We all know this story. Abner Doubleday, West Point cadet, is in Cooperstown, New York when he sets out the first baseball diamond and invents Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Derek Jeter. It’s a great story. It’s utter nonsense, but it is a great story. I decided it was time to introduce you to the man who is supposed to have invented baseball all by himself one pleasant afternoon.
Doubleday was born in New York in 1819, son of a War of 1812 veteran and a two term Congressman. He moved to Cooperstown, living with an uncle. He spent time as a surveyor and then entered West Point in 1838. He graduated in 1842, 24th in a class of 56. That got him a commission in the United States Artillery.
That led to a fairly typical military career (at least until 1860). He served in coastal fortress garrisons, saw service in the Mexican War, and in 1858 found himself assigned to the garrison at Charleston, South Carolina. By 1860 he was second-in-command to Robert Anderson. With the move to Fort Sumter in December 1860, Doubleday assumed status as the executive officer of the garrison in the fort and was tasked with commanding the gun that fired the first return shot when Confederate artillery fired on the fort in 1861. Hence, in some ways he can be given credit for firing (or at least ordering) the first Northern shot in the Civil War.
After the surrender of Sumter, Doubleday commanded artillery and later infantry in defense of Washington. By August 1862 he was a brigade commander in the Army of Virginia and fought at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He took temporary command of his division on the final day of the battle and served well as commander of the rear guard. At South Mountain in September 1862, his division commander was wounded and Doubleday again took command of the division. He fought at Antietam, being wounded (along with a lot of other men on the bloodiest day in US military history). Upon his return to duty he retained command of the division serving at both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville (his division was not engaged at either battle).
In July 1863 he took temporary command of I Corps of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg when his corps commander (John Reynolds) was killed. Doubleday did well enough but wasreplaced on the last day of the battle. Apparently army commander George Meade didn’t like Doubleday at all. He spent the remainder of the Civil War as part of the garrison of Washington, DC, generally serving on courts-martial boards. While in DC he became friends with Abraham Lincoln and was one of the officers chosen to accompany the President to Gettysburg when Lincoln gave his famous speech (although I’m not sure his service at the battle didn’t have more weight than his friendship with the President on this occasion).
Following the Civil War, Doubleday was assigned regimental command. He later served in San Francisco where he patented the cable car system that still runs there. He ended his military career commanding the 24th Infantry, an all black regiment. He retired first to New York, then to New Jersey. He wrote three works (one not found among his papers until years after his death) and died in 1893. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
And no where in all of that is there any mention of baseball. Doubleday never claimed to have invented the game, never mentioned it in any of his papers or published works, and as far as I know never saw a game. I’ve read his published works and they’re not a bad read. No where in them does he mention that he invented baseball. By his death in 1893 professional baseball was a growing concern. The National League ruled the sport, the popularity of the game was growing. It seems to me that if he had invented the sport, he’d want to take credit for it at some point. He never did.
Abner Doubleday was something of a minor American hero in the period after the Civil War. He was certainly the most famous figure from Cooperstown in the post bellum era. Maybe it was natural that someone would claim for him the title of creator of baseball. It certainly made a better story than claiming a lawyer (William Wheaton), a doctor (Daniel Adams), an insurance man (Duncan Curry), and a bookseller (Alexander Cartwright) did it. But Doubleday didn’t do it. Having said that, he’s still an interesting character to know about.