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Who really invented baseball -- Alexander Cartwright or
Abner Doubleday?    
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"…And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout; But there is no joy in Mudville -- mighty Casey has struck out."

-- from Ernest Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat," June 3, 1888

By Paul Niemann

[OCT. 16, 2003]  Major League Baseball celebrates the 100th anniversary of the World Series next week.

In the first-ever World Series, in 1903, the Boston Pilgrims (Red Sox) defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates five games to three. The Series was originally a best-of-nine format.

This year is also the 100th anniversary of the event that started the great debate over who "invented" baseball. In this story, we try to find out who invented baseball. There are two competing stories, and they involve two men who were born within a year of each other and died within a year of each other. In fact, both men had died by the time the great debate began. It was either bank clerk Alexander Cartwright or Civil War veteran Abner Doubleday, whose great-great-grand-nephew is the co-owner of the New York Mets.

How the debate began

The debate began when baseball writer and historian Henry Chadwick, who wrote baseball's first rule book in 1858, declared in Albert Spalding's "Baseball Guide" of 1903 that baseball had been derived from an English game called "rounders."

Al Spalding was a former major league pitcher and manager for the Chicago Cubs (originally known as the Chicago White Stockings). Since he didn't want to accept that the game he loved could have come from the British, he commissioned a panel in 1904 to determine the game's origins. The panel, which included two U.S. senators and was chaired by a former National League president who probably never heard of Alexander Cartwright, also didn't want to accept the possibility that baseball might have British roots. Their choice as the inventor of baseball was a Civil War general named Abner Doubleday. Doubleday, by the way, has the distinction of being the soldier who fired the first shot in defense for the Union during the Civil War, at Fort Sumter.

The only evidence that the panel had in support of Doubleday was a letter they received from an elderly man who claimed that he was a boyhood friend of Doubleday's. In his letter, he claimed that he saw Doubleday invent baseball in Cooperstown in 1939 when he organized two teams in a game which included bases and a ball. Most of the other research for this panel was done by an employee of the publishing company that Spalding owned.

There was plenty of evidence to suggest that Doubleday did not invent baseball, though. For example, Doubleday kept diaries and was a skilled public speaker, but there was never any mention of baseball in his writings or his speeches. You would think that a person who invents a new sport would mention it somewhere along the way.


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Alexander Cartwright, on the other hand, established many of baseball's basic rules. He established that the distance between bases is to be 90 feet, that the game is to be played by nine-person teams for nine innings, and that each team gets three outs per inning. In addition to adding the position of shortstop, he eliminated the rule that allowed the defense to get a runner out by throwing the ball at him! He also divided the field into fair and foul territory. Many believe that September of 1845 is when Cartwright invented the game, at age 25, and his Knickerbocker baseball club played their first game the following year in Hoboken, N.J.

To further complicate matters, there were claims that there was a second man named Abner Doubleday and that the game Doubleday's childhood friend had claimed to see him invent was actually a form of the British-based rounders game mentioned earlier, called "town ball." Years later, a baseball with the cover nearly completely torn off was found in this man's attic; it became known as the "Doubleday" baseball, and it sits in the Hall of Fame.

Which man is in the Hall of Fame?

Where can you find most of this information about Cartwright's contributions to the rules?

On his Hall of Fame plaque, which also lists him as the "father of modern baseball." His plaque doesn't claim that he invented the game, while Doubleday is not in the Hall of Fame.

So who did invent baseball -- Alexander Cartwright or Abner Doubleday?

You have to decide for yourself. Even though the evidence favors Cartwright over Doubleday, no one knows for sure because there wasn't enough proof at the time -- more than 150 years ago. Plus, there were accounts of "baseball" being played as early as the 1820s and 1830s in the Northeast, although those games may or may not have resembled today's game.

Personally, I believe that Al Spalding -- whose company, named Spalding, manufactures sports equipment -- established his panel for one purpose only: to manufacture an American origin for baseball.

[Paul Niemann]


Paul Niemann never fulfilled his dream of playing major league baseball, but his dad and one of his brothers played minor league baseball. He can be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2003

Last week's column in LDN: "A hunter's dream:
a story about fishing reels, bows and arrows, and guns"

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