Killing Santa Claus: Abner Doubleday Did Not Invent Baseball

Editor’s note: Please welcome Maria Rainier, a freelance writer, baseball fan, and the first-ever female to guest post on this Web site.

This is the rude awakening in which you learn that Abner Doubleday, the Santa Claus of baseball, did not invent baseball.

Or, maybe not. Maybe you already know about the Doubleday myth. John Thorn made it clear in an interview on this site last spring that the honor goes to neither Doubleday nor the purported real inventor of baseball, Alexander Cartwright. Have you ever wondered, though, why the Doubleday myth got started in the first place? What made Abner Doubleday so apt for the fame that never should have been his?

The All-American

Doubleday was born in 1819 in a small house on the corner of Washington and Fenwick Street in Ballston Spa, New York. His family wasn’t wealthy; they slept in the attic loft of a house that had one room.

  • At this point, the Doubleday myth already gains popularity, often confused with credibility: he’s an underdog who started at rags and ended—at least as far as undue baseball fame goes—riches.  His hometown had neither furreners nor industry—an all-American beginning.

The family had a long history with the military. Doubleday was actually Doubleday, Jr., since his dad was also named Abner and fought in the Revolutionary War.

  • The Doubleday myth gains more popularity; everyone likes a war hero.

The War Hero

After being sent to Cooperstown to attend a private prepatory high school, Doubleday (Jr.) joined the military tradition himself by entering the United States Military Academy in 1838. He wasn’t exactly at the top of his class, but he managed to make the upper cut by placing 24th in a class of 56.

  • This is another win for baseball lovers.  Everyone wants a hero they can relate to in mediocrity.

Easily the most convincing reason he became an American hero—Santa Claus as John Thorn put it—is the fact that he already was one. Doubleday served as a general in the Civil War for the Union side.

  • Note that the Union side was the winning side, which adds to the rags to riches theory.  Plus, beginning the sticky issue of race in baseball with Abner was a little sticky in itself.

The oft-told and trite tale is that he fired the first shot at Fort Sumter—the first real battle of the war—and made a name for himself at Gettysburg, although Maj. Gen. George Meade didn’t like the him so much and relieved Doubleday, creating everlasting tension between the two of them.

  • Everyone (but Meade) loves a war hero.

The Fame and the Facts

It’s clear now that Doubleday is the perfect candidate for entering the Invented-Baseball-Hall-of-Fame. There is, however, no evidence for this claim, unless you count the testimony of a man decades after 1839 when Doubleday allegedly created the game. You’ll probably want to take into consideration that the guy, along with being a resident of Cooperstown, was convicted of murdering his wife and spent the final days of his life mumbling to himself in an asylum. Otherwise, there is no written evidence from 1839 or the 1840s, from Doubleday himself or any encyclopedia published in 1911, or Doubleday’s New York Times obituary.

How did the myth come about then? Some would say that baseball needed Doubleday to invent baseball. America’s favorite pastime needed an all-American hero to be its father. Baseball had daddy issues, and so resulted in the Mills Commission (organized by Spalding to put an end to the decades-long argument of who was its daddy) asserting, without evidence or apology, that Doubleday had invented the word and the game of baseball.

Thorn wrote an introduction to a Cartwright biography and told this site last year, “I believe that to this day if you could interview all baseball fans, that 60-70 percent of them would still say that Doubleday invented the game. It’s pretty hard to kill Santa Claus.”

Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, playing with the newly revealed degree calculator and researching what college engineering degrees pay best. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

11 Replies to “Killing Santa Claus: Abner Doubleday Did Not Invent Baseball”

  1. It sure is hard to kill off the myth. A couple months ago, I found a newspaper article from July 1916, that mentioned some weren’t convinced. Yet, the myth persisted. I suspect the patriotism during WW1 did a lot to solidify the belief just as it started the national anthem before games. Nowadays, I think the more articles about it and the more we all talk about it, the more likely people will begin to believe the truth. So, great article! A slightly different angle on the subject than I’ve read before.

  2. I enjoyed the article [although not the obnoxious comment by Robert Tyson… nice class, dude]. I [not too long ago] read a book covering baseball development that I found very interesting called “But Didn’t We Have Fun: An Informal History Of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870” by Peter Morris. I recommend it if you’re interested in the development of the game.

  3. Welcome and thanks so much for the article Maria! It’s curious how the whole idea of Doubleday as inventor of baseball started.

    Bob B, was there any one person that Mr Tyson cites who was responsible for developing baseball, or it a complex evolution involving a number of people?

  4. I’m going to go with the complex evolution option. I’ve heard everyone from Doc Adams, Henry Chadwick, and Cartwright mentioned as pioneers for the game.

    I’m sure John Thorn’s forthcoming book this spring, Baseball in the Garden of Eden is going to offer more information on this, too. Thorn’s an expert on pre-modern era baseball.

  5. @Alvy: The Peter Morris book (from my memory) did indeed emphasize the complex evolution of the game. I’d go into more detail but I’m afraid my memory would screw things up and I don’t have the book (as I checked it out of a library). I’m very curious about the John Thorn book that Graham mentions in his comment above!

  6. According to scholars of the Christian Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims, tangible evidence exists that baseball, or a form of it, was around long, long ago.

    There is a wonderful illumination in the Cantigas de Santa Maria commissioned by King Alfonso X (ruled 1252-1284 AD) very clearly portraying a batter up with a pitcher preparing to throw. You can see this in the upper right hand panel of the Cantiga #42 image. Here is the link:

    Truly amazing.

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