Abner Doubleday: Why a Civil War General Received Credit for Inventing Baseball

Brian GrammanContributor IIIJune 27, 2012

Abner Doubleday was born 193 years ago yesterday. He would go on to live an exciting life filled with impressive accomplishments, but it is actually what he didn't do that has made him famous. 

Doubleday had an impressive military career, serving as a Major General for the Union in the Civil War. He was the man who fired the first shot of the war at Fort Sumter, and he was also a major factor in the Battle of Gettysburg.

After the war, he had a hand in the creation of the cable car system in San Francisco that is still functional today. When he died at the age of 73 in 1893, an objective observer would most likely say that his life had been fully lived. 

But some people clearly thought otherwise.

In 1908, the Mills Commission, a small group of respected former baseball executives and players devised to crown an originator of baseball, announced that Doubleday was without a doubt the man who invented the game. 

This, of course, makes no sense. 

Doubleday was never involved with the game of baseball before, during, or after his Civil War career. He never associated himself with baseball when it became a professional organized sport. He never once mentioned anything about the game to his good friend A.G. Mills, who not only was at the time of their friendship the president of the National League, but also the head of the Mills Commission that would name him the game's founder. 

So what evidence is their to support the Mills Commission's claim? The answer is not much. 

Alexander Cartwright, in a picture of the 1845 New York Knickerbockers
Alexander Cartwright, in a picture of the 1845 New York Knickerbockers

The only pro-Doubleday claim made by anyone came from Abner Graves in 1906. Graves, who would later be committed to an insane asylum, claimed that he remembered Doubleday creating a game that he called baseball in Cooperstown, NY in 1839 (even Graves never mentioned anything about the drawing of a baseball diamond or the writing of rules, two things claimed by the Mills Commission). 

Was Doubleday in Cooperstown in 1839? Not surprisingly, he wasn't. In fact, Doubleday was enrolled at West Point, which would lead him on to his great future military success. 

All of this information has been common knowledge to educated baseball fans for some time now. Much research has been done of late to search for a true creator of the game, and many men over many years have been discovered to have had an influence on the game.

There remains one obvious question: What was the Mills Commission thinking?

The evidence supporting Doubleday's creation of the game is pathetic. Doubleday himself never even mentioned the game, let alone thought the whole thing up. So why would a group of people who were all very familiar with the game agree to such a conclusion?

The answer, interestingly enough, is a combination of patriotism and laziness.

The man behind the Mills Commission was Al Spalding, a former major league pitcher who would go on to run a famous sporting goods store and have a great deal of influence in the baseball community. Spalding was very interested in the origins of baseball, but one thing he was concerned about was whether or not the game stemmed from American or British origins.

His good friend and sportswriter Henry Chadwick, who was very important in marketing the game and increasing its popularity in its early stages, was convinced that the game was an evolved form of his native England's rounders. For whatever reason, Spalding was appalled by such an idea, which in his mind would make the game no longer American.

A.G. Mills, through no fault of his own, was caught up in an intense debate, and he was heavily pressured by his friend Spalding to turn out a result that would lead baseball to be American-born, and he did just that.

But that doesn't explain why Abner Doubleday was chosen. There were several other leads in different directions, including leads to a man named Alexander Cartwright who was later enshrined in Cooperstown for his contributions (some of them incorrectly attributed once again) to the game.

There was some evidence toward Cartwright's involvement in the game's creation, and at least it could be said that he played the game. So why Doubleday?

Quite frankly, it just sounded better.

Mills and his committee had spent more than two years on this project, and nearly everyone was sick of it. It fell to Mills to do one of three things—further evaluate the Cartwright claim (Cartwright, like Doubleday, had died some years before the Commission), research other leads submitted by players on the earliest organized teams (which have in the past decade been the true indicators in regards to much of the game's evolution) or just accept Abner Graves' story about Doubleday as fact.

There was one option that was clearly more pleasant to deal with, and Mills went with it. The other men who were part of the Commission immediately accepted Mills' decision and went their separate ways, and Doubleday received the posthumous honor.

The average baseball fan might say, "What's the big deal? We've figured it out since, so no harm no foul, right?"

There may have been no real harm done, but that doesn't mean it isn't a big deal. 

Take the location of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, for instance.

Without the assertion that Abner Doubleday created baseball, there is no way that such an important museum would have been placed in little Cooperstown, New York, the supposed site of baseball's inception. It might be in a place like Hoboken New Jersey, where Alexander Cartwright's New York Knickerbockers played their first game under their rules.

But baseball has a way of working things out. Cooperstown has turned into a beautiful place to celebrate the game of baseball and remember its incredible past.

A past that has nothing to do with Abner Doubleday.