In The Beginning The True Story Of Baseball, Davey Crockett, Teflon And More

November 10, 1991|By Arlene Ehrlich

Have you ever wondered where they got the design for the American flag? Or who invented baseball, or where Panama hats come from? Me neither. Like most Americans, I know that Betsy Ross designed and sewed the first American flag, that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, and that Panama hats come from the land of Noriega.

And like most Americans, I'm wrong. Betsy Ross probably never sewed an American flag and certainly did not design one. Baseball originated in England, and Panama hats come from Ecuador.

In fact, the more you learn where common things come from, the more you learn the truth of the adage: The problem ain't what we don't know; it's what we know that just ain't so. Either we take familiar things so much for granted that we never think about how they originated, or we "know" too much about them to investigate closely. Take, for example:

THE SPORTING LIFE

Baseball originated as "rounders," an 18th century English schoolboys' game. Sometime before the Revolution, it crossed the Atlantic and changed its name. An American book published 1744 described a baseball game, and Jane Austen referred to it in her 1798 novel, "Northanger Abbey." If any American fathered baseball, it was Alexander J. Cartwright, who published a set of diagrams and rules in 1845.

The story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1829 was invented in 1907 by A. G. Spalding, the sporting goods manufacturer, who resented the foreign origins of the American national pastime.

Speaking of baseball, most people know that the Los Angeles Dodgers originated in Brooklyn, where they were known affectionately to generations of New Yorkers as "dem bums." When they moved to California they took the name, but not its logic, with them. The word Dodgers was a popular nickname for Brooklyn residents at the turn of the century. A short form of "trolley dodgers," it described the Brooklyn pedestrian's characteristic footwork. The phrase "Los Angeles" Dodgers now makes about as much sense as the "Washington Orioles."

Basketball, by the way, was born in America but not in the United States. The Aztec Indians were playing a nearly identical game when the first Europeans arrived in Mexico in the 1500s. The story about James Naismith hanging two peach baskets at the Springfield, Mass., YMCA in 1891 is also true, but the Aztecs had beaten him to the idea by at least 400 years.

THE WILD WEST

American Indians did not invent the practice of scalping. They learned it from European settlers, who began scalping their enemies as early as the Middle Ages. Colonial American governments, eager to clear their frontiers of Indians, offered bounties as high as $100 for Indian scalps. Eventually, the Indians learned to retaliate in kind.

The name Sitting Bull was also invented by white men, as was the myth that he defeated Custer at Little Big Horn. The man whose real name was Tatanka Yotanka was a medicine man, not a warrior. It was Chief Crazy Horse who led the Sioux Nation against Custer.

The legend of the Alamo, where the Mexican general Santa Anna supposedly wiped out the American garrison, is also just that -- mostly legend. Walt Disney notwithstanding, 13 Americans survived: three women, two children, a black servant and seven defenders. The seven defenders, Davy Crockett among them, were captured and presented to Santa Anna. Crockett distinguished himself for cowardice by claiming mistaken identity, denying he had been at the Alamo, and accusing his companions. The ruse failed; Crockett and the others were beheaded.

And we can retire as well the myth of the bucking bronco. The bucking "wild" horse that only the hardiest cowboy could tame originated not on the American grasslands, but in the minds of modern rodeo promoters. The horse bucks because a strap has been drawn tightly across its genitals. If the cowboys were similarly encumbered, they would buck just as the otherwise tame horses do.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

American yuppies didn't invent croissants; Viennese bakers did in 1863 to celebrate Austria's triumph over the invading Ottoman Turks. The croissant represented the crescent on the Turkish flag, and the symbolism of eating the Turkish crescent was obvious.

With a bow to H. L. Mencken, who decreed that people fond of sausages and political conventions ought not to inquire too closely into the origins of either, we won't describe where they get hot dogs. If you don't know by now, you don't want to know.

At the other end of the culinary spectrum, champagne was invented by Dom Perignon, the cellar master of a French monastery in the 1600s. By substituting a cork stopper for the traditional cloth, Dom Perignon trapped the carbon dioxide that had previously escaped the bottle during fermentation. Upon sampling the new sparkling wine, Dom Perignon is supposed to have called to his fellow monks, "Come quickly! I am tasting stars!"

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