Abner Doubleday

Henry Chadwick, Abner Doubleday And Baseball Myth


COOPERSTOWN–Here I am walking in the footsteps of Abner Doubleday, credited founder of baseball, on the holy ground of this upstate New York community of 2,000 or more souls.

Or not.

There are no buildings with “Abner Doubleday Slept Here” signs. There are no footprints in the sidewalks to follow saying General Doubleday walked this way. That’s because he didn’t. He probably never set foot in Cooperstown. He might not have heard of it. He probably never saw a baseball game, much less invented the sport. The one pleasing tie to Doubleday in town is “Doubleday Field.”

Those who saw the movie “A League of Their Own,” will recognize it. Anyone who saw a Hall of Fame game between Major League clubs before the summer exhibition was dropped, will be familiar with it.

When it comes to sporting invention, Dr. James Naismith has it all over Doubleday. The man who invented basketball wrote out all of the basic rules and that paper is preserved. The place where he first introducted the game–the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA–is well-documented. The circumstances of the first game are described. This is a no doubter.

Baseball, on the other hand, may or may not have been a direct descendent of the English game rounders, may or may not have grown out of cricket, may or may not have been a collaborative undertaking. By all accounts Doubleday led a full life, including fighting in the Civil War, but inventing baseball was not one of his achievements.

For all of that Cooperstown is a baseball town and is the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The link is not going away, even if it was established on specious grounds. The town has come to terms with what it is, not what it supposedly was. The Abner connection is more fairy tale than history.

Supposedly, genius that he was, Doubleday, then a cadet at West Point, wandered out to a pasture in Cooperstown in 1939 and designed the first field for baseball as we know it, only with 11 players on a side. This contradicts with the facts of Doubleday’s whereabouts, age, and doings at the time.

However, in 1905, a commission was created under the auspices of Albert Spalding, one-time star pitcher and sporting goods manufacturer, to determine the origins of the sport. They very much wanted to prove it was an American game. Out of nowhere appeared a former Cooperstown resident named Abner Graves, who submitted two letters, claiming in great detail exactly how the general did his country a great service that was not militarily-related.

Either Graves was goofy or an intentional liar, but the commission bought the story and that’s how Cooperstown became the center of the baseball universe, opening the hall in 1939, celebrating the 100 years since Doubleday’s supposed invention.

Meanwhile, in the New York City area, a fellow named Henry Chadwick really was inventing baseball was we came to know it. Chadwick (oh, horrors) was born in england in 1824 and moved to the United States when he was 13. Later, he became a sports writer for the New York Times and Brooklyn Eagle. While in later years the poppycock that Doubleday invented baseball would become a well-known myth, Chadwick became known as “The Father of Baseball.”

It was Chadwick, who missed cricket in his home country, who when witnessing baseball had a eureka moment in 1856. An enthusiastic sports fan of all stripes, Chadwick believed baseball could become the national passion, much as cricket was in England. He did not merely just throw out the idea, but went the extra mile to see that it happened.

Chadwick began writing game summaries for another publication. He invented statistics, including batting average, hits, home runs, and total bases. In 1871, two years after the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional team, Chadwick founded the first professional baseball league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. By 1876, that organization had morphed into the National League that we still have today.

One of Chadwick’s crowning achievements and lasting contributions was the invention of the box score. The first box score was used at the Philadelphia Athletics-Chicago game of June 8, 1871. Philadelphia won, 15-11, and the box score also included fielding statistics. The box score had been a work in progress for some time before that. Originally averages were called “batting analyses.” Chadwick changed the name to “batting averages” by 1861. And by the time the National League was founded averages were in vogue in much the same way they are today.

To walk in Doubleday’s genuine footsteps takes some efforts–he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, so you could start there. To walk in Chadwick’s footsteps one merely has to flip to the sports page of the newspaper and read who went oh-for-four.

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Tags: A League Of Their Own Abner Doubleday Abner Graves Albert Spalding Baseball Hall Of Fame Civil War Cooperstown Cricket Doubleday Field Dr. James Naismith Henry Chadwick National Association Of Professional Base Ball Players NL West Popular Rounders Springfield YMCA