In the Beginning the Legend and the Truth

Many children in the United States grow up believing that Abner Doubleday. According to legend, in 1839 Doubleday invented a game called town ball. A man who claimed to be a Doubledays’ childhood friend told a group investigating the origins of baseball that he was there in 1839 when Doubleday created the national pastime. When a tattered baseball was found among Doubleday’s belongings after his death, the legend was accepted as fact. The 1907 commission believed the Doubleday story. That tattered ball is now enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, which was built in Cooperstown, New York, near the field where Doubleday supposedly gave birth to the game. (See the book Abner Doubleday: Young Baseball Pioneer at Amazon.com)

It makes a great story, but further investigation shows it probably isn’t true. Doubleday’s friend may have been in Cooperstown in 1839, but Doubleday himself was 170 miles away at West Point where he was a cadet at the United States Military Academy. Doubleday kept detailed journals of his life but never once mentioned baseball. Hmmm…

Base ball (it was often written as two words) was mentioned in published material well before 1939. In a children’s alphabet book published in England in 1744, the letter B is represented by base ball. The first reference to baseball in a book printed in the United States occurred in 1834, five years before the game was even officially invented by Doubleday.

The History of Baseball – The Truth
If not Doubleday, then who? The truth is that baseball, like most sports, evolved over time. The roots of baseball can be found in the English games of cricket and rounders. English emigrants brought these games with them to the United States. Rounders was played with four bases. A feeder tossed a ball to a striker who hit the ball with a stick. The striker was “out” if he swung and missed three times or if a defender caught a hit ball. The striker was also out if a defender threw a ball and hit him as he ran. Sounds an awful

The First Game
Regardless of exactly how the game started, by the early 1840s, baseball-type games were being played in vacant lots and fields along the eastern seaboard. Alexander Cartwright, a clerk in Manhattan, helped organize the first baseball club in 1842. Cartwright wrote down rules for the Knickerbockers based on rounders. It was Cartwright who limited the number of outfielders to three, and came up with tagging the runner rather than throwing the ball at him. Cartwright also introduced the idea of three outs to end an inning. The Knickerbocker Rules became the basis for American baseball. (For an excellent read, click here to see the book “The Man Who Invented Baseball” by Harold Petersen)

The Knickerbockers mostly played scrimmage games against themselves. They would divide into “nines” and play afternoon games. In 1946, the Knickerbockers rented Elysian Field in Hoboken, New Jersey and played the New York Club. This contest, which New York won 23-1, is considered the first baseball game between two teams. In this first game, pitches were thrown underhand and players did not wear gloves.

23-1? You’ve Got to Be Kidding
The score of that first game, 23-1, doesn’t sound much like a modern baseball score, unless you consider that recent 26-5 debacle between Kansas City and Detroit (Sept. 9, 2004, won by Kansas City). When baseball first stated, games were played until one team reached 21. The concept of limiting a game to nine innings rather than 21 runs was introduced in 1857.