07/22/2004 10:00 AM ET
Cooperstown's myth endures
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
Based on current knowledge, the National Baseball Hall of Fame probably shouldn't be nestled in Cooperstown, N.Y. But the out-of-the-way hamlet, just 70 miles west of Albany, the state's capital, remains the small town at the heart of baseball.
Cooperstown was bestowed with that honor because of the mistaken belief that, sometime around the middle of the 19th century, a local resident named Abner Doubleday was the first American to turn the English game of "rounders" into a semblance of what would eventually become baseball.
"The Doubleday thing is a total myth. We've got proof in writing. We've got all the papers here," said Ted Spencer, vice president and chief curator of the museum since 1982.
The Mills committee, convened in 1905 at the behest of early baseball owner and sporting goods merchandiser Albert G. Spalding, commenced a three-year study of the matter and endorsed Doubleday as baseball's founder.
Three decades later, the lords of Major League Baseball determined that Cooperstown would be a fitting site for baseball's most cherished shrine. The Hall of Fame opened in 1939, 100 years after Doubleday allegedly invented the game, as part of baseball's centennial celebration. And this weekend, hundreds of thousands will flock to Main Street in Cooperstown again for the annual induction ceremonies, this year honoring Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley.
The Hall's Web site weaves the story, describing how the discovery of an old baseball in a dust-covered attic trunk in 1934 supported the findings of the Mills committee, which determined in its final report, released on December 30, 1907, that "the first scheme for playing baseball, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839."
|Businesses with a baseball theme line Main Street in Cooperstown, N.Y. (Tim Roske/AP)
At a farmhouse three miles from Cooperstown in Fly Creek, N.Y., the "undersized, misshapen and obviously homemade" baseball was discovered. The stitched cover had been torn open, revealing stuffing of cloth instead of wool and cotton yarn -- the contents of the modern baseball. It soon became known as the "Doubleday Baseball."
That ball was purchased for $5.00 by Stephen C. Clark, a Cooperstown resident and philanthropist, and at Clark's suggestion was displayed with other baseball memorabilia at the Village Club in Cooperstown to great public acclaim.
The myth and all its accoutrements led to the village on the banks of Otsego Lake being selected as the Hall of Fame's site by the triumvirate of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, National League president and future Commissioner Ford Frick and American League president William Harrige.
By the time the doors opened on June 12, 1939, for the induction of its first class -- Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson -- a lively debate about baseball's mythic origins had already begun.
Spencer said the Doubleday myth was solidly debunked three years ago, when thousands of papers -- dating back to the turn of the 20th century, used by the Mills committee and thought lost in an ancient fire -- were delivered to the "doorstep" of the red-bricked Hall.
Nearly a hundred years ago, the Mills committee based much of its findings on the testimony of Abner Graves, a former Cooperstown schoolmate of Doubleday, who claimed that he saw his friend make changes to a game known as "town ball." Those changes, including the use of bases situated around a diamond, approximated the first ingredients of the game ultimately known as baseball.
Not true, Spencer said.
"There were two scrapbooks' worth of papers dealing with the whole process," he said. "There were pages of significant correspondence [incoming] and outgoing to Spalding's office. Abner Graves didn't see the invention of the game. What he saw was one element of a movement that was raging through the country at that time. That was the changing, from community-to-community, of town ball to the New York rules of the diamond-shaped game of baseball."
Doubleday didn't invent the game, but he was certainly a conduit to the way it was eventually played. Spalding was presumably stirring up the Mills committee to formalize the invention of baseball as a way to endorse his budding sporting goods empire, which included the sale of baseballs, bats and equipment. Conveniently, Spalding refused to acknowledge any evidence that would dissuade the committee from endorsing Doubleday as baseball's inventor. All of that is in the papers procured by the Hall of Fame.
"Basically, it was a bag job," Spencer said.
Further proof that a type of game called baseball was played before 1839 was revealed this year. Apparently, baseball -- or something approximating it using a piece of wood to hit a ball -- was played in Pittsfield, Mass., as early as 1791, Spencer said. Pittsfield is due east of Cooperstown and across the state line in the Berkshires.
Baseball was noted in a Pittsfield city ordinance from that era stating that the game couldn't be played within 800 yards of a newly built town hall, thus protecting the structure and windows from batted or thrown balls.
"You start to push the origin of the game back," Spencer said. "What that tells us is that baseball must have been enough of a problem for it to be written into the ordinance. So that means the game was already well-established. Somebody was playing baseball in some form during the last decade of the 18th century."
Of course, it all hardly matters.
During the 1930s, the powers that be took it as gospel that the endorsement of Doubleday by the Mills committee, the finding of an old Doubleday baseball in an attic and the idea of a local philanthropist to put that ball on display in Cooperstown was enough proof that the village nestled between the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains is the cradle of baseball's birth.
And there the Hall of Fame will undoubtedly forever remain.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.