Peter Takes on History
July 19, 1910
OK, April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire at Fort Sumter, right? Can anyone tell me who fired the first shot of the Civil War for the Union?
OK, kinda obscure, right. So, how about a hint. He’s also the guy who took out a patent and chartered the Cable Car Railway that still runs in San Francisco!
Still no takers? One last hint. He invented baseball.
Right, Abner Doubleday; that’s the name I was looking for … except he didn’t. And he never said he did! The reason we think Abner Doubleday invented baseball is thanks to one of Abner's famous friends who was equal parts greedy, patriotic and lazy.
See, back in the late 1800’s baseball was going pro. Entrepreneurs realized there was money to be made on America’s diamonds and began fielding teams, organizing leagues and charging admission. One sports writer named Henry Chadwick took a special interest in the burgeoning game. As baseball’s first statistician he’s credited with creating box scores and using a K to indicate a strikeout. He invented the batting average and the earned run average. He published the first baseball guide and generally became a champion of the game. Unfortunately, Chadwick sinned. An Englishman, Chadwick had the audacity to suggest that baseball was imported; a derivative of the British game called Rounders.
Chadwicks outrageous claim raised a great hue and cry! Sure, Rounders had a pitcher and batter and if the batter hit the ball and it wasn’t caught in the air, they’d advance around the four bases until they were tagged and forget that half the Englishmen who played Rounders actually called it “Base-Ball.” See, those crazy Brits circled the bases clockwise! Like from 3rd to 2nd to 1st! Not like American Baseball at all!
One baseball executive who got really fired up by Chadwick’s preposterous claim was a man named Albert Spalding, a former pitcher who popularized wearing a special purpose baseball glove … you might call it a “mitt” … decided it would patriotic and good for his business to prove, without a doubt, baseball was a wholly original American game. Plus, yes, that Spalding; the guy famous for making ans selling mits.
So in 1904 Spalding assembled a committee of former players and team owners with his friend A.G. Mills in charge. The Mills Commission then began soliciting stories from the public, stories he hoped would uncover baseball’s American roots. The number of submissions was overwhelming and in just over two years the esteemed panelists said, “Wait. No. This is a mess and I got better things to do.”
Luckily, in 1906, they received a testimonial letter from one Abner Graves. Graves claimed that in 1839, in Cooperstown, NY he had SEEN Abner Doubleday … the same friend of Henry Spalding … that Abner Doubleday … sketch out a baseball diamond in the dirt. Graves added that Doubleday also wrote down a set of rules to the game. So, there you are! Proof positive baseball was conceived and codified in America by … think of the irony … a good friend of Albert Spalding!
OK, so first, Doubleday wasn’t in Cooperstown in 1839. He was at West Pointe. And Abner Doubleday, who wrote extensively, never claimed to be associated with baseball in any way. His NY Times obituary didn’t mention baseball. His good friends said, “No. Doubleday. Never mentioned baseball.”
No one ever checked the story with Doubleday because Doubleday had been dead for 15 years when the Mills Commission came to this remarkable conclusion. And no one ever questioned Abner Graves more carefully because he was kinda hard to reach. See, he murdered his wife and was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane.
But Cooperstown was a picturesque, all-American burg and Doubleday was an all-American Civil War hero so Spalding and the Mills Commission said, "QED. We’ve got a winner! Let's go grab a brew."
Normally, this is where I say, “So, on this day in history, blah, blah, blah” and I tie everything together, right? Not today. And, believe me, I wanted to. I had plenty of ways to go. July 19th is actually a big day in baseball history!
On this day, July 19th, 1909, fans witnessed the first unassisted triple play.
On this day in 1910 Cy Young won his 500th game. Never been equaled.
On this day in 1973 Willie Mays was named an All-Star for the 24th time.
On this day in 1990 Pete Rose was sentenced to 5 months for tax evasion.
And on this day in 1920 Babe Ruth broke his own single season home run record of 30 on his way to 54 that year! Then hit 59 the next year.
I have literally ten more. July 19th, big day!
But, I fell down the Doubleday rabbit hole and learned the baseball origin story they fed me as a child was as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. And, at 3AM the night before a meeting, it's too late to turn around.
Just goes to show ya, as the great Yogi Berra once observed, “If you don’t know where you’re going you might end up someplace else.”