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The Doubleday myth refers to the belief that the sport of baseball was invented in 1839 by future American Civil War general Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York. Abner Graves presented a claim that Doubleday invented baseball to the Mills Commission, a group formed in 1905 that sought to prove whether the sport originated in the United States or was a variation of rounders. Graves' evidence was accepted by the Commission, and in 1908 it named Doubleday as the creator of baseball. The claim eventually received criticism, and most modern baseball historians consider it to be false. The myth nevertheless led to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum's being located in Cooperstown.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, a dispute arose about the origins of baseball and whether it had been invented in the United States or developed as a variation of rounders, a game played in Great Britain and Ireland. The theory that the sport was created in the U.S. was backed by Chicago Cubs president Albert Spalding and National League president Abraham G. Mills. In 1889, Mills gave a speech declaring that baseball was American, which he said was determined through "patriotism and research"; a crowd of about 300 people responding by chanting "No rounders!" The rounders theory was supported by prominent sportswriter Henry Chadwick, a native of Britain who noted common factors between rounders and baseball in a 1903 article. Chadwick said in his piece that "There is no doubt whatever as to base ball having originated from the two-centuries-old English game of rounders." Spalding disputed Chadwick's article in the next version of his baseball Guide.
In 1905, Spalding called for an investigation into how the sport was invented. Chadwick supported the idea, and later in the year a commission was formed. Spalding instructed the commission to decide between the American game of "Old Cat" and rounders as baseball's predecessor. Seven men served on the commission, including Mills. Spalding chose the committee's members, picking men who supported his theory and excluding supporters of the rounders claim, such as Chadwick. The committee sought information on the beginnings of the sport from members of the public, soliciting feedback in publications. It received numerous letters, primarily from former players. Many of the details they provided pertained to early variations of baseball, but evidence supporting Spalding's theory was lacking. On April 1, 1905, the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper published an article by Spalding that asked for details on the beginnings of the game to be sent to Amateur Athletic Union president James Sullivan, who was responsible for compiling information and presenting it to the commission. Spalding called the rounders theory "pap" and wrote that he would "refuse to swallow any more of it without some substantial proof sauce with it."
Letter by Abner Graves
In response to Spalding's request for information on early baseball in the Beacon Journal, mining engineer Abner Graves wrote a letter stating that he had seen Abner Doubleday create a diagram of a baseball field. Doubleday was an officer for the Union during the American Civil War, who saw action in the Battle of Gettysburg. According to the letter, he set up the first baseball game in approximately 1839, in Cooperstown, New York, The letter, dated April 3, stated that Doubleday had invented baseball as a modified version of town ball, with four bases on the field and batters who attempted to hit tosses from a pitcher standing in a six-foot ring. According to Graves, the first game had matched players from "Otesego academy and Green's Select school". His description indicated that each team had 11 players: the pitcher, a catcher, three basemen in the infield, two further infielders who covered the areas between the bases, and four outfielders. It listed the names of seven players from an early game that Graves claimed to have seen. The April 4 edition of the Beacon Journal included the first story that described the Doubleday legend.
The myth received coverage in the Sporting Life newspaper later in 1905. Spalding wrote a letter to Graves asking for evidence to back up his claim; Graves responded by sending a diagram matching the one he said Doubleday had drawn, along with a letter stating that the original had not been preserved and that most of the players at the time were no longer alive. This correspondence stated that the initial game took place between 1839 and 1841. Although Graves was unable to provide further evidence to back his claims, Spalding supported his version of events. The members of the Mills Commission received the available evidence in October 1907, and Mills wrote a report to Sullivan summarizing the findings on December 30. His report gave Doubleday credit for originating baseball and said that the sport was American in origin, listing 1839 as the year of its creation. Mills said that he understood why Doubleday would make changes to town ball, reducing the number of players in an effort to decrease the risk of injury. He noted that the number of players per team was higher than the nine in modern baseball, but explained this by indicating that he had taken part in games with 11 players per side. Additionally, Mills wrote that he thought Doubleday might have created the modern defensive putout system, which replaced the town ball method in which fielders could hit baserunners with thrown balls to record outs, even though Graves' testimony did not make this claim.
No one else on the committee sent any material to Sullivan after receiving the documentation; one member, Arthur Pue Gorman, had died. The surviving commission members were sent the letter by Mills, which was signed by each of them. Spalding later used the report's acceptance of the Doubleday myth to claim U.S. origins in his baseball history book, America's National Game. Graves' name did not appear in the book; Spalding said that the Doubleday content had come from "a circumstantial statement by a reputable gentleman", quoting Mills, and that he had "nothing to add to [the commission's] report." In his book, Spalding expressed delight that an American Army general had been found to be baseball's creator.
A reporter for The Denver Post interviewed Graves for a 1912 article, which contained a version of the Doubleday story that varied from what had been given to the Mills Commission in several respects. Graves placed the year of the first game as 1840, one year later than Mills had reported. In the interview, he said that he had played in the game, as a "Green College" student. No university of that name in Cooperstown is known to have been in existence; Graves was possibly referencing Major Duff's Classical and Military Academy, an elementary school whose pupils were nicknamed "Duff's Greens". This was perhaps the same as the Green's Select school originally mentioned by Graves. The college claim contradicted a previous letter in which he said he had been at Frog Hollow School, another elementary school, when baseball was created by Doubleday. The reporter did not question Graves' account, which included a statement that the 78-year-old was preparing to play in a local exhibition game. Graves again claimed to have taken part in the first game in a 1916 letter published in The Freeman's Journal.
After the release of Mills' report, which was published in the 1908 version of Spalding's Guide, the belief that Doubleday had invented baseball "gained currency among the general public" in the U.S., according to author Brian Martin. Textbooks recorded the Civil War veteran's creation of the game, as many Americans accepted the idea that it had originated in their country. By 1909, critiques of the report began to appear in the media. In the May 1909 edition of the magazine Collier's, writer William Henry Irwin offered multiple criticisms. First, he expressed the belief that, prior to both Doubleday's purported invention and the existence of rounders, Britain had a sport with the baseball name. In addition, he noted that Doubleday was in West Point, New York, in 1839. That year, he was a United States Military Academy (USMA) plebe. It is unlikely that Doubleday traveled to Cooperstown in 1839, as first-year cadets such as Doubleday were rarely given leave at the time. Also in 1909, The Sporting News' founder, Alfred Henry Spink, received a letter from sportswriter William M. Rankin, which called the Doubleday claims false, citing United States Department of War and West Point records, and said that the New York Knickerbockers had invented baseball in 1845. The articles did little to change popular sentiment at the time.
Many baseball historians have considered the Doubleday story faulty. The recollections of Graves, who presented the story of Doubleday's contributions, have been criticized because Graves was five years old in 1839. Although Spaulding referred to Doubleday and Graves as "playmates" in his submission of evidence to the Mills Commission, Doubleday was more than a decade older than Graves, turning 20 in 1839. Graves also expressed anti-English sentiments in a letter to the Mills Commission, and spent time in an insane asylum late in his life. Doubleday himself made only one mention of baseball in his letters or diaries before his 1893 death; the only time the sport appears in his papers dates from 1871, when he penned a request for equipment. A theory expressed by historian Peter Morris is that Graves was referring to Doubleday's cousin Abner Demas Doubleday, a Cooperstown resident when the events discussed in the letter occurred; but Morris denied that Abner Demas had played a role in baseball's creation. Mills, despite having been around Doubleday during the Civil War and later, mentioned no personal involvement in baseball by Doubleday before Graves' testimony was released. Spalding also had a connection to Doubleday: he financially supported the Theosophical Society, a group in which Doubleday served as a chapter vice president.
Author Robert Elias credits the Doubleday myth for contributing to the idea of American exceptionalism. Elias cites Doubleday's history with the U.S. military, as well as the sense that "having a homegrown sport was important for America's national identity."
An extension of the myth developed later involving the growth of baseball in Mexico. Doubleday, who was in the country as part of the Mexican–American War, was alleged to have organized games for military camps, which drew interest from Mexican spectators.
Despite criticisms of the Doubleday story, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was built in the town that served as the location of Doubleday's alleged first game, Cooperstown. An article in the 1920 edition of the Spalding Baseball Guide supported the idea of a monument to Doubleday in Cooperstown. National League president John Heydler offered his backing for Cooperstown's efforts to purchase the grounds where Doubleday was said to have created baseball. In 1923, the village succeeded in buying the property. A baseball stadium—Doubleday Field—was erected there. Around 1934, a baseball said to be from Graves' family was found and purchased by Stephen Carlton Clark, a powerful figure in Cooperstown who created a museum exhibit around it. Although the myth was criticized after a Hall of Fame had been proposed in connection with the new Cooperstown museum, the Hall was built in that town.
A committee from the New York State Legislature traveled to Cooperstown in 1937, and its subsequent report declared that the town was "the birthplace of baseball" and recommended a 100th anniversary celebration in 1939; events that were held included the dedication of the Hall and an all-star game. Prior to the ceremonies, the Doubleday claims were criticized by multiple parties: author Robert Henderson wrote that rounders and baseball were related, and Alexander Cartwright's son Bruce reported that his father had invented the sport. (Some sources have reported that fourteen years later, in 1953, the United States Congress formally recognized Cartwright as the inventor of modern baseball, but no documentation of such a declaration exists in the Congressional Record.) As part of Bruce Cartwright's efforts, the manager of Honolulu's Chamber of Commerce sent Hall promoter Alexander Cleland a letter that questioned Graves' account. In response, Cleland promised that a "Cartwright Day" would be included in the anniversary events at Cooperstown, which went ahead as scheduled. Harold Seymour wrote, "Some sports columnists pointed out the discrepancy; others got around it as gracefully as possible."
A local motel is also named after Doubleday, but unlike Alexander Cartwright, Doubleday was never inducted into the Hall. Nonetheless, the Hall supported the Doubleday myth for many years. It was written about in numerous publications, and became well-known among fans. The myth has also received the backing of Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who said in 2010 that "I really believe that Abner Doubleday is the 'Father of Baseball.'"
In 1996, the Auburn Tigers Minor League Baseball franchise changed its name to honor Doubleday. More recently, the Hall has made a small step away from the myth; when it announced special events in conjunction with its 75th year of operation in 2013–14, it made the following statement in its official press release:
On June 12, 1939, the National Baseball Museum opened its doors for the first time, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the mythical “first game” that allegedly was played in Cooperstown on June 12, 1839.
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