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, but it’s also not even in the ballpark. Baseball's real origins date back way further, to at least the 18th century.
Who Was Abner Doubleday?
Doubleday, who was born to a prominent family in upstate New York in 1819, was still at West Point in 1839, and he never claimed to have anything to do with baseball. Instead, he served as a Union major general in the American Civil War and later became a lawyer and writer.
In 1907, sixteen years after Doubleday's death, a special commission created by the sporting goods magnate and former major league player A.J. Spalding was set up to determine baseball's origins—namely if it was invented in the United States or derived from games in the United Kingdom. The commission used flimsy evidence—the claims of one man, mining engineer Abner Graves, who said he went to school with Doubleday—to come up with the origin story, which managed to stick.
Cooperstown businessmen and major league officials seized on myth’s enduring power in the 1930s, when they established the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in the village.
What Are Baseball's Real Origins?
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.