Another Unpopular Essay on Sports History…
Question: Who invented baseball?
On April 2, 1908, Chicago Cubs president Albert Spalding made an announcement of earth-shattering importance to the game of baseball. Spalding was a huge name in the game, having played for over a decade before helping form the National League, and then player/managed his Chicago White Stockings to the championship in the inaugural season of 1876. (Not uncoincidentally, that same year Spalding Sporting Goods, still the sole official supplier of baseballs to the major leagues, was founded.)
And just prior to the opening of one Major League Baseball’s most exciting seasons ever, Spalding announced the findings of the Mills Commission:
“I claim that the game of baseball is entirely of American origin, and has no relation to or connection with any game of any other country, except insofar as all games of ball have a certain similarity and family relationship.”
Specifically, the commission had “discovered” that a Civil War general named Abner Doubleday had written the rules for official organized baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. This game of legend would have been played seven years before the acknowledged first official game between the New York-based Mutuals and Knickerbockers at Elysian Fields in New Jersey.
“It certainly appeals to all Americans’ pride to have had the great national game of baseball created and named by a major general in the United States Army, and to have that same game played […] by the soldiers of the Civil War, who, at the conclusion of the war, disseminated baseball throughout the length and breadth of the United States and thus gave to the game its national character.”
It certainly was quite the appealing story for a country bursting with a new patriotic pride espoused by President Teddy Roosevelt.
It was also *a complete fabrication.
The Miles Commission was created almost entirely in response to a single newspaper article by England-born Henry Chadwick, the first great baseball writer and revolutionary statistician. In 1904, Chadwick wrote that the first organized team was that of the Philadelphia Olympic Club. The Olympic played townball, which
“…was simply an American edition of the English game of rounders, which i used to play 65 years ago, when a schoolboy in England.”
Almost from the start, holes in the Doubleday story were easily punched: in 1839, for example, Doubleday was a 20-year-old student at West Point Military Academy – 150 miles away from Cooperstown.
In fact, 90 years passed before any tangible link between baseball and Doubleday was found by a Civil War historian in 1998: A requisition form for baseballs and bats for his troops in training. Still, Doubleday was one of the great diarists of the 19th century and in some 60 volumes of personal journals covering most of his adult life plus his known personal correspondence, not a single mention of baseball is made.
The previous Unpopular Essay on Sports History recounted the aggrandizement of William Webb Ellis, ostensibly the creator of rugby football, albeit accidentally. As with creation of the Doubleday myth, the Webb Ellis story was a product of a commission of gatekeeper-types looking to keep its sport rooted in local tradition. The commission for each “discovery” based key conclusions on a single eyewitness’s testimony decades after the genesis event took place, where the setting for each instantly gained in international prestige, particularly the village of Cooperstown, since 1937 home to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
And in our present day neither story is widely believed in its country of origin; artificially-created historical events seem to have little sticking power, and by the 100th anniversary of the National League’s formation in 1976, the Doubleday story was laughable.
So who invented baseball? One answer might be simply “no one,” which would be to acknowledge the game as a product of accidental evolution and slow standardization of rules – in a uniquely American way, even, if the patriotic angle is needed.
And the more interesting question might be: Do sports even need origin stories?
Next time: The greatest sport ever invented…