The Myth of Baseball and Abner Doubleday: The Perfect American

Abner Doubleday was a renowned Civil War general for the Union, yet a half century after the end of the bloodiest American military conflict in history, his name became synonymous with baseball for reasons that are difficult to discern in the twenty-first century. Known mostly for firing the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter and for his role at Gettysburg, the West Point graduate achieved his greatest fame 12 years after his death when a group of sporting men got together in 1905 and decided to credit Doubleday with the invention of baseball—America’s pastime. The Mills Commission (1905-1908) report cited Doubleday’s creation of the game in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839 as the origin of the United States’ favorite sport in the early twentieth century.

source: National Baseball Hall of Fame

In reality, a combination of several factors—his minor-hero status from the war, his family’s proximity to Cooperstown in his youth, and his overall “American” persona/lifestyle as reflected in his persona writings and religiosity—made Doubleday the perfect mythical creator of a larger-than-life cultural and social phenomenon which was just starting to dominate the twentieth-century sport scene in the United States. This myth sold the game as something truly American and pure of heart, rather than the international amalgam it truly was.

The Myth Itself

The chairman of the Mills Commission, Abraham Mills, was the National League Commissioner at the time, and he had known Doubleday during the Civil War. But the myth never went far with those that knew their baseball history, as noted by Edward Achorn in 2011, as it was designed for easy, popular consumption. Achorn wrote, “[T]he commission ruled that the National Pastime was not some weedy outgrowth of the British game of rounders but, rather, an all-American product from the brain of an all-American hero, a Civil War general who aimed the Union's first shot of the war from Fort Sumter.”[1] In an American society coming into its own as a world power in the early twentieth century, Doubleday provided patriotic mythos to baseball’s origin story that the money-paying public would consume readily. Doubleday fit this bill, readily.

However, baseball’s popularity also had brought about a darker element of American culture: betting. Achorn emphasized this when he observed, “Betting made a game more interesting, more worth attending; it encouraged the development of statistics and game coverage, since bettors wanted to evaluate players and teams.”[2] Thus, the Doubleday myth served another aim: keeping the game itself pure in the eyes of the majority of paying fans. If a man that noble invented the game, then surely it was going to be a good place for the family to enjoy a game together, regardless of the underlying whispers that threatened to dampen the “purity” of the American game.

Of course, Doubleday’s military record influenced the mythmaking and resulting mythos, and it was not just because of Fort Sumter and Gettysburg. Doubleday also served in the Mexican-American War, one of the military conflicts preceding the Civil War—and one of the influential events of the mid-nineteenth century that led to the Confederacy. As César González Gómez noted in his article “March, Conquest, and Play Ball,” the Doubleday creation myth worked in reverse through the records of this military conflict: “As soon as historical records emerged about the presence of Abner Doubleday in the war, mythical stories of baseball pioneering began to be fabricated.”[3] This basically means that evidence suddenly “appeared”—post de facto—to augment Doubleday’s status as baseball’s inventor.

In addition, while the Mexican-American War certainly was a controversial conflict that is not romanticized as much as the Civil War, it merely enhanced the reputation of Doubleday as a selfless, military-serving American patriot who taught the game to innocent Mexican children during the war. As Gómez wrote, “A daguerreotype that survived the war features a young Abner Doubleday striking a perfect pose. Elegant, thin, and with his emblematic curly hair barely contained under his cap, Doubleday is captured in the company of several native Saltillans.”[4] Whether or not there is a baseball, a bat or glove in the daguerreotype, the image augments the myth.

Yale University daguerreotype
source: Yale University

Again, this perception of Doubleday as a true American fit the needs of the Mills Commission to create a proper myth for the demands of baseball as an emerging business. American purity needed to be shared with those less fortunate. Doubleday became part of the mythos, due to his military career and the record of experience left behind after Doubleday’s death in 1893 as reflected by items like the daguerreotype Gómez references.

Deconstructing the Myth by Defining the Real Doubleday

Historian John M. Carroll shared an interesting anecdote in his 1989 article, “The Doubleday Myth and Texas Baseball”, published in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Carroll wrote of sports historian Robert W. Henderson’s attempts in the 1940s to disprove the Doubleday legend, providing readers with some humor in the process: “In 1942 Henderson chided the baseball establishment by stating that ‘if Spalding wanted to be patriotic, why didn't he give credit to Abe Lincoln, who was actually playing baseball when informed that he'd been elected President?’”[5]

No doubt the Great Emancipator himself would have provided a better “creation myth” than Doubleday, but of course, the Lincoln idea would have been more easily dismissed than the Doubleday one eventually was. In essence, however, Doubleday was an “everyman” version of Lincoln, having fought for the Union cause with distinction in two significant historical moments of the Civil War.

This leads to the question of Doubleday’s actual character and persona as part of the mythmaking process—beyond his “American purpose” as the creator of baseball, patriot and all. After all, the man behind the myth does matter, too. Who was Abner Doubleday?

He already was an idealized man by the time the Mills Commission anointed him. Bruce T. Gourley identified Doubleday as a Baptist[6], meaning the Civil War brigadier general was a God-fearing, Christian soul. That is precisely the kind of “impeccable” individual the Mills Commission would want associated with a creation myth. Interestingly enough, both Doubleday and his wife—the former Mary Hewitt, the granddaughter of Declaration of Independence signatory Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey—also were “fervent abolitionists,” according to Tom Glass.[7]

Wikipedia Commons
source: Wikipedia Commons

Even though Major League Baseball was a harshly segregated professional sport during the Mills Commission era, the game itself still appealed to African Americans, of course. Even if African American players couldn’t play the major-league game (yet), they still had money to spend on the sport. Doubleday was American, through and through, politically and spirituality. As noted in a collection of his old writing put together and edited by Joseph E. Chance,
[T]he Doubleday family was serious about is religion, and a reader of Doubleday’s reminiscences will no doubt be impressed by the solid moral values that were inculcated into the writer by his mother and father. Even in his later years, Doubleday never abandoned the virtues of modesty, self control, and abstinence.[8]
Doubleday was tremendously religious and virtuous, and the Mills Commission could not have picked a better “creator” for the sport: Doubleday feared God, and he hated slavery. As the United States evolved into the twentieth century, with African-American enfranchisement via the Fifteenth Amendment, he was an excellent representative of what the country aspired to be—whether or not it truly was.

Finally, there is the reality of Doubleday’s military career and his role in the two key Civil War events: Fort Sumter and Gettysburg. A God-fearing abolitionist married to a descendant of a Founding Father, Doubleday literally was American as it got in the late 1800s. He fought for the Union against the evil of slavery—and remember, in the early 1900s, the southernmost major-league team was still north of the Missouri Compromise’s 36˚30’ parallel—and he now was credited with “inventing” America’s pastime, too.

It was a match made in heaven for the Mills Commission, and Doubleday’s own writings confirmed his military legend: He was the author of many battle memoirs and accounts of Union wartime activity. For example, Doubleday co-authored a journal article in 1891 entitled, “Gettysburg Thirty Years After”, published in The North American Review by the University of Northern Iowa.

When he wrote, “The Count of Paris said there is no battlefield in Europe so magnificently adorned. Gettysburg is now the Waterloo of our country, and deserves a visit from every tourist; not only on account of its historical associations, but as one of the art-centres of America”[9], Doubleday sounded patriotic beyond measure. Waterloo represented the defeat of despotism in Europe, and Gettysburg had come to represent the turning of the tide in the preservation of the U.S. republic.

It is also the reverence that Doubleday provided in his prose that reminds us why the Mills Commission was so enthralled with the potential of his “connection” to America’s pastime: “Not having been at Gettysburg for several years, I … was agreeably surprised to see so many beautiful and attractive memorial structures. All over the wide fields marble soldiers are represented as kneeling, loading, and firing, and the effect is very striking and picturesque.”[10]

Gettysburg monument
source: Gettysburg Stone Sentinels

Even still pictures were not readily available everywhere, so Doubleday’s descriptions would serve to many as the next best thing to actually going to Gettysburg themselves. Invoking the imagery of marble statues connects Gettysburg—and by extension, Doubleday himself—to the statues of Greek and Roman heroes in the minds of readers, and it raises Doubleday and his fellow Civil War veterans up on a pedestal perfect for the creator of America’s great game of baseball.

Yet the man was also humble: “Toward the close of the contest Hancock rode up and told me that he had been sent to assume command … He was our good genius, for he at once brought order out of confusion and made such admirable dispositions …”[11] This is not a man writing to profess his own “glory days” years after the fact; Doubleday is still giving credit where it is due and almost deflecting any of his own achievements by praising others first.

When he does discuss his own contributions, Doubleday does so again in the humble tone of a solider just doing his duty: “I had no desire to see the men of my command sent to adorn the prisons of the Confederacy, and I therefore did not insist on any technicality which would be certain to produce that result.”[12] This is not a man thumping his own chest; it is a man committed to his men, his superiors, and the Union ideals. Doubleday brought together so many positives of the American way that he was perfect for the mythical role as the father of baseball, even several years after his death.

An Ideal American for America’s Pastime

Doubleday’s “voice” as expressed through his own writing simply magnifies his likability. In his 1888 book, Gettysburg Made Plain, the general endeared himself to Americans by sharing his down-to-earth perspectives on the famous battle. In the Preface, Doubleday wrote,
Every intelligent American desires to learn the principal features of the campaign and battle of Gettysburg … In this little treatise the whole matter is elucidated in general terms by explaining the strategic reasons for the different changes of position, leaving out the minor details which are so perplexing. Thus treated the knowledge may be easily acquired, and will prove valuable as an introduction to the larger works on the same subject.[13]
By using his experience and this aforementioned “everyman” persona, Doubleday connected with his audience in an accessible way other authors of the time could not. Like Lincoln, Doubleday had an ability to relate to the common man, and the commoner valued this individual reached down from the pedestal to communicate as equals. This means an American hero was able to share his feats and the larger impact of (arguably) the most important battle of the Civil War with his next-door neighbor, in essence.

Baseball Magazine
source: Baseball Magazine

Take, for example, this excerpt regarding the defeat of Confederacy military hero Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg: “Lee having failed in his attacks both on Meade’s left and right had to decide at once whether he would give up the contest and retreat, or make another attempt to force the Union line.”[14] There is a humble tone in the passage, but there is also confidence and Unionist idealism. These written words built the personality trait that fueled the baseball myth, because Doubleday may have been a hero—but he was also just like the average fan in the ballpark grandstand that loved the game itself.

He was the friendly neighbor that invented baseball and would also play catch with you in the front yard if he could. Baseball fans themselves wanted to feel like they could be a part of the game’s history in that same way as Doubleday, even if that was folly.

Those that served under Doubleday in the military also vouched for his modesty: “His staff officers remembered General Doubleday as a man who neither used a profane word nor partook of liquor or tobacco.”[15] Almost everyone would want this man as a friend, a neighbor, and an American icon. Doubleday’s accessibility fueled the connection a fan could have to the game, being able to reach out almost and touch the heroes themselves. 

It was not just Doubleday’s own writings, either, that made him accessible to John Q. Public. Over the years, many people wrote about Doubleday and his exploits, although the scholarship has increased since his association with baseball first became a thing. A good example is the 1980 dissertation of David Morgan Ramsey, then a doctoral student at Florida State University. Entitled “The ‘Old Sumpter Hero’: A Biography of Major-General Abner Doubleday," Ramsey used many sources from the prior century to illustrate Doubleday’s legendary status from the first Civil War shot fired in South Carolina.

However, Ramsey also noted this intriguing fact: “That no scholarly work has been done on him, especially on his Civil War career, is unusual. Many primary sources are available for a work on his life … A vast number of secondary sources supply information on all phases of Doubleday’s life.”[16] These sources corroborate the ideas above regarding the Union general’s character and persona.

Take Doubleday’s record at West Point, the pre-eminent producer of American political leadership during the nineteenth and early twentieth century: “Doubleday did well at West Point … [he] graduated July 1, 1842, number twenty-four in a class of fifty-six.”[17] Compared to other military heroes of the 1800s in American lore (i.e., George Armstrong Custer graduated last in his 1861 class), this was an impressive achievement. Even the great Dwight D. Eisenhower finished only sixty first in his West Point class of 164 cadets.

Doubleday served in the Mexican-American War without distinction[18] and was relieved when the conflict ended: “Several times in Mexico he felt his life endangered and was relieved to be released from this anxiety …”[19] Of course, Doubleday is most known for his involvement at Fort Sumter and at Gettysburg; in fact, when President Lincoln gave the famous Gettysburg Address in November 1863, Major-General Abner Doubleday was on the platform with him.[20]

We have to consider this fact in both a modern-day sense and from the perspective of the men who chose Doubleday to represent baseball. Start with the latter: The memory of Lincoln is still fresh in many American minds, as the Great Emancipator and the man that brought the Union forward into that “modern” time. Pairing the creator of baseball—America’s pastime—with Lincoln was a foolproof plan for the Mills Commission.

Yet from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is amazing to think this alleged creator of baseball was chilling with Lincoln for the Gettysburg Address. We know the Doubleday myth is false at this point, but it still impresses us to know that he brushed shoulders with one of the greatest Presidents ever at such a significant moment in American history. Thus, the Doubleday myth’s power is clear to anyone, at any time, since its own inspired creation in the early 1900s.

Why the Myth Endures

The Mills Commission had a motive: to make baseball purely American. Other baseball creation legends have more tangible facts attached to them, but perhaps it doesn’t matter now: The myth endures. Doubleday was a war hero, descended from American colonists, and married to the granddaughter of a Founding Father. He was a staunch Unionist, and unlike Lincoln—the President he supported and fought under as a general in the Civil War—Doubleday was an accessible individual, seemingly just like everyone else.

Beyond his pedigree and his war legend, he was a shining example of what Americans wanted to be: God fearing, morally righteous, and the “everyman” everyone else could aspire to be in their own lives. These seem to be the clear reasons why he was chosen by the Mills Commission in the early-twentieth century as the “inventor” of the American game, because few “average” citizens in the nation’s past could have lived up to the legend with the real facts from their actual lives. Abner Doubleday could do just that, and baseball needed that kind of legendary persona at the time.

source: Wikipedia Commons

It is important to remember that Doubleday himself never claimed to have invented the game, which fits in with the modest persona he displayed in his public life. This would be yet another reason for the Mills Commission to choose him as the creator: his unassuming nature. As Chance wrote, “The voices of today’s sports historians reverberate in strident and accusing tones to attack the claims of the Mills Commission and even the character of this kind and gentle man.”

While historians can attack the Mills Commission for its lack of integrity and/or historical rigor, turning that derision at Doubleday makes no sense: He represented the best of what American history had to offer in the early twentieth century, as well as the best of what Americans at that time could strive to be when they played—and paid to watch—their national pastime.

About the author: Sam Fleischer is a third-year Ph.D. student working under Dr. Matthew Sutton in the field of modern American history. His research focuses on gender, politics, and race in international sports during the latter half of the twentieth century. This post is a very abbreviated version of his M.A. thesis written at Arizona State University during the 2016-17 academic year under the guidance of Drs. Penelope Moon, Donald Critchlow, Matthew Garcia, and Calvin J. Schermerhorn.

[1] Edward Achorn, “Diamond Mythology; No, baseball was not invented by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown,” The Weekly Standard (September 5, 2011), 1.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] César González Gómez, "March, Conquest, and Play Ball: The Game in the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848", Base Ball 5, no. 2 (2011), 13.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John M. Carroll, “The Doubleday Myth and Texas Baseball”, The Southwestern Historical Quarterly Vol. 92, No. 4 (April 1989), 598.

[6] Bruce T. Gourley, “Baptists and the American Civil War: In Their Own Words,” Baptist History and Heritage 48, no. 2 (2013): 92.

[7] Tom Glass, “Union Wives and Their Generals”, Military Images Magazine Spring 2016, 35-36.

[8] Abner Doubleday, edited by Joseph E. Chance, My Life in the Old Army: The Reminiscences of Abner Doubleday from the Collections of the New York Historical Society (Ft. Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1998), 1.

[9] Abner Doubleday, et al, “Gettysburg Thirty Years Later”, The North American Review, Vol. 152, No. 411 (Feb., 1891), 143.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 146.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Abner Doubleday, Gettysburg Made Plain (New York: The Century Co., 1888), 7.

[14] Ibid., 45.

[15] Doubleday, My Life in the Old Army, 1.

[16] David Morgan Ramsey, “The ‘Old Sumpter Hero’: A Biography of Major-General Abner Doubleday”, University Microfilms International (1980), vii.

[17] Ibid., 5.

[18] Ibid., 22-39.

[19] Ibid., 38-39.

[20] Ibid., 184.


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