History

Who Really Invented Baseball?

Newly auctioned historical documents suggest the true origins America's pastime may be lost to the mists of time.

Earlier this week, a set of historical documents called "The Laws of Base Ball" sold at auction for $3.26 million, becoming one the most valuable of sports memorabilia artifacts ever discovered.

The sale also opened up a new round of discussion about the origins of baseball in America. The story most people know – that Abner Doubleday invented the game in Cooperstown, New York – is a popular myth, but has been conclusively dismissed by historians.

The auctioned documents throw new light on the actual origins of baseball. Written by medical doctor and baseball league organizer Daniel "Doc" Adams in 1857, "Laws" establishes rules familiar to fans of the modern game – nine innings, 90 feet between bases, and nine players to a team.

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The documents are the earliest comprehensive rules in writing. But they're also very specific. The 12-page collection is essentially a written record of an official meeting, convened by 14 New York sports clubs, to establish rules for a local league - just one of several operating on the East Coast at that time.

Which raises the question: Is it even possible to trace the origin of baseball to one person, place or bright idea?

"In a word, no" says David Vaught, author of "The Farmers' Game: Baseball in Rural America" and head of the department of history at Texas A&M.

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"To quote the pioneering baseball historian Harold Seymour ... 'To ascertain who invented baseball would be equivalent to trying to locate to discoverer of fire.'"

Vaught notes that determining the origin of baseball as it is played today depends largely on how you define your terms.

"Just how far back baseball's history extends depends on how much one wants to stretch its definition," he says. "Various bat and ball games were played in France in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in England following the Norman invasion of 1066, in Central America by Mayan tribes in the 900s A.D., and in ancient Egypt as far back as 1500 B.C., as depicted on wall inscriptions in tombs excavated by archaeologists."

10 Weird Rules From Early Baseball

Still, "The Laws of Base Ball" do provide some interesting insights into the development of the modern game. For example, the rules established in the auctioned documents were designed for men in 19th-century New York social clubs.

"The New York game of baseball was developed by professionals looking for leisurely fun and to create a game that they - older men, not athletes - could play," says Villanova law professor Mitch Nathanson, author of the book "A People's History of Baseball."

Who Really Invented Baseball? Page 2

Often referred to as the "Knickerbocker Rules," this style of play was different than others in use at the time. One oft-cited example is that, in earlier variations of the game, fielders were allowed to throw the ball directly at runners on the basepaths to record an out. This was called "plugging" or "soaking" the runner.

The Knickerbocker Rules did away with this tradition. "These were not kids playing the game, these were older men," Natherson says. "As such, they didn't want to engage in an activity where they might be hit with a thrown ball while running the bases."

The Strange Truth Behind Nine Baseball Traditions

The documents sold at auction this week provide a critical written record of early baseball, as it was played in one particular region at one particular time. The rules established gradually merged with other traditions as the game grew in popularity.

As for the popular Cooperstown story, it turns out that narrative was largely a matter of marketing. In 1907, sporting goods manufacturer Al Spalding – sound familiar? – convened a panel of executives and lawmakers to establish the "official" origins of baseball in America. In order to lend the game an air of patriotism, Civil War general Abner Doubleday was anointed the inventor of America's pastime.

Baseball Superstitions Not a Game to Players

The Cooperstown legend has been largely discredited by scholars, but it still holds an important place in history.

"We know that Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball in 1839, and that in fact the game has roots in earlier practices and cultures," says Jerald Podair, professor of history at Lawrence University. "We will probably never ascertain the origins of the game with certainty. But the larger question is: Why do we need to?"

"The answer is that Americans need a creation myth for our national pastime in the same way we need one for the American nation itself. Just as we need the Declaration of Independence to have a specific date, place, and author, so do we also need baseball to have them as well."

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