National myth about a national pastime

Gwinn Owens

September 10, 1993|By Gwinn Owens

IN ENGLAND in 1744 -- 95 years before the alleged invention of baseball in Cooperstown -- "A Little Pretty Pocket Book" was published, describing the rules of various games. One game was illustrated with a picture showing a batter, a pitcher, a catcher, infielders and four bases, though the bases were posts rather than bags. It augmented the picture with a verse, entitled -- yes -- "Base ball":

"The ball once struck off,

"Away flies the boy

"To the next destined post,

"And them home with joy."

This alone ought to dispel the notion that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839, a myth embraced with naive gullibility by numerous teachers, historians and journalists, most recently columnist John Steadman in The Evening Sun July 30.

If the Evening Sun's readers want more evidence, here are a few citations: In the published "Letters" of one Mary Lepel, an English noblewoman, her entry of Nov. 14, 1778 refers to " . . . baseball, a play all who are, or have been, schoolboys are well acquainted with." Even the great Jane Austen, in "Northanger Abbey" (1798) wrote: "It was very wonderful that Catherine . . . should prefer cricket, base ball . . . to books."

The reports of the game being played in the United States (or even before independence at Valley Forge) are so abundant that there isn't space here to cite them. For example, in the 1820s there was a Rochester Baseball Club. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. mentioned playing baseball while he was at Harvard; he graduated in 1828.

There is no question that baseball evolved from the English game of rounders which, in my own time, I have watched Britons play. But clearly, the name baseball was attached to it very early. The principal change in the rules -- which may not have come about until the 1840s -- was that originally a batter could be called out by being hit with a thrown ball. This changed to the requirement that he be tagged, enabling the use of a smaller, harder ball, and creating a faster, more skillful game.

How, then, did the Doubleday-Cooperstown myth get started? There is no doubt that Doubleday, a West Point graduate and future Civil War general, played the game and helped to popularize it (though he was probably not in Cooperstown in 1839). Apparently the error was a product of a combination of silly patriotism and awful scholarship.

Under the leadership of A.G. Spalding, of sporting goods fame, a commission was set up in the early 1900s to substantiate the conviction that baseball was a 100 percent American game, born here from scratch. The commission was made up of baseball executives and others involved in the game, plus one U.S. senator. It contained no historians and no scholars. The commission, which issued its report in 1908, even claimed that Doubleday invented the name, baseball, which of course is palpable nonsense.

The commission's findings were eventually refuted by a host of competent historians, but the myth had been planted and it pleased American baseball fans. It was a perfect example of feelgood history and, as baseball's reputed centenary approached in 1939, led to the selection of Cooperstown as the site of the baseball Hall of Fame.

The dubious history of Cooperstown's place in baseball history does not -- and should not -- detract in the least from the value of the Hall of Fame. It is an idea justified in concept and carried out well. Baseball needs such an institution, and it might as well be in the lovely setting of Cooperstown as anywhere else.

The baseball myth is strongly reminiscent of H.L. Mencken's bathtub hoax. He wrote in a 1917 essay that the first bathtub in the United States was installed in the White House for Millard Fillmore in 1842. From the start, Mencken was joking and later acknowledged the hoax. He was too late: America thought it was the truth, and the nonsense found its way into history books. Having been so completely established as fact in the public mind, it could not be erased, despite Mencken's repeated acknowledgment that he made the whole thing up. (Tomorrow happens to be the annual H.L. Mencken Day in Baltimore.)

The Doubleday story seems to have followed the same course, except that, in this case, its perpetrators thought they were telling the truth. Alas, it is pure myth, and Americans seem to like myths. There are, however, numerous books detailing the facts, including the Oxford English Dictionary, which calls baseball "a more elaborate variety of the English rounders," and the Encyclopedia Britannica, from which I drew some of the above. As Casey Stengel would have said, you can look it up.

Gwinn Owens, founder and retired editor of this page, is a fan of Orioles base ball.

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