convoluted storyline could yield such a result.

In 1905, sporting equipment manufacturer Albert Spalding determined it was in the public interest to establish definitively the origin of the great game of baseball. This baseball executive and former star pitcher assembled a group of like-minded associates to research the ancestry of the sport. The “like-minded” aspect of this group defined a joint hope that baseball was truly fully American, owing no connection to the English children’s game called “Rounders.”

The chairman of the commission was National League President A.G. Mills. Other members included several men associated with the sport, and two United States Senators. A vast amount of communications came to the committee, including a letter from an Albert Graves, a mining engineer in Colorado. Graves claimed to be a Coopersburg boyhood friend of Abner Doubleday, and said that the Civil War General in 1839 devised a scheme for changing the game of “Town Ball” to include a diamond formation, four bases, and a certain number of players with specific positions.

The final report of the commission was issued on December 30, 1907, and concluded that “the first scheme for playing baseball, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839.” The notion of the game being invented by an all-American war hero native of New York State caught on with the public.

Almost immediately, there were those who disputed the findings by noting that the alleged Doubleday innovations were in wide use prior to 1839. But their voices could not compete with the official version of the commission, and the identification of Doubleday with the sport was permanently cast. Added to this was the 1934 discovery of an old baseball inside a trunk in the attic of a home having some connection to the Doubleday family. The ball became known as the “Doubleday Baseball.” Stephen Clark, a Cooperstown resident and philanthropist purchased the ball for five dollars and displayed it with other baseball items in a room of the Village Club. A business partner of Clark, by the name of Alexander Cleland, proposed the idea of a National Baseball Museum. National League president Ford Frick and other baseball executives supported the proposal, and before long a supply of baseball memorabilia began to collect in Cooperstown.

In that there was to soon be in 1939 a centennial anniversary of the declared invention of the sport, Ford Frick and other baseball executives proposed that a Hall of Fame be created to honor the great players of the game. The Baseball Writer’s Association of America was tasked with the selection of those from the history of the sport who should be the first honorees. Five famous players were selected: Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. A total of 25 players were elected by the time of the grand centennial celebration in 1939.

Due to the publicity of the Hall of Fame being established, a new round of investigations and assertions by baseball historians proved the Doubleday connection to the founding of baseball to be a myth. The fact is that the game has a variety of roots—not only to the game of Rounders, but also to a wide assortment of bat and ball games played in towns for decades before the alleged incident in Cooperstown in 1839. An individual name more justly appropriate to associate with the “creation” of baseball is Alexander Cartwright, who in 1845 published a set of baseball rules that were widely adopted. Associated with the earliest forms of professional baseball clubs, particularly the New York Knickerbockers, the first recorded game was played in 1846 in Hoboken, New Jersey. The National Association of Base Ball Players was the first organized league in 1858.

In recent years, other discoveries of early forms of baseball have been uncovered—most notably a Pittsfield, Massachusetts bylaw from 1791 that prohibits the playing of baseball within 80 yards of the windows of a new town meeting house.

Part of the debunking of the Graves claim is that he was roughly 14 years younger than Abner Doubleday—though Doubleday did have a cousin with an identical name who was the same age as Graves, and lived in the same community. The incident Graves recalled may well involve a mistaken identity. Such a scenario as Graves penned was surely the mere replication of events in many locations where boys shared their knowledge of the growing codification of the rules of the game. Doubleday was nowhere near Cooperstown in that summer of 1839. And were Abner Doubleday the inventor of the game, he would have never allowed the issue of the origin of baseball to be disputed to the extent that it was in his lifetime, without taking claim for its beginnings. Doubleday had a highly advanced sense of justice and credit—so much so that it became problematic for him in his late Army career. He never claimed credit nor mentioned any affection for the sport in his many writings; and nothing is said upon the matter in his obituary or remembrances written by others who knew him.

One reference actually does exist of Abner Doubleday penning the word “baseball.” Near the end of his military career in 1871 he was stationed at Fort McKavett, Texas as the colonel in command of the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment. This was one of four army units that were entirely African-American. To the Army’s Adjutant General in Washington he wrote:

“I have the honor to apply for permission to purchase for the Regimental library a few portraits of distinguished generals, Battle pictures, and some Rogers groups of Statuary, particularly those relative to the actions of the Colored population of the south. This being a colored regiment, ornaments of this kind seem very appropriate. I would also like to purchase baseball implements for the amusement of the men and a Magic Lantern for the same purpose. The fund is ample and I think these expenditures would add to the happiness of the men.”

Referring to bats, balls and bases as “implements” hardly sounds like the vocabulary of the founder of the sport! The Rogers Groups of Statuary referenced a very popular form of durable plaster sculpture. The images pictured ordinary people performing ordinary deeds of life—depicting amusements, social customs, literary topics, historical figures, etc. The statues varied in size from eight inches to forty-six inches. Practically anyone of means in Victorian America possessed them, and the announcement of a new issue was cause for much publicity. The social interests and educational concerns of Doubleday may be seen in this request for the benefit of his regiment. The “Magic Lantern” was the name of an immensely popular 1870 invention that may be thought of as the ancestor to the modern slide projector.

Though Doubleday would surely prefer to have been remembered for his military accomplishments and his advanced sense of social justice, he has instead been remembered more for the sport of baseball, and Cooperstown, New York. It has frequently been said that if baseball was not invented in Cooperstown, it should have been. Cooperstown is the classic All-American town—with tree-lined streets of Colonial and Victorian homes, and a Main Street of storefront shops and merchants. Situated on the south shore of Glimmerglass Lake, the town reverberates from an enchanted past. Beyond what Abner Doubleday’s dubious legend has brought to the community, it factually stands in memorial to the life and work of James Fenimore Cooper—the famed author of The Last of the Mohicans, and the son of the founder of the town. The natural beauty of the lake, woods, and mountains easily conjure the settings for Cooper’s Leatherstocking Talesabout Indians, settlers, pioneering, and wild animals.

But James Fenimore Cooper does not even get to first base compared to the plethora of acknowledgements of Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown. The brick ballpark built in 1938-1939 in Phinney’s Pasture (the actual location of the alleged moment of creation) by the Work Projects Administration is named “Doubleday Field,” and serves as the location for a yearly exhibition game between two professional teams. Nearby are the Doubleday Batting Range and the Doubleday Club House Shop full of souvenirs. The visitor may enjoy an ice cream cone at the Doubleday Dip. For a meal, there is the Doubleday Café, complete with a large, framed, crude drawing of a corpulent Abner Doubleday in military garb holding—not a sword or revolver—but a baseball.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is the frequent brunt of criticism for making too much of this spurious heritage, and thereby perpetuating it. The fact remains that the legend, though now proven devoid of substance, did account for the location of what has become a major museum and library attraction for visitors from across America and around the world. The legend, as a story, must be embraced. Indeed, the Hall of Fame writes that the events recorded by Abner Graves “capture that point in time when rapid changes in the game of town ball arrived in one typical American community and caused a minor revolution on the sandlot.”


Abner Doubleday did “throw out the first pitch”—but not in the game of baseball. Rather, it was the first salvo of the Civil War at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. As political columnist and baseball fan extraordinaire George Will notes:

Precisions about origins is appropriate in the national pastime of a nation that knows precisely when it got going: July 4, 1776. Not that there hasn’t been a rhubarb about that. Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863 made a point of pinpointing the nation’s birth fourscore and seven years earlier, at the Declaration of Independence. He did so because some wily Confederates were arguing that the country came into existence in 1789, with the ratification of the Constitution, which was, they said, a compact among sovereign states that therefore retained a right to secede.

Lincoln had sound reasoning and, more important, the bigger army, so his view prevailed. It did so with the help of General Abner Doubleday, who, before he fought at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter. So in a sense he really did start something. Just not something as important as baseball.  <<George F. Will, Bunts, (NY: Touchstone, 1998), 273>>