Stories You Should Know: The Invention of Baseball

General John Buford led his Union Calvary into Gettysburg on June 30th, 1863. His were the first Union troops to enter the town, and he knew the significance of his position. “The enemy must know the importance of this position and will strain every nerve to secure it, and if we are able to hold it we will do well,” he told Col. Tom Devlin. The words were prophetic, for on July 1st Henry Heth’s Division of the Confederate 3rd Corps attacked his position. Thus began the biggest battle ever fought on the American Continent.

Buford’s Troopers held on stubbornly, but when Confederate 3rd Corps Commander A.P. Hill began deploying his entire 21,000 man Corps, Buford  knew his 4,000 man Calvary Division could not survive the onslaught. He called on the Union’s senior Corps Commander, in charge of George Mead’s left wing, General John Reynolds. Reynolds arrived at the scene just in time and was greeted by Buford, and in the most famous exchange of the battle, Reynolds asked,  “What goes, John?” In which Buford replied, “There’s the devil to pay.” Reynolds again inquired, “Can you hold?” The answer was typical Bufford, “I suppose.” 

It was 10:00 AM, Reynolds sent orders to the two other Corps in his command to hasten their way to Gettysburg. He then personally deployed his men as they entered the battlefield. His last order was, ”Forward men, forward for God’s sake and drive those fellows out of those woods.” He turned to instruct others of his advancing Army when he was struck in the back of the head by a sniper’s bullet and was dead before he hit the ground. 

It was 11:00 AM and the command of the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac fell into the hands of Reynold’s senior Division Commander, General Abner Doubleday. Doubleday was from upstate New York, graduating 24th out of 56 in the West Point Class of 1842. He did not have the stature or respect that Reynolds had. He was overweight, cautious, and did not have the confidence of his men. General Buford would ignore him, and his fellow officers held him in low regard, but he was now in command of the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

Doubleday’s men held their position on Seminary Ridge, giving better than they took from Hill’s Corps. His 9,500 held for five hours against the 16,000 Confederates converging on his position. When Oliver Howard’s 9,000 man 11th Corp arrived on the field, Doubleday deployed them to his right, north of Gettysburg. All was well until about 4 pm when unexpectedly from the north the Confederate 2nd Corp, 21,000 strong, arrived from Carlisle and overwhelmed Howard’s 11th Corps. Soon Howard’s men were racing to the rear, leaving Doubleday’s right exposed, forcing the General to order a retreat through Gettysburg towards Cemetery Ridge to the south of town. Considering the circumstances the retreat was orderly, and Doubleday deployed what was left of his Corp on the ridge that would be forever enshrined in American history the next day.

Howard’s battered Corp also stopped on the ridge, and the one armed General attempted to rally his men. He was having limited success, when onto the field arrived Winfield Scott Hancock. The arrival of “Hancock the Superb” was the turning point for the Army of the Potomac. The soldiers of both the 1st and 11th Corps rallied around the Pennsylvanian, who deployed his troops wisely and discouraged a further attack from the boys in Grey observing their moves.

Doubleday could be satisfied with his day’s work. The 1st Corp had managed to buy precious time for the Army, and the disposition of his troops atop the ridge convinced the Army Commander, George Meade, that this was good ground to fight on. It was Abner Doubleday’s finest hours as a soldier. 

Abner Doubleday’s satisfaction was short lived. Oliver Howard was no friend of Doubleday, and despite the fact that it was his men who abandon their line that led to the route of the Union Army on Day 1, he went to Meade to complain about General Doubleday. Meade had served with Doubleday during the Antietam Campaign, and his opinion of the portly General was no better than Bufford’s or Howard’s. On the night of July 1st, General Meade replaced Doubleday as commander of the 1st Corp with John Newton. Doubleday was justifiably hurt and was left with no command for the rest of the battle. 

That action meant that Abner Doubleday was not involved on the 2nd day when General Robert E. Lee attempted to turn both flanks of the Union Army. The Union Right was anchored on Culp’s Hill, where the remnants of Doubleday’s 1st Corp helped repel the Confederate attempt. On the Union Left is where Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine made their heroic stand on Little Round Top to save that flank. Late in the day the Confederates made a bold dash up the center of Cemetery Ridge, and just as they were about to pierce the Union Center, were flung back by the suicidal charge of the 1st Minnesota. George Pickett’s famous charge would occur on Day 3, but by that time the entire Army of the Potomac was up, and the Union outnumbered the Confederates 2 to 1. Despite the brave charge by Pickett’s men, the issue had been decided the day before when the Union held on to the good ground, selected by Abner Doubleday, atop Cemetery Ridge. 

Picketts Charge on the 3rd day of Gettysburg

Abner Doubleday would never fight again. He would leave the Army in 1873, then write two books about his War Experience, still bitter about the shabby treatment thrust upon him by the Army’s high command on the field he so gallantly defended.

 You may ask, “Why are we talking about the Battle of Gettysburg on A Sip of Sports?” 

The reason is Baseball. In 1903, interest in baseball became a national obsession. Abraham Mills was tasked to form a commission to clarify the origins of the game. It was widely thought that it was a mutation of the British Game, Rounders. The first meeting of the commission was in New York. Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt were in attendance. The Pro American crowd was not about to give the British credit for what was now “America’s Pastime”. The main two antagonist were Baseball Writer Henry Chadwick, and old time star player, now the owner of a Sporting Goods Empire, Albert Spalding. 

Chadwick had researched the subject, and figured it was a mutation of Rounders. There was no way Spalding was going to give the credit to the Brits for the invention of the game. Eventually they agreed to form a commission under the direction of Mills to give a definitive answer to the question. They chose six prominent baseball men to do the investigation. Morgan Bulkeley was the former Governor of Connecticut and the first President of the National League; Arthur Morgan was an ex-player and owner of the current Washington Franchise; Nicholas Young was the 5th President of the National League; Alfred Roach was another ex-player who had made a fortune in sporting goods; James Sullivan, was the current President of the Amateur Athletic Union and George Wright, the best player in baseball in the 1860s and 1870s. 

The Commission received a letter from a 71 year old mining engineer from Denver, Colorado, Abner Graves, that claimed that General Abner Doubleday invented the game at Otsego Academy and Green’s Select School in Cooperstown, New York in 1839. He said he was present when the General wrote down the rules, and came up with the term “Base Ball”.  This was the story the commission wanted to hear. The commission’s final report stated; “Baseball had its origins in the United States and according to the best evidence obtainable to date was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, New York in 1839.” It was dated December 30, 1907. Without any further investigation they proclaimed Abner Doubleday the inventor of Baseball. 

Due to the prestige of the commission members, this story was widely accepted for the next 50 years. It was the view of the public in the 1930s, when Cooperstown Hotel Owner, Stephan Clark, came up with the idea of building a Hall of Fame, honoring the best Baseball players in Baseball history. What better place to put it than the hometown of the inventor of the game; Abner Doubleday. That’s why the greats of baseball past are now honored in this small town in upstate New York.   

In the writings of General Doubleday, he makes no references to baseball. 67 of his diaries were found after his death, none mentioned the game. His family left Cooperstown in 1837, two years before the incident Graves describes. The Abner Graves account of the invention of baseball has been completely debunked in the last 50 years. 

The first documented rules of baseball were written in 1845 by Alexander Cartwright, Jr. (the diagram and rules are stored in the National Baseball Museum library). The first known game of baseball, played under Cartwright’s rules, was played on June 19, 1846 in Hoboken, New Jersey. The New York Baseball Club defeated the Knickerbockers 23-1. A scorecard of that game survives. 

Abner Doubleday died of a massive heart attack in 1893 at age 73. His legacy is one of a patriotic American, who served his country honorably in its most desperate time. There’s no evidence that he invented, nor have any involvement in the creation of baseball.  

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