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baseball and Farmer John (not the Dodgers’ sponsor)

April 8, 2011

As Japan crumbles and the Mideast nations tumble, it seems like nothing can be

expected to stay the same these days.  It wasn’t my intention, but I’ve unmasked

another myth as ground-shaking as my discovery that lemmings don’t commit

mass suicide.

While working on yesterday’s post about farmer John Peterson, my reading mean-

dered from corporate farming to organic farming to biodynamic agriculture to

Rudolph Steiner to anthroposophy to theosophy to Abner Doubleday.  I’ll wait a bit

while you check out those links.






Welcome back.  I didn’t know that Abner Doubleday was a Union general in the Civil

War and fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter.  I didn’t know that he was key

in the early fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg.  I didn’t know that after the war he

patented the cable car system in San Francisco.  And I certainly didn’t know that he

was a president of the U.S. Theosophical Society.

The one thing I thought I knew about him is fallacious: he didn’t invent the game of

baseball.  More accurately, baseball invented him.  At the turn of the 20th Century,

there was heated debate about the origins of the national sport.  Albert Spalding, he

of sporting goods fame, formed a commission to settle the question.  Spalding had

been a star pitcher in the infancy of pro baseball, back when teams had names like

the Boston Red Stockings (now the Atlanta Braves) and the Chicago White Stockings

(the Cubs).

Spalding had career stats of a 2.14 ERA, a 253 – 65 win-loss record and a .313 batting

average.  He was a Hall of Fame shoo-in, but he’d have to wait until it was created.

In 1905 he was a club executive.  He asked his friend Abraham Mills to head a panel

of other sport execs and two U.S. senators to pinpoint the birth of baseball.

It took 3 years for these non-historians to conclude that, in 1839, Doubleday deve-

loped baseball in Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture in Cooperstown, N.Y.  The story had

some winning elements: a war hero, humble agrarian roots, no federal funding in-

volved.  Phinney’s grandson, in fact, married the daughter of James Fenimore

Cooper.  You can’t get more American than that.

Four things: (1) Mills, a long-time friend of Doubleday, had never heard Abner talk

about baseball; (2) Doubleday may have never set foot in Cooperstown, much less

a cow patty at Phinney’s pasture; he was at West Point all of 1839; and (3) none of

Doubleday’s many writings mention the sport.

The fourth thing deserves a paragraph of its own.  The principal source for the Mills

Commission findings was one letter written by a chap named Abner Graves.  The

elderly Graves did live in Cooperstown in 1839, but the letter didn’t mention a dia-

mond, positions or the writing of rules.  Graves may have not been reliable anyway.

He later murdered his wife and spent his last days in an asylum for the criminally



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