Baseball: A Game of Mysteries

Ryan SmithCorrespondent IJune 18, 2009

Baseball, America’s favorite pastime, has left unanswered questions as to who invented the beloved game.

Baseball has been around since the 1840s, possibly even earlier, and there has been much controversy over who the inventor was.

Baseball historian John Thorn says, “In short, recent scholarship has revealed that the history of baseball’s origins to be merely a lie agreed upon.”

Though baseball was invented in the mid-1800s, bat-and-stick have been played since the 14century. Stoolball was commonly played by milkmaids in England, where it originated. Its popularity faded during the mid-1900s, but it was recognized as an official sport in 2008.

Another sport that helped shape baseball was rounders. It also originated in England and has been played their since the Tudor Dynasty, which was when the House of Tudor ruled England from 1485 to 1603. Rounders greatly resembles baseball, for time is measured in innings and to score you must run around four bases.

Cricket, the national sport of England, is the sport that is most associated with the creation of baseball. It is played on a cricket field, and in the center of the field is a pitch. The “pitcher” in cricket is caller the bowler, and the “batter” is called the batsman. It is played between two teams, each with eleven players.

Though there are many unknown things about baseball’s origins, there are a few things that are certain. One of those things is that the first known baseball game was played in 1846 at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey.

The game was played between the New York Knickerbockers and the New York Nine, also known as the New York Baseball Club. The final score was 23-1 in favor of the New York Nine.

There is, however, controversy over this game. There is no doubt that this game was played, there is record of it, but many baseball historians think that there may have been games played before.

Their logic is simple: How could the New York Nine be so good at a game that was relatively new? How could the New York Knickerbockers do so poorly at a game that their founder supposedly invented? Their reasoning makes perfect sense, but unfortunately, these questions may never be answered.

The New York Knickerbockers were founded in the 1840s by Alexander Cartwright. They had many early notable baseball players and executives on their team including D.L. Adams, William Wheaton, and Duncan Curry. They were the first team to wear uniforms and were the first team to play under rules that are similar to today.

Though many people think that the New York Knickerbockers were the first baseball team, the real team that has the title is the New York Gothams. The Gothams formed in 1837 by William Wheaton and some of his associates. Wheaton was good friends with Alexander Cartwright and D.L. Adams, who could have helped him create the team. The team disbanded after more teams began to form in the area. Wheaton later joined the Knickerbockers.

The first successful baseball team not from the New York area was the Philadelphia Athletics. During the late 1860s, the A’s turned professional and joined the National Association. They won the first ever professional championship in 1871 with the help of left-handed second baseman Al Reach, who was a prominent baseball player who would eventually create the Philadelphia Phillies organization.  

The New York Nine, who played against the New York Knickerbockers in the first game, has left the one of baseball’s other biggest mysteries. There is no information about when or how they were formed or who any of there players were. All that is known is that this team existed, and was also known as the New York Baseball Club.

Once the Civil War broke out in 1861, many people thought that baseball would disappear in the fighting. Au contraire, baseball’s popularity rose tenfold. Many Union soldiers played baseball in between battles. The Union soldiers had their own teams and would often play each other.

One of the biggest sporting events of the nineteenth century occurred on Christmas 1862. The game was played between the 165 New York Volunteer Regiment and a team composed of players from other Union Regiments. Forty thousand soldiers watched the game. A.G. Mills, who would become the president of Baseball’s National League, played in the game.

As the war progressed, baseball began spreading throughout the South. After the war ended in 1865, both Confederate and Union soldiers returned home and shared the game they had learned.

By the time the National Association formed in 1871, nine teams had gone pro.

Unfortunately, the league wasn’t well organized and scandals broke out. By the time the corrupt league fell apart in 1875, 25 teams had played been a part of the league.

Oddly enough, only four teams—the Philadelphia Athletics, New York Mutuals, Hartford Dark Blues, and St. Louis Brown Stockings—joined the National League the next year. None of those teams last more than two years.

The only downside with teams going professional was money. In 1865, Al Reach became the first player to be paid to play baseball.

Most people thought of baseball more as a hobby than a profession, but once the National Association formed, the majority of players wanted a salary. 

During he 1880s, the average baseball salary was $2000, but star players often received a payment of $10,000.

By 1900, baseball was more around 60 years old. Star players such as Cap Anson, Cy Young, Tim Keefe and Jim O’Rourke had graced the diamond with their presence. Sporting good tycoons Al Spalding and Al Reach had gotten rich by selling baseball equipment. The greatest sports championship ever, the World Series, had been created.

But one question had bugged many baseball executives and fans: Who invented baseball?

In 1905, Spalding decided to find the answer. He organized a committee after he reading an article written by Henry Chadwick, a famous early baseball writer, who claimed the game evolved from rounders. Spalding was determined to find out the true origin of baseball.

The investigation, known as the Mills Commission, was led by former National League presidents A.G. Mills, Senator Morgan Bulkeley, and Nicolas Young. Al Reach, Senator Arthur P. Gorman, James Sullivan, and Hall of Famer George Wright were also on the committee.

All of the investigators had been involved some way in baseball, whether they were an executive or player.

During the commission’s study, a Denver miner named Abner Graves was a pertinent person on their list. Graves, who went to school with Abner Doubleday, told Spalding that he saw Doubleday revised a local bat-and-ball game. Graves said that Doubleday limited the number of players and added four bases. He claimed that Doubleday used a stick to mark a diamond-shaped field in the dirt.

Though the Commission investigated many other theories, their final report stated that "the first scheme for playing baseball, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839."

Many believe that Al Spalding pressured the commission to declare Doubleday the inventor. There were many other theories that the commission hadn’t had time to view.  he report was issued on December 30, 1907 and was printed in Al Spalding’s Official Guide for the 1908 season.  

Many were content with the decision. Support for the report increased after a baseball was found in an old house in Cooperstown, New York. It turned out that the house had a connection with the Doubleday family. The ball was nicknamed the “Doubleday Ball”.

After the findings of the ball, no one significantly challenged the report until 1936. That year, Bruce Cartwright Jr. wrote letters to Cooperstown, where the Baseball Hall of Fame was currently being built. He wanted to gain recognition of his grandfather Alexander Cartwright Jr.

Regardless of whether he invented the game, records showed that Cartwright had helped with some of the original rules. Alexander Cartwright was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1938 along with Henry Chadwick and Grover Cleveland Alexander.

After Bruce Cartwright made the claims that his grandfather invented baseball, baseball historians began to look into it. They found out that Cartwright was the founder of the New York Knickerbockers. He also was the umpire in the first baseball game.

Cartwright is most known for inventing rules of baseball, some of which that are still used today. The twenty rules are known as the Cartwright Rules or Knickerbocker Rules.   

The claims about Cartwright were so convincing that Congress declared him the inventor of baseball on June 3, 1953. It is understandable why they did so. While there were records that Cartwright was at least an innovator of baseball, the Doubleday theory only had a baseball and one claim made by Abner Graves, who later became mentally insane.

Also, by this time there was evidence against Doubleday.

Many baseball historians had dismissed the Mills Commission report, calling it a “myth."

Baseball historian George B. Kirsch wrote, “Robert Henderson, Harold Seymour, and other scholars have since debunked the Doubleday-Cooperstown myth, which nonetheless remains powerful in the American imagination because of the efforts of Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.”

A.G. Mills, who led the Mills Commission and fought in the Civil War with Doubleday, even said that he never heard him mention that he invented baseball.

Doubleday never mentioned anything about baseball in his letters he wrote before his death. Also, the year that he supposedly invented the game, he was a cadet at West Point Military Academy.

Doubleday never even played the game!

Though credibility for the invention of baseball continued to pile up for Alexander Cartwright, many people still believed the Doubleday myth.

Today, many people still believe the myth as well. Only those who follow baseball history actually know that Cartwright is credited with the invention, or at least know that there is controversy involving Doubleday.

Today, baseball historians continue to dig deeper into the origins of baseball, and new theories are arising everyday.

Prominent baseball historian John Thorn has even broken away from the pack and has a separate list of possible candidates for the invention of baseball. The list includes D.L. Adams, Rufus William Wheaton, Duncan Curry, and Louis Wadsworth. All of them, except for Wadsworth, were friends.

D.L. Adams was a Knickerbocker who was credited with setting the bases 90 feet apart and the pitching distance to 45 feet. The distance was later increased to 60 feet, six inches.

He also invented the shortstop, not to be an extra fielder, but to relay throws from the outfield for the ball did not travel far when thrown. He also thought that catching the ball on the first bounce for an out was a “sissy rule”.

Rufus William Wheaton was also a Knickerbocker who was also a prominent cricket player. In an 1874 interview, he said that, "We first organized what we called the Gotham Baseball Club. This was the first ball organization in the United States, and it was completed in 1837."

He also claimed that he wrote the original rules of baseball. After the baseball grew in popularity, the Gothams disbanded, and the Knickerbockers later formed.

Wheaton’s story greatly conflicts with that of Cartwright. He basically said that the Knickerbockers weren’t the first team, that he wrote the “Cartwright” Rules, and that the first baseball game really wasn’t the first baseball game, which baseball historians already has suspicions about.

Louis Wadsworth was a famous first baseman for the New York Gothams (not the same one previously mentioned) and Knickerbockers from 1850 to 1862.

No one really thought of him as a innovator of baseball until 1907 as the Mills Commission was winding down. A.G. Mills didn’t have enough time to thoroughly view the final theories and so he quickly sent the commission’s final decision to Al Spalding.

Though he sent the information confidently, he still was unsure about one thing:

"I am also much interested in the statement made by Mr. Curry, of the pioneer Knickerbocker club, and confirmed by Mr. Tassie, of the famous old Atlantic club of Brooklyn, that a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is today, was brought to the field one day by a Mr. Wadsworth. Mr. Curry says 'the plan caused a great deal of talk, but, finally, we agreed to try it.' "

Curry made the statement to reporter Will Rankin in an interview in 1877.

Though the commission’s job was over, Mills continued to find more information about Wadsworth. He talked with Rankin many times about the interview and eventually reached an important discovery.

It turned out that Wadsworth was the one who made the length of a baseball game nine innings. But after a while, Mills reached a dead end with Wadsworth, but historians have tried to revive Waldsworth’s cold trail.

Baseball has evolved over the last 160 years. Rules have changed, players have come and gone, and the way the game is played has even changed. But the one thing that will never change is baseball rightfully holding the title as America’s favorite pastime.            



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