You may have heard that a young man named Abner Doubleday invented the game known as baseball in Cooperstown, New York, during the summer of 1839. Doubleday then went on to become a Civil War hero, while baseball became America’s beloved national pastime. Not only is that story untrue, it’s not even in the ballpark. Doubleday was still at West Point in 1839, and he never claimed to have anything to do with baseball. In 1907, a special commission created by the sporting goods magnate and former major league player A.J. Spalding used flimsy evidence—namely the claims of one man, mining engineer Abner Graves—to come up with the Doubleday origin story. Cooperstown businessmen and major league officials would rely on the myth’s enduring power in the 1930s, when they established the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in the village.
As it turns out, the real history of baseball is a little more complicated than the Doubleday legend. References to games resembling baseball in the United States date back to the 18th century. Its most direct ancestors appear to be two English games: rounders (a children’s game brought to New England by the earliest colonists) and cricket. By the time of the American Revolution, variations of such games were being played on schoolyards and college campuses across the country. They became even more popular in newly industrialized cities where men sought work in the mid-19th century. In September 1845, a group of New York City men founded the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club. One of them—volunteer firefighter and bank clerk Alexander Joy Cartwright—would codify a new set of rules that would form the basis for modern baseball, calling for a diamond-shaped infield, foul lines and the three-strike rule. He also abolished the dangerous practice of tagging runners by throwing balls at them.
Cartwright’s changes made the burgeoning pastime faster-paced and more challenging while clearly differentiating it from older games like cricket. In 1846, the Knickerbockers played the first official game of baseball against a team of cricket players, beginning a new, uniquely American tradition.