In 1903, the British sportswriter Henry Chadwick published an article speculating that baseball derived from a British game called rounders, which Chadwick had played as a boy in England.
But baseball executive Albert Spalding disagreed. Baseball, said Spalding, was fundamentally an American sport and began on American soil.
To settle the matter, the two men appointed a commission, headed by Abraham Mills, the fourth president of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. The commission, which also included six other sports executives, labored for three years, after which it declared that Abner Doubleday invented the national pastime.
This would have been a surprise to Doubleday. The late Civil War hero "never knew that he had invented baseball. [But] 15 years [after his death], he was anointed as the father of the game," says John Thorn.
Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, has just written Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, about the sport's earliest days. He says the myth about Doubleday inventing the game of baseball actually came from a Colorado mining engineer.
"He claimed to have been present at a schoolboy game at which Abner Doubleday took a stick and drew in the dust the diagram for a completely new ballgame," says Thorn. "In fact, the ballgame that this Colorado mining engineer describes was very similar to the game that had been played in many localities, for probably 100 years."
So why would the Colorado mining engineering make up the Doubleday myth?
"It is the great question," says Thorn. "What brought a mining engineer to Akron, Ohio, where he typed out this letter to Spalding's secretary? Last I heard, there's not much metallurgical opportunity in Akron. And then he went back west and continued to correspond with the Cooperstown newspaper, embellishing his tale to say that he had played in the game with Doubleday and that it was a rollicking game."
The Real Story Behind Baseball
The real story of baseball is far older than what the Mills Commission determined, says Thorn. Different variations of the game were played in the 18th century in different parts of the country — New York, Philadelphia and Massachusetts each had their own versions — but eventually something like the New York game, which featured the creation of a foul territory and made players stay on the base path while running, won out — though not necessarily because it was a better game.
"I think the New York game won out through superior public relations because I have played recreation games of the Massachusetts game and it is a fantastically fun game both to play and watch," says Thorn. "The New York game, in many measures, is inferior. [In the Massachusetts game] you did not have to stay on the base path while you were running. So you could lead your opponents on a merry chase into the outfields and beyond."
But baseball — even the New York version — was still mainly considered a boys' game. For adults and the press to take notice, Thorn says, there needed to be another incentive: money.
From the beginning, baseball's rise coincided with professional gamblers taking notice. The people running gambling games realized that adults would be more interested in the game if they could make side bets during innings — and that the endeavor would also be profitable for the gambling halls themselves.
"I don't think you could have had the rise of baseball without gambling," says Thorn. "It was not worthy of press coverage. What made baseball seem important was when gamblers figured out a way to spur interest in it. ... In the beginning, there were people who turned their noses up at gambling but they recognized the necessity of it. You would not have had a box score. You would not have had an assessment of individual skills. You would not have had one player of skill moving to another club if there were not gambling in it."
But the gambling money soon entered the game itself. It was easy to approach a player and ask him to throw a game for a percentage of the coffers.
"Game-fixing, which we think of as the Black Sox scandal of 1919, dates back as early as 1865," says Thorn. "That is when we had our first scandal and three players were banned."
Thorn is the author and editor of many books about baseball, including Total Baseball: The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball and The Armchair Book of Baseball. He was also the senior creative consultant for the Ken Burns documentary Baseball.
On the migration of baseball from farm to city
"The earliest mentions that we can find of baseball by old timers take you back to west-central Massachusetts in the 1750s, '40s and in one citation 1735. The game has no record in the cities until, at the very earliest, 1805."
On early equipment and uniforms
"Fielding gloves are a much later innovation, in the 1870s. There's no indication that the early clubs had uniforms but they may have worn ribbons on the fronts of their shirts. They may have worn ribbons on their jerseys. The exchange of ribbons, which is a very medieval custom, was a part of the organized game from its earliest days — that the winning team would entertain the losing team at a post-game banquet and they would exchange prizes."
On how the modern game is different
"I think enclosed ballparks are of enormous importance because now you had a fence — no matter how distant — that you could hit the ball over, and little by little, slugging came into the game. Now Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Frank Chance — you name the hitting heroes of first decade of the century — there was no point in them hitting the ball, swinging at a pitch the way Babe Ruth did, because they weren't going to drive a mushy ball in the seveth inning over a fence 500 feet away anyway. The innovation of enclosed fields and ever diminishing distances to walls — so the ballplayers get larger, the fields get smaller, power becomes more easy to accomplish. The game changes and pitching becomes a game of throwing breaking balls. You can't throw a ball down the middle; you cannot take it easy with batters in the seventh, eighth and ninth positions, because anyone can hurt you in today's lineup."
On being Major League Baseball's official historian
"I take it philosophically to mean that baseball has looked at what I've done over the years and thought that I might be helpful in attaching younger fans to the joys of the history of the game. Baseball is a tremendously exciting game and there is no question that the game as played on the field today is far better than it was 20 years ago or 40 years ago or 60 years ago, and so on. However some things have been lost in terms of our attachment to story and I'm hoping that I can make the game's history come to life."