The Making of a New York Folk Hero


Abner Cartwright, Alexander Doubleday. . . these composite names stand for an exceedingly odd couple whose identities have been stolen, accomplishments merged, and stories intertwined for more than a century now. What both men share is that their lives were hijacked after their deaths, and as a result, each was credited with something he did not do—that is, invent baseball.

Abner Doubleday was anointed the Father of Baseball at the end of 1907 by his old friend Abraham G. Mills, who knew he had had nothing to do with inventing or even liking baseball. As chairman of the Special Base Ball Commission on determining the game’s origins, Mills had to hold his nose while affirming Doubleday’s paternity, for he felt obliged to rule solely upon the evidence presented. The bombshell claim for Doubleday was the lately produced recollection of Abner Graves, a septuagenarian mining engineer from Denver, that in 1839 (when he was a five-year-old resident of Cooperstown, New York), he had witnessed the nineteen-year-old Doubleday sketch out a new game that he called baseball.

“Until my perusal of this testimony,” Mills wrote with exquisite irony, “my own belief had been that our ‘National Game of Base Ball’ originated with the Knickerbocker club, organized in New York in 1845, and which club published certain elementary rules in that year.” Toward the end of his report, addressed to the commission’s founder, Albert G. Spalding, he added:

I am also much interested in the statement made by Mr. Curry, [first president] of the pioneer Knickerbocker club … that a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is to-day, was brought to the field one afternoon by a Mr. Wadsworth. Mr. Curry says “the plan caused a great deal of talk, but, finally, we agreed to try it.”

It is possible that a connection more or less direct can be traced between the diagram drawn by Doubleday in 1839 and that presented to the Knickerbocker club by Wadsworth in 1845, or thereabouts, and I wrote several days ago for certain data bearing on this point, but as it has not yet come to hand I have decided to delay no longer sending in the kind of paper your letter calls for.

Mills did write to the collector of customs, as this Wadsworth gent was said to have been a custom house official, “for the purpose of ascertaining from what part of the State the Mr. Wadsworth, in question, came.” Mills was wondering whether an upstate Wadsworth, perhaps one of the Geneseo clan, might somehow have brought the Doubleday diagram to New York. The requested data did not emerge, and Wadsworth became the mystery man of baseball until quite recently, when his identity and true role emerged.

Unlike Doubleday, who had been a distinguished military man with no interest in active sport, Alexander Cartwright was a real baseball figure, prominent as one of the organizers of the Knickerbocker Club in 1845. There is no evidence, however, that he devised the game of nine innings, nine men, and ninety-foot basepaths, nor that in his long life he invented anything at all. But as George Washington had his Parson Weems and Doubleday his Graves, Cartwright had his grandson Bruce. As soon as Doubleday was named the game’s sire, Bruce commenced to fabricate and perhaps even forge evidence for his grandfather’s paternity of the national game. By enlisting writer Will Irwin to back his claims, the campaign gained traction in the New York sporting press, if not yet the public at large.

On February 2, 1916, an unnamed writer in the New York Times hilariously mashed up Mills’s equivocal support for Doubleday with his suspicions about baseball’s creation myth and epitomized the new folk hero, Abner Cartwright:

Baseball before the days of the National League dates seventy-seven years back to 1839, when Abner Doubleday, at an academy at Cooperstown, N.Y., invented a game of ball on which the present game is based. Doubleday afterwards went to West Point and later became a Major General in the United States Army. . . .

Another boy at the Cooperstown school, Alexander J. Cartwright, one day evolved a rough sketch of a diamond and the boys tried it with great success. From that day to this the general plan of the diamond has changed only in a few details. It was at Mr. Cartwright’s suggestion in 1845 that the first baseball club was formed.

Is it any wonder that delegates for Doubleday and Cartwright went on to contend so fiercely for primacy? The bickering and machinations led, on the strength of the claim for Doubleday, to the founding of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, while the Cartwright faction won for their champion a plaque in the Hall—an honor denied to Doubleday.

The lengths to which his supporters have gone to make Cartwright the Isaac Newton of baseball have rendered his myth more difficult to deconstruct than Doubleday’s. We may look to the mid-nineteenth century’s obsession with science, system, business, and organization to answer the question of who was thought back then to have created the game, and why. The Knickerbockers’ claim to being the “pioneer organization” was asserted not because they were the first to play the game of baseball (children had been doing that for a century), or because they were the first club organized to encourage men to play what had been a boys’ game.

Recent scholarship has revealed the history of baseball’s “creation” to be a lie agreed upon. Why, then, does the legend continue to outstrip the fact? “Creation myths,” wrote Stephen Jay Gould, in explaining the appeal of Cooperstown, “identify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide no palpable, particular thing as a symbol for reverence, worship, or patriotism.”

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