For 75 years, baseball fans have pilgrimaged to Cooperstown, New York to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is celebrating its diamond anniversary this week. The Hall of Fame was erected in the small village of Cooperstown because it was held up as the birthplace of baseball, but in reality the shrine to baseball’s gods was built on top of an elaborate creation myth.
On June 12, 1939, a constellation of baseball’s brightest stars and a crowd of 10,000 fans thronged a pastoral village of only 2,800 people nestled in the rolling hills of upstate New York. They had come to Cooperstown to celebrate the 100th birthday of the national pastime as well as the official dedication of the sport’s newly erected shrine. The fans packed into Main Street watched as the living members of the first classes of immortals inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, such as Babe Ruth and Cy Young, strode up the front steps of the new one-room museum as a band played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The heads of the American, National and minor leagues then severed the red, white and blue ribbons that stretched across the building’s entrance, and the Hall of Fame officially opened its doors to the public.
That afternoon, baseball’s legends from the past played an exhibition game against a team of future Hall of Famers at nearby Doubleday Field, built on the precise spot where the game was supposedly invented a century before. On that June day, Cooperstown’s baseball diamond was a true field of dreams, but it turns out that the idea of the village being the “birthplace of baseball” was the stuff of dreams as well.
Baseball arguments are as old as the sport itself, and at the turn of the 20th century a dispute about the game’s origins raged between sporting goods magnate and former baseball great Albert Goodwill Spalding, who argued that baseball was invented in the United States, and English-born Henry Chadwick, the grizzled baseball journalist who originated baseball’s modern scoring system, who claimed that the sport evolved from the English game of rounders. To settle the debate between the creationists and evolutionists, Spalding in 1905 formed a seven-man commission of ballplayers and politicians headed by former National League President Abraham G. Mills to study the origins of baseball.
Spalding hoped the commission would unearth proof that baseball was invented in America, and conveniently he soon found evidence for his preferred narrative in a letter to the editor penned by an elderly mining engineer from Colorado. In the letter published in the Akron Beacon Journal on April 4, 1905, 71-year-old Abner Graves recalled with remarkably detailed precision that as a 5-year-old boy growing up in Cooperstown he was present when 20-year-old Abner Doubleday took a walking stick to trace a diamond on a cow pasture owned by Elihu Phinney, concocted a set of rules and called his game “baseball.” In spite of his propensity for telling tall tales—he claimed to have been a Pony Express rider in 1852, although the mail service did not begin until 1860—Graves became the Mills Commission’s star witness. Although Doubleday was enrolled at West Point at the time and never mentioned any role in inventing baseball to Mills, who happened to have been his friend and arranged for his burial at Arlington National Cemetery, the Mills Commission after three years of study built its final conclusion upon Graves’s flimsy foundation by declaring: “The first scheme for playing baseball, according to the best evidence available to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839.”
The genesis story of baseball’s invention in a Cooperstown cow pasture found numerous doubters at the time, some of whom believed Alexander Cartwright of New York’s Knickerbocker Base Ball Club developed the sport in the 1840s, but that skepticism has been bolstered by subsequent research by baseball historians. Bat-and-ball games date back to the ancient Egyptians, and references to baseball have been found in 18th-century English literature, including a Jane Austen novel. In 2004, baseball historian John Thorn discovered a 1791 bylaw in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, that prohibited playing baseball within 80 yards of the town’s new meetinghouse.
In spite of the doubters, Cooperstown doubled down on the Doubleday story during the Great Depression. In 1935, wealthy local philanthropist Stephen C. Clark purchased a darkened, torn and battered baseball from a farmer in nearby Fly Creek, New York. The hand-sewn baseball hardly looked to be worth the $5 Clark paid for it except that the farmer claimed to have discovered it in an old trunk in his attic that he said belonged to the teenaged Graves before he left upstate New York for the Gold Rush in 1848. Although he had no proof to support the claim, Clark decreed the baseball to be the one used by Doubleday when he invented the sport. Seeing baseball as the economic stimulus the town needed to survive the Great Depression, not to mention fill the rooms at his Otesaga Resort Hotel, Clark successfully pitched the idea to build a baseball museum in Cooperstown. The “Doubleday Ball” became the first artifact donated to the new baseball shrine, and when the Hall of Fame opened in 1939, it marked the ultimate fulfillment of Spalding’s misguided history.
Although the story based on a baseball of unknown provenance and the memory of an elderly man prone to tall tales was myth, Doubleday certainly was not. He fought in the Mexican-American War and was stationed at Fort Sumter in April 1861 when the first Confederate shot of the Civil War nearly struck him in the head. He aimed the cannon that fired the first Union shot of the war and led his troops into battle at Gettysburg, where a monument now stands in his honor. He died in 1893, unaware of the fame that would subsequently be bestowed upon him as the inventor of baseball. Ironically, when the Hall of Fame opened its doors on that spring day in 1939, Spalding, Cartwright and Chadwick were all honored as inductees, but 75 years later the man originally credited as the inventor of baseball has yet to be enshrined in Cooperstown.