Look, I like Bud Selig. Veteran readers of this blog will know that when I start that way — with “I like Person X” — that usually follows with me attempting to then skewer Person X. Well, I can’t help it. I do like Bud. I like him for two main reasons, I think. One, he loves baseball. I feel sure that’s true. I couldn’t tell you that Roger Goodell loves football or that Paul Tagliabue loves football of that David Stern loves basketball or that Gary Bettman loves hockey. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, I don’t know (well, I don’t think Bettman loves hockey).
But I feel quite certain that Bud loves baseball and will happily spend his retirement days (if he ever retires) watching baseball games, eating hot dogs, talking baseball to whoever wants to listen. I’ve had enough conversations with him to pick up that he’s a fan. Yes, he’s also a fan of his own legacy, of pushing through his own agendas and all that stuff. But every commissioner is like that. Bud likes baseball and I generally like people who like baseball.
The second thing is more personal … and probably gets at the heart of why I start posts like this with “Look, I like Bud Selig.” I think Bud desperately wants to be liked. And I think that’s a rare thing among people of power. Most of them don’t care if they are liked or not. Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” said: “George, I’m an old man and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either so that makes it all even.” I think that’s probably the default position among the rich and powerful. And, probably because I have the same weakness, I tend to like people who really want to be liked. Bud certainly does.
So, because I like Bud, I just kind of shook my head sadly when I saw Tommy Craggs’ story at Deadspin, the one where he prints a Selig letter that calls Baseball’s Easter Bunny* Abner Doubleday the “Father of Baseball.”
*Where does the Easter Bunny actually rest in the “Stuff we wants kids to believe until they get older” myth collection? Yes, I know, it’s sad when kids finally have it broken to them that there is no Tooth Fairy and that the money they found under their bed came actually came from a small group of Silicon Valley inventors who figured out the chemical combination of turning teeth and pillow cases into quarters. But what about the Easter Bunny? Does it rank up there with the great myths — with the tooth fairy and Santa Claus and George Washington’s cherry tree and Mikey having his stomach explode with pop rocks? Or is it really kind of a second-rate myth?
Personally, I guess I would rank the myths like this:
No. 1: Santa Claus
No. 2: Tooth Fairy
No. 3: Your parents know better
No. 4: If you make that face, it will freeze that way.
No. 5: I will stop this car on the highway.
No. 6: No, that mascot is real.
No. 7: Easter Bunny
But maybe I’m underestimating the Easter Bunny.
Back to Bud. It’s probably worth starting by printing the Commissioner’s full letter.
As a student of history, I know there is a great debate whether Abner Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright really founded the game of baseball. From all of the historians which I have spoken with, I really believe that Abner Doubleday is the “father of baseball.” I know there are some historians who would dispute this though.
Thank you for taking the time to write to me. I hope that this has been helpful. I appreciate your interest in this most interesting historical subject.
Allan H. Selig
OK … OK … OK, where to begin. I suppose my first thought, my first hope, was that this was some kind of “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” kind of letter. That is to say, that my first hope that Bud Selig doesn’t REALLY believe that Abner Doubleday is the father of baseball, but he was saying it to keep alive the hopes of some innocent young child who desperately wanted to believe in Abner Doubleday. Yes, Jimmy, there is a Civil War Hero who invented baseball.
Unfortunately, this letter was not written to some innocent young child named Jimmy or Billy (or Josh) but instead to longtime autograph collector and autograph expert Ron Keurajian, who apparently is quite convinced that Doubleday invented baseball. Keurajian is writing a book on Hall of Famers autographs, and I suppose he wants to put in there his own version of Doubleday history.
This according to the Website HaulsOfShame: In (Keurajian’s) opinion, “A few ‘baseball historians’ with way too much time on their hands have attempted to rewrite baseball history. The Mills Commission included the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events of 1839. They ignore concrete evidence and wish to dethrone Doubleday as the game’s father. I suggest they find a new hobby, like bottle cap collecting.”
Fortunately, Keurajian’s sophisticated view* now has the endorsement of the commissioner of baseball.
*Bottle cap collecting? Do people really still collect bottle caps? What is this, 1937? This is a lot like those people who are always saying that people who like advanced baseball should “put away their slide rules.” Really? Slide rules? We’re figuring out baseball stats int he 17th Century?
I suppose it is worth once again laying out the basics of the Abner Doubleday myth. In the latter part of the 19th Century, there was quite a battle going on between two camps about the origins of baseball. The first camp, led by the writer and baseball missionary Henry Chadwick, believed that baseball had evolved from English game rounders. It didn’t hurt that he was from England. The second camp, led by pitcher, sporting goods magnate and and baseball pioneer Albert Spalding, felt certain that the game was purely American. It didn’t hurt that he was from America. The best guess now is that they were both wrong and that baseball, in some form, goes way, way, way back. But that’s not our discussion point here.
The argument was fun at first — you know, back when America had more visible issues such as the Civil War and Reconstruction — but then it started to get a bit testy. In 1889, after Albert Spalding had led a baseball tour to foreign lands, there was a big dinner held at Delmonico’s in New York on behalf of him and the baseball players (it is reported in many places that Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt among many others were there). The master of ceremonies was a man named A.G. Mills, who will become important in a minute. Mills apparently gave a heated speech in which he declared that baseball was most definitely an American thing. The crowd could not agree more and supposedly chanted “No rounders! No rounders!” Baseball as American Invention was becoming a nationalistic thing.
The debate went back and forth for a while, until Spalding decided in 1905, once and for all, that there needed to be resolution. Spalding, like many great men through history, wanted to get to the bottom of things and conclude he was right. And in this spirit, he put together a thoroughly biased committee to find the origin of baseball. He gave the committee a grand name: “The Special Baseball Commission to Establish the Origins of Baseball.” In history, it became known as “The Mills Commission.”
And this is because, yep, our old friend A.G. Mills who whipped that crowd up into a frenzy back in 1889 was put in charge of the commission. It’s clear that Spalding was not really looking for the origins of baseball. He was looking for the American origins of baseball.
Spalding and the Commission put out the word in newspapers and sports magazines that they were looking for any and all clues into how baseball was invented. It was sort of like Wikipedia in the Teddy Roosevelt Era. And like Wikipedia, the nutjobs came out. Some claimed to invent the game themselves. Others had crazed stories.
But one crazed story caught everyone’s attention. The following account is built from several sources but mostly David Block’s fascinating. Baseball Before We Knew It: A 71-year-old Colorado businessman with a bizarre past named Abner Graves happened to be in Akron, Ohio on business. He was in a hotel, he was reading the local paper, and there he saw a story about how LeBron James had jilted his … no, wait, that’s not right … he saw a story written by Spalding asking for information about how baseball was invented.
Well, it just so happened that Graves knew how baseball was invented. Perhaps he discovered it during one of his two stays in Iowa asylums. Really. Whatever, Graves sat down and wrote a letter to the Akron Beacon Journal, a letter which began with a brief introduction and then laid out 15 words that would change the game: “The American game of ‘Base Ball’ was invented by Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, New York.”
The letter was a rather involved explanation of how Abner Doubleday — “the same, who as General Doubleday won honor at the Battle of Gettysburg” — had come upon the not-especially-fun game of town ball in Cooperstown and had “made a plan of improvement” that included “calling it “Base Ball,” splitting the teams into 11-player sides and so on. Graves then listed off numerous people who played the game.
“‘Baseball’ is undoubtedly a pure American game, and its birthplace Cooperstown, New York, and Abner Doubleday entitled to first honor of its invention,” he concluded in his letter in to the paper.
It is perhaps fair to say that Abner Graves in today’s world would be known as a “kook.” But people were so eager to discover an American inventor of baseball that his letter was taken quite seriously, so seriously that the Akron Beacon Journal printed his story in the next day’s sports page. The understated headline: “Abner Doubleday Invented Base Ball.” The Akron Beacon Journal broke the baseball story of the century!
But it didn’t really matter. In those days, newspaper accounts — especially in smaller papers like the Akron Beacon Journal — did not make national ripples. Nobody cared. The story probably would have died right then and there except … someone sent it to the commission. And, well, the commission liked it. They liked it A LOT.
The story appealed to the commission people on several levels. One, Doubleday was an American, which was obviously a big part of their search. Two, even better, Doubleday was an American hero — a war hero, no less. Perfect. And three, there was a powerful connection between a couple of members of the commission and Doubleday. For one thing, according to historian Robert Henderson, A.G. Mills (a Civil War veteran) was a member of the honor guard that watched over the general’s body as it lay in state. So he was undoubtedly pleased to find out that Doubleday invented baseball!
And, Baseball Before We Knew It has a fascinating and convincing chapter on the connection between Doubleday and Spalding, a connection that involves the occult. You’ll want to read that one.
So, yeah, it was appealing to the commission to have Abner Graves not be a kook. Perhaps because of this, not one of them actually TALKED to Graves. This is the “bills don’t count unless you open the envelope” theory of business. Spalding did write a follow up letter to Graves, an absurdly enthusiastic follow-up letter when he basically PLEADED with Graves to please oh please oh please not be a kook. He wrote: “If the statement therein … can be verified by some supporting facts or evidence, I feel quite certain it will have great weight with the commission.”
Graves responded with a second letter that was, in my humble opinion, even kookier than the first. In this one, Doubleday explained the rule directly to Graves while he was playing marbles. “I remember well Abner Doubleday explaining “base ball” to a lot of us. He was 5 years old at the time.*
*Actually, he may have been six or seven — Graves wasn’t entirely sure what year this happened. It was the commission that decided on 1839.
The various inconsistencies of Graves’ letters have been made somewhat famous (though not as famous as the original absurdity that Doubleday invented the game). Doubleday was most definitely at West Point in 1839 and so not in Cooperstown. In his voluminous writings and letters, Doubleday never once mentioned baseball in any form, much less that he invented the sucker which, you know, he might have remembered. There was — best anyone can tell — not even one other person who claimed that Abner Doubleday knew anything at all about baseball. And even then, it was well known that Doubleday didn’t invent the word “baseball,” that there was a game known as baseball long before 1839.
Also, a few years later, Graves shot his wife and lived the remainder of his days in an asylum, though obviously the commission could not have known it at the time (though they might have known he had twice been put in asylums had they bothered to check). Before shooting his wife, Graves talked with reporters and expanded his story into even greater absurdity. And as Block wrote, this came to head in the Graves obituary that appeared in the Denver Post, which stated Graves had played for the first baseball team at Green College in 1840. In the same obituary, it mentioned that Graves was born in 1834. So unless he was like the baby in those e-Trade commercials, the whole thing seems kind of stupid.
The commission, though, had what they wanted — “proof” that the game was not just American born, but American hero born. Myth is powerful in all histories. Amerigo Vespucci may not have ever been the America named for him. The Declaration of Independence was probably not signed on July 4th. Thanksgiving may or may not go back to the pilgrims (it may have started long before the pilgrims).
“So what?” many will say. We are not celebrating precise history, they will say. That’s not the point. The point is we are celebrating something else, something harder to describe, something larger. A feeling. In the end, surely, baseball wasn’t invented at all. Surely it evolved over many, many years. But don’t call me Shirley — what’s interesting about that?
The commission had their perfect myth — a war hero in Abner Doubleday, the beautiful village of Cooperstown, a clean beginning. The commission released its finding that Doubleday invented baseball in 1908, and yes within a year a man named Will Irwin completely blew up the the commission’s findings in Colliers. Many, many other people blew up the commission’s findings. It didn’t matter. Doubleday is still known. Cooperstown is home to the Hall of Fame. A strong myth — especially one that strikes at the heart of patriotism — will tend to be a lot more powerful than a vague truth.
And, yes, the myth of Abner Doubleday really was about patriotism as much as anything else.
“How any one could contend that a game which is so fast and which requires so much agility and quick thought could be of English origin is hard to understand,” they wrote in the Washington Post in celebration of the commission’s findings.
“One of the most attractive features,” the New York Times wrote of Spalding’s Official Guide of 1908, “is the decision of a special commission of the highest authorities declaring the origins of baseball to be strictly American.”
“Just in my present mood,” Graves finished off his letter to the commission, “I would rather have Uncle Sam declare war on England and clean her up rather than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball.”
There are various interesting historical side notes to all this — for instance, there may have been a DIFFERENT Abner Doubleday, a cousin of the General, who (if you want to give Graves the benefit of doubt, and I’m not sure why you would) may have introduced some new rules and a new name to Cooperstown (though he certainly did not INVENT anything). There is plenty of fascinating stuff if you’re interesting in the origins of baseball.
But the larger point is simply this: Abner Doubleday is not the father of baseball. He’s not the older brother of baseball. He’s not a great uncle of baseball twice removed. He’s not related in any way to baseball. No historians disagree on this point. No historians EVER thought he was the father of baseball — the Mills Commission did not have any historians on it.
And Bud Selig should know this. Maybe he does know this. Whatever, as commissioner of baseball has embarrassed himself with this letter. If Bud Selig has ever spoken to even one historian who believes that Abner Doubleday had anything at all to do with the invention of baseball then he owes it to the world to name the historian so that either:
A. This historian can present evidence that has never been presented.
B. Other historians can laugh at this historian at parties.
Of course, Bud doesn’t just say there was one historian. He suggests there were many. “Of ALL of the historians” — he says. Yep, there are apparently many historians out there, a secret society of them who write scholarly papers like “The Great Pumpkin: Linus was right!” and “How Music Boxes Really Work (The Tiny Little Ballerina Theory)”. And these historians divulge their evidence to the commissioner that Abner Doubleday did indeed invent baseball no matter what anyone says.
I like Bud Selig. I really do. I like him so much, that I make this offer: Bud, if you ever find yourself in this sort of position, where you are debating whether or not to tell someone that he thinks Abner Doubleday is the father of baseball, just call me. Really. I’ll tell you my honest opinion about what you should do. In this case, my advice would have been: Uh, really, don’t.