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  • Mills' Commission

    Henry Chadwick wrote an article decreeing baseball as the evolutionary cousin of the British game of rounders. Al Spalding, along with some other Americans, took offense. It came at a point in United States history when the country was emerging economically and trying to flex its muscles as a force in the international scene. The country was seeking its identity.

    A commission was formed to examine the sport’s origin. Former National League president A.G. Mills led the group of long-time baseball men and high-profile governors and U.S. senators. They met sporadically for three years.

    Ultimately, Mills was persuaded by communications from Cooperstown native Abner Graves who claimed that his childhood friend Abner Doubleday had designed the field and set the rules for the game’s first contest in the tiny New York community. Spurring the ethnocentrism, Doubleday was an American hero, a Union general during the Civil War with a command at Gettysburg. More importantly, he was once Mills’ commanding officer. Thus, the “Father of Baseball” was born with the December 30, 1907 report. The nation’s pastime now had a purely American flavor. Fact or fiction, it was a good story.

  • #2
    I thought I'd bump this up as it pertains to Abner Doubleday. It bothers me that his possible role in baseball's formation is ridiculed based on his attendance at West Point during the summer of 1839.

    Supposing his friend Abner Graves was correct that Doubleday was in Cooperstown and did draw out a diamond as well as teach the players a new set of rules. What if it wasn't the summer of 1839 but during the summer of 1838 or 1837? How often do we read a story from an oldtimer that has a date wrong? Doubleday was bright enough to do it and he did live in Cooperstown, but I don't know the exact dates when he lived there.

    Does anyone know if research has been done which proves that Abner Doubleday never invented baseball while he was a boy in Cooperstown? There can't be very much evidence or first hand accounts. Probably no newspapers and nobody else from Cooperstown came forward to support or diagree with Abner Graves.
    Last edited by TonyK; 09-18-2007, 01:25 PM.
    "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
    "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."

    Comment


    • #3
      Originally posted by TonyK View Post
      Does anyone know if research has been done which proves that Abner Doubleday never invented baseball while he was a boy in Cooperstown?
      Your question presumes that baseball was "invented". There were bat and ball games played since time immemorial. Some versions of these were called "base ball" since the mid-1700s. There are references to "base ball" in the United States since at least 1791. In 1823 there was a newspaper account of a "base ball" club playing in New York City. And so on.

      Any account of the game that has it "invented" is based on the assertion that some person modified an existing game so radically that it is fundamentally unlike what came before. There is a long tradition of such assertions, with the modification usually ascribed to either Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright. A notable feature of these assertions is that they are a bit unclear about what exactly this modification was. Specific claims tend to end up embarrassed, when they are shown to have existed previously.

      There are in fact some distinctive features of what became the modern game: foul territory, three-out innings, and tagging runners and bases rather than throwing the ball at the runner. Are these features so different from those found in other forms of the game as to set the modern game uniquely apart? One could make this argument, but I have never seen this done by anyone who also showed evidence of having actually examined the other forms. If someone wants to take a shot at this, I would be interested to see it.

      But this probably isn't what you really meant. What, I suspect, you mean to talk about is that form of the game which led to the modern game. Perhaps the peculiar aspects of the game developed on Cooperstown some time in the late 1830s.

      The rules of the game are solidly documented from 1845, in New York City, to the present. But perhaps this form made the leap from Cooperstown to New York City in the years immediately before 1845. So what is the evidence? There is virtually none. There is a story about a mysterious Mr. Wadsworth who brought the rules to NYC, but this story evaporates in the light of day. The leap from Cooperstown is purely speculative connecting of the dots.

      But we still have Abner Graves's letter. How can we interpret it? (Would it be petty to point out that Graves, in addition to being old, was insane? No, really: he was insane. This isn't just name-calling. But let's suppose there is a kernal of truth to it.) There really isn't anything to interpret. An older boy introduced a new form of a familiar game to his friends. It is well established that there were numerous local forms, so "a new form" need merely mean "new to his friends". No inventing need be invoked.

      What are the alternatives? Well, there was the interview in 1887 of William Wheaton, who had been president of the Knickerbockers. He tells of a group of young professionals in New York City looking for a form of exercise. They chose baseball for various reasons, but adapted the rules (especially tagging) to better fit their needs and formed a club, the Gothams. This was in 1837. Some years later the club had grown to an unwieldy size, so a new club split off from it: the Knickerbockers.

      Which account is more credible? There are external reasons to favor the Wheaton account, but even apart from that Wheaton was a direct participant in events for an extended time during his adulthood, with no obvious agenda to push. Graves recounted a single event that happened when he was a boy. (Oh, and Wheaton? Not insane.)

      The thing about the Doubleday story is that there is no there there. It simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Furthermore, it never did. People who pay attention have always known that it was bogus. It has the force of Tradition behind it, and for some people that is enough. But Tradition is all it has for it.

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      • #4
        "Your question presumes that baseball was "invented". There were bat and ball games played since time immemorial. Some versions of these were called "base ball" since the mid-1700s. There are references to "base ball" in the United States since at least 1791. In 1823 there was a newspaper account of a "base ball" club playing in New York City. And so on."

        I can't believe I used that word as it wasn't what I meant. There are also references to "base-ball" etc. in Europe during this same time period.


        "An older boy introduced a new form of a familiar game to his friends. It is well established that there were numerous local forms, so "a new form" need merely mean "new to his friends". No inventing need be invoked."

        I know little about this so excuse me if I appear ignorant. Graves told the commission that Abner Doubleday, an older boy, intorduced a new form of the game to him and their friends. Is there even a faint possibility that this happened a summer or two before 1839 when Doubleday lived in Cooperstown?
        "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
        "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by TonyK View Post
          Is there even a faint possibility that this happened a summer or two before 1839 when Doubleday lived in Cooperstown?
          I don't know enough of the personal histories of the parties involved to say. Taken at face value, sure: you can tweek the fact set until you get something physically possible. You might even be able to do with in a way that isn't implausible.

          I get nervous about this sort of thing because it looks dangerously like an attempt to revive the Doubleday story. The real point to my previous response is that even if everything Graves said is gospel truth, it still doesn't add up to "Abner Doubleday invented baseball" or even some weaker version of that. All it really adds up to is that Graves recalled baseball in Cooperstown when he was a boy. This is a useful data point, but nothing extraordinary. Baseball is attested in many places at about that time.

          Here is a thought experiment. Suppose that something turned up showing that Doubleday and Graves were in Cooperstown and playing baseball in, say, 1837. Suppose that some responsible and informed historian published a carefully worded article, putting this discovery in context and explaining what it does and does not establish regarding the history of baseball. What would the newspaper headlines say? I'll give you good odds they would announce new proof that Abner Doubleday invented baseball. This is why I get twitchy about Cooperstown. The Graves account is not nothing, but it isn't all that much and it isn't anything more than are numerous other accounts from other places. But nuance gets lost when you talk about it.

          (The same, by the way, is true of the Cartwright version of the story. I have seen otherwise intelligent people argue for accepting that Cartwright invented baseball, on the grounds that Cartwright, unlike Doubleday, was actually connected in some way with baseball.)

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          • #6
            "Here is a thought experiment. Suppose that something turned up showing that Doubleday and Graves were in Cooperstown and playing baseball in, say, 1837. Suppose that some responsible and informed historian published a carefully worded article, putting this discovery in context and explaining what it does and does not establish regarding the history of baseball. What would the newspaper headlines say? I'll give you good odds they would announce new proof that Abner Doubleday invented baseball. This is why I get twitchy about Cooperstown. The Graves account is not nothing, but it isn't all that much and it isn't anything more than are numerous other accounts from other places. But nuance gets lost when you talk about it."

            You are correct and ESPN would have it on Breaking News with reporters standing by on the exact field where Doubleday told Graves and his pals about a new game he had thought up while slopping the hogs that morning.

            It bothers me that almost everybody dismisses it based on the fact that Abner Doubleday was at West Point the entire summer of 1839. So what if he was?

            My hunch is either Abner Graves made the whole thing up, or the kids did sit down one day and changed the game they were playing. Maybe Doubleday was the leader of the group so Graves credited him with their innovations?
            "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
            "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by rrhersh View Post
              I don't know enough of the personal histories of the parties involved to say. Taken at face value, sure: you can tweek the fact set until you get something physically possible. You might even be able to do with in a way that isn't implausible.

              I get nervous about this sort of thing because it looks dangerously like an attempt to revive the Doubleday story. The real point to my previous response is that even if everything Graves said is gospel truth, it still doesn't add up to "Abner Doubleday invented baseball" or even some weaker version of that. All it really adds up to is that Graves recalled baseball in Cooperstown when he was a boy. This is a useful data point, but nothing extraordinary. Baseball is attested in many places at about that time.

              Here is a thought experiment. Suppose that something turned up showing that Doubleday and Graves were in Cooperstown and playing baseball in, say, 1837. Suppose that some responsible and informed historian published a carefully worded article, putting this discovery in context and explaining what it does and does not establish regarding the history of baseball. What would the newspaper headlines say? I'll give you good odds they would announce new proof that Abner Doubleday invented baseball. This is why I get twitchy about Cooperstown. The Graves account is not nothing, but it isn't all that much and it isn't anything more than are numerous other accounts from other places. But nuance gets lost when you talk about it.

              (The same, by the way, is true of the Cartwright version of the story. I have seen otherwise intelligent people argue for accepting that Cartwright invented baseball, on the grounds that Cartwright, unlike Doubleday, was actually connected in some way with baseball.)
              The HOF'e website tap dances around the story's facts but indicates that Graves wrote more than one letter to the Mills Commission. If he were mad I'd think sooner or later someone might have noticed it in his writing.

              According to the HOF's view of Graves' letters, Abner Doubleday drew a diamond in the dirt with a stick and indicated where 4 bases should go. He also limited the number of players. It does seem like a step up from town ball to base ball. It is interesting that no other improvements to town ball were mentioned by Graves.
              "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
              "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."

              Comment


              • #8
                Regarding Graves's insantiy, a few years after he wrote the letter to the Mills commission he shot his wife and spent the rest of his life in an asylum for the criminally insane. Of course this doesn't mean his letter was factually incorrect, but it doesn't add credibility.

                Perhaps more to the point, I looked up more biographical information on Graves, and he was born in 1834. It is at best barely plausible that he accurately remembered an event from nearly seventy years earlier, when he was five years old. Pushing the events back makes them more plausible for Doubleday, but impossible for Graves.

                As for the claim about the "diamond", discussion of the "diamond" replacing the "square" is a common feature of early writing on the development of baseball. This is really rather curious, because the baseball "diamond" actually is a square, but conventionally depicted with a corner at the bottom rather than a side.

                Early forms of baseball had two types of bases: either flat objects or stakes. If the bases were flat, the batter typically was placed at the final base and attempted to make a complete circuit. If the bases were stakes, this presents an obvious problem. (Imagine swinging the bat with a stake for home.) So the batter was moved to the first base side. When the Massachusetts rules were formalized, he was placed halfway between fourth and first base. So the difference between the "diamond" of the NY game and the "square" of the Mass. game was really just the sort of bases used. So any version with four flat bases would qualify as a "diamond", and indeed there is a published example of his configuration from an earlier book of children's games.

                For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, the "diamond" quickly took on iconic status. You can find headlines from the 1870s where "diamond" is used to indicate a baseball story, and you can find columns of short items of baseball news with titles like "Diamond Dust". My guess is that this, in combination with a memory of the conventional depiction of the Mass. game "square", led to the common trope about the diamond-shaped field in baseball history. But it is largely nonsensical.

                As for the claim that Doubleday standardized the number of players on a side, this is very implausible. Standardized team size is a characteristic of organized competition between clubs. The Knickerbocker rules were primarily meant for intra-club play, and did do not include a set number of players. The club's scorebook survives, and it too shows that most games were not played with nine on a side. In unorganized children's play such as would be found in Cooperstown, standardized team sizes would be absurd. As many would play as showed up. Where you see set sizes appear is when you have formal rules used by multiple clubs. The clubs can negotiate the number for each match, as in the Massachusetts game, or there can be a standard number, as developed in the New York game and in Philadelphia town ball (where there were eleven on a side). So we have a choice between Cooperstown developing a very unlikely characteristic (but which would fit the needs of clubs decades later, and which would disappear for decades until this need arose) or Graves being wrong. Without really convincing additional evidence, this is a slam dunk for "Graves was wrong."

                Richard Hershberger

                Comment


                • #9
                  "Regarding Graves's insantiy, a few years after he wrote the letter to the Mills commission he shot his wife and spent the rest of his life in an asylum for the criminally insane. Of course this doesn't mean his letter was factually incorrect, but it doesn't add credibility.

                  Perhaps more to the point, I looked up more biographical information on Graves, and he was born in 1834. It is at best barely plausible that he accurately remembered an event from nearly seventy years earlier, when he was five years old. Pushing the events back makes them more plausible for Doubleday, but impossible for Graves."

                  So Graves went from being a very credible witness for the Mills Commission to being another Mark Fuhrman after killing his wife. It's funny that I picture him living up in the mining area in Colorado, in deep winter snow, and suddenly he snaps and goes after the missus like Jack Nicholsen in the Shining.

                  If the 1839 year was accurate then it's a stretch to think a five-year old would remember much about what the older teenagers were doing. So if you can't go back earlier (since Graves would be too young), then why can't you go forward a year or two?

                  Say to 1840 or 1841 or 1842 when Abner Doubleday was still at West Point, but he may have returned to Cooperstown in the summer. It makes even more sense to me because he could have learned of a version of town ball from other cadets or instructors and brought the idea back home. Graves would have been older too.

                  I would like to know more about the facts since all of this is mere speculation.
                  "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
                  "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by TonyK View Post
                    I would like to know more about the facts since all of this is mere speculation.
                    I honestly don't get what you are trying for here. The entire exercise is speculation. Even if you finally conceive a version of the Graves story that is not inconsistent with external facts, it will be purely speculative.

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by rrhersh View Post
                      I honestly don't get what you are trying for here. The entire exercise is speculation. Even if you finally conceive a version of the Graves story that is not inconsistent with external facts, it will be purely speculative.
                      For starters, what the letters back and forth between Graves and the Commission actually said. Did they try and pin him down to a specific year for example? I'd also like to know more about Abner Doubleday's whereabouts between 1837 and 1842, especially in the summertime. Finally, what info is available about Cooperstown baseball in the 1840's...was it NY ball or not?

                      I'm a Doubting Thomas and unless I see it first hand then I'm not convinced.
                      "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
                      "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        I seem to remember reading somewhere that Doubleday kept a journal his whole life, and never mentioned baseball or anything closely related to it. This would seem to point toward a non-involvement in the early days of basball.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          "307) 1839 – Graves Letters of 1905 Say that Doubleday Invented Base Ball.
                          Abner Doubleday, who was to become a Civil War notable, is much later (1905) is said to have “invented” baseball at Cooperstown, New York, according to the findings of the Mills Commission (1905-1907), a group of baseball magnates appointed by the American and National League Presidents to investigate the origins of baseball. The Commission bases its findings on letters received from Abner Graves, a resident of Cooperstown in his childhood. The Commission’s findings are soon discredited by historians who proclaim the “Doubleday Invention” to be entirely a myth.
                          The Doubleday game, according to Graves’ offerings, retained the plugging of runners, eleven players per team, and flat bats that were four inches wide. Graves sees the main improvement of the Doubleday game that it limited the size of teams, while town ball permitted “twenty to fifty boys in the field.”
                          Graves believed that Abner Doubleday was 16 or 17 years old when he laid out his improved game [in fact, Doubleday was 20 in 1839]. Graves himself declined to fix a year to the Doubleday plan, suggesting that it might have occurred in 1839, 1840, or 1841. In choosing 1839, the Commission rested its story on the memory of a boy who was then 5 years old.

                          -Letters from Abner Graves to the Mills Commission, April 3, 1905 and November 17, 1905."

                          I will provide the link to the source.
                          "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
                          "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/Fat.2.06.htm

                            There are some fascinating references to the earliest forms of baseball and every year new ones are being added to the list.
                            "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
                            "You'se Got The Eye Of An Eagle."

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Wall Street Journal 7/19/2001

                              TWO NEWLY AVAILABLE LETTERS, for many years thought lost to history, shed important light on one of America's enduring myths -- that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839. The letters, among papers released last week to baseball historians by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, were from scrapbooks kept by or on behalf of Albert Spalding, one of baseball's leading pioneers. The two original letters, from one Abner Graves, are the sole historical basis for the tale of Doubleday and the "invention" of baseball.

                              The early history of baseball is fairly straightforward. Baseball traces its origins back to the 17th-century English game of rounders. Rounders, in turn, was Americanized as town ball, which evolved into baseball. (The term "base-ball" was used as early as 1744 in London, and 1822 in America, to refer, more than likely, to rounders or town ball).

                              Baseball, in more or less recognizable form, first took root among a small group of wealthy New Yorkers who played in Manhattan starting in 1842 and, beginning in 1846, on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, N.J., adjusting many of the rules as they went along. In 1845, they formed the Knickerbocker club. While quite a few individuals played important roles, the leading figure in these pivotal years was Alexander Joy Cartwright.

                              So much for actual history.

                              The first important historian of baseball was an Englishman named Henry Chadwick. In 1881, Chadwick became the editor of the annual guides to the sport published by Spalding, a 19th-century star pitcher, founder of the Chicago White Sox, co-founder of the National League and a sporting-goods dealer.

                              Chadwick's first "Spalding Guide," in 1881, opined that baseball had evolved from rounders; Spalding had taken the same position himself in his 1878 guide. In the 1903 guide, Chadwick elaborated on this history and declared that baseball had begun with a form of town ball played in Philadelphia in 1833 -- making it 70 years old at the time of his writing.

                              But Spalding had other ideas. In his own 1905 guide, he asserted that baseball had not evolved at all. It had been invented -- by the Knickerbockers, in 1845, making it 60 years old, not 70. And, even more important, Spalding said, baseball was not some un-American British import, or the derivation of one, but an original American creation.

                              To resolve the debate he had started with his own foreign-born editor over whether his sport was itself foreign-born, Spalding named a committee. The committee chairman was Abraham Mills, a former National League president, by then a vice president of Otis Elevator.

                              Mills took his task seriously and cast his net widely. But his biggest catch came by way of Spalding himself. In 1907 Spalding provided Mills with correspondence conducted in 1905 with Graves, a former resident of Cooperstown.

                              Abner Graves, age 71 and by then living in Denver, wrote that he had witnessed the invention of baseball, in his hometown, by Abner Doubleday. Doubleday was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and later a minor hero of the Civil War, during which he had served at Fort Sumter and Gettysburg. Graves vividly recalled details about Doubleday's rules and his explanation of them to his fellow townsmen, including the location in Cooperstown where Graves supposedly drew a diagram of the first baseball diamond, with four bases at the corners, in the dirt.

                              Doubleday's baseball, Graves wrote, included 11 men on each of two teams, with four outfielders, five infielders, a pitcher and a catcher. Batters wielded flat bats.

                              But the newly released Graves letters show that many of the other details in them do not square with solid facts from other sources:

                              -- Although Doubleday was at West Point in 1839, Graves recalled him in one letter as a "boy pupil at Green's Select School," and in another as a student at Otsego Academy.

                              -- Although Doubleday was older than 20 when he allegedly invented baseball, Graves recalled him as 16 or 17.

                              -- At first Graves recalled the year of Doubleday's eureka moment as "either the spring prior, or following the `Log Cabin & Hard Cider' campaign of General Harrison for President," in which Graves's father had played an active part, i.e. in 1840 or 1841. Later Graves wrote that it had been "either 1839, 1840 or 1841." Graves never narrowed his assertion to any one year. (Spalding and Mills may have settled on 1839 based on an account of Graves's story in "Sporting Life," a leading baseball journal of the day.)

                              Graves did share Spalding's motivation. "I would rather have Uncle Sam declare war on England and clean her up than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball," Graves wrote Spalding.

                              But Graves offered no evidence in support of his account other than his own 65-year-old memories of something that had ostensibly occurred when he was five, six or seven years old. His memories were not corroborated. Graves was never interviewed in person.

                              No record was found of Doubleday's having ever mentioned the matter to anyone, but records at West Point do establish that Cadet Doubleday, then a plebe, could not have left the Point and visited Cooperstown during the spring of 1839. And an alumni-magazine obituary of Doubleday by a West Point classmate and lifelong friend recalled him as "a man who did not care for or go into any outdoor sports."

                              Mills was nevertheless persuaded. The fact that he had known Doubleday well enough to serve as a member of Doubleday's funeral honor guard in 1893 may have played some role. In any event, Mills and his commission concluded that "Base Ball had its origins in the United States" and that "the best evidence obtainable to date" indicated that it "was devised by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839."

                              The Graves letters -- one to the editor of the Akron Beacon-Journal on April 3, 1905, in response to that newspaper's article on Spalding's public plea for recollections of baseball's origins, and the second to Spalding himself on Nov. 17, 1905, in response to a request for further particulars -- were the sole support for this conclusion. (A book written in 1917 suggests the existence of a third letter to the same effect, but if it ever existed it remains lost.)

                              While parts of the text of Graves's 1905 letters were reprinted in the Mills Commission report, the original letters had been thought lost until recently. In fact, they had been pasted in Spalding scrapbooks, which were handed down by John T. Doyle, head of Spalding's publishing company, to his son Jack M. Doyle. The younger Doyle died in 1997 and bequeathed the scrapbooks to the Hall of Fame. Hall of Fame staffers were surprised and delighted to discover the original Graves letters among the scrapbook items and have just completed the process of preserving the documents, says James L. Gates Jr., library director for the Hall of Fame.

                              The Mills report was published in the 1908 "Spalding Guide." Chadwick was unmoved, and for a year or two the findings were debated. But when, in 1911, Spalding himself weighed in with conclusions similar to Mills in his book "America's National Game," the debate ended for more than a quarter of a century. Over time, what the paleontologist-essayist Stephen Jay Gould has called "baseball's creation myth" was discredited by scholars.

                              But Cooperstown held fast to the story and, on its slim basis, opened the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in the tiny central New York town in 1939 -- the ostensible centennial of Doubleday's "invention." But the hype stopped there. The Hall of Fame has never enshrined Doubleday in its hallowed precincts. His tale is preserved by what a 1936 New York Sun editorial called an "innocuous conspiracy."

                              Mills himself said as much. At a baseball dinner in 1926, a reporter asked him what "conclusive evidence" he had for Cooperstown as baseball's birthplace, and Mills answered candidly:

                              "None at all, as far as the actual origin of baseball is concerned. The committee reported that the first baseball diamond was laid out in Cooperstown. They were honorable men and their decision was unanimous. . . .

                              "I submit to you, gentlemen, that if our search had been for a typical American village, a village that could best stand as a counterpart of all villages where baseball might have been originated and developed -- Cooperstown would best fill the bill."

                              ---

                              Mr. Tofel, assistant to the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, is completing a book called "A Legend in the Making: The New York Yankees in 1939," from which parts of this article are adapted.

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