Posts Tagged ‘Abner Doubleday’

The War Hero and the Legend

August 29, 2012

General and Mrs. Doubleday

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).

Doubleday Monument at Gettysburg

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.

Doubleday’s grave

A Baker’s Dozen Things You Should Know About Early Baseball

January 10, 2011

Capitoline Grounds, Brooklyn (about 1870)

So far I’ve stayed away from questions of baseball’s origins or of its formative, non-professional years. The main reason for that is simply I don’t have the level of expertise to weigh in authoritatively. But with that caveat, I want to look at Paleolithic baseball in a few posts. Here’s a baker’s dozen of early thoughts on what I’ve found. Be aware that many of these comments are overly broad and are meant as general, rather than specific, in nature.

1. There seems to be general agreement that the Knickerbockers created a set of rules that became the basis for modern baseball, thus setting New York baseball apart from games with more informal rules. There is great disagreement as to who actually did them (Alexander Cartwright or someone else), how much impact they initially had, and when other teams began to use them as the basis for the way they played the game. The idea that the Knickerbockers invented the game is universally ridiculed as nonsense.

2. The best early teams were mostly centered around New York, with Brooklyn especially being a hotbed. And despite most being in the North, they were almost uniformly segregated by race.

3. Having said that, there were teams a lot of places from Boston to DC and further away from the coast.  Many had their own set of rules that differed greatly from what we might consider baseball.

4. By the mid-1850s the New York teams and rules were dominant and other teams were beginning to use the New York set of rules (founded in some degree on the Knickerbocker rules).

5. It was a hitters game. Even losing teams were scoring 25-30 runs.

6. Uniforms were already present and evolving, but neither ball parks nor equipment were particularly evolving.  Ball parks were in many ways simply large open spaces where someone stuck down some bases (That’s a bit overstated, but not by much.). There were no gloves and the primary difference between a bat and a table leg is that the latter came with a table top attached.

7. There were some genuinely excellent players and I plan to do a couple of posts on some of them.

8. There was already one great team, the Atlantic, and they also get a post.

9. The impulse to organize a league led to a loose confederation of teams and players that tried to set up a standard schedule and championship play without much success.

10. Professionalism was rearing its head as early as 1860 (and perhaps earlier) and would end up tearing apart the fabric of the earliest league and many of its teams. This would culminate with the Red Stockings, the Pike Case, and the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players.

11. Rosters were extremely tiny and apparently flexible. In following one team through one year, I’ve discovered great shifts in players and it’s almost impossible to tell that a team one year is the same team the next by simply looking at the rosters; turn-over is that great. By about 1860 this begins to cease and rosters become more stable, but not significantly larger.

12. The Civil War did a job on a number of teams and players.

13. And no where in all this does the name Abner Doubleday appear (but you already knew that, right?).

The Father of the National League

March 12, 2010

There’s a lot of dispute about who invented baseball. There’s the old Abner Doubleday story which is mostly debunked as a myth today. There are those who pick Alexander Cartwright and those that say all he did was write down what was already being done. Whoever you pick, and there are other choices, it gets simpler when you move forward in time. The National League was formed 2 February 1876 and the man who put it tgether was William A. Hulbert.

Hulbert was born in New York in 1832 and the family moved to Chicago in 1834. He married into money, or at least into a successful grocery business, then used the profits to make considerable cash in coal. He was also a huge baseball fan, backing the local club, the White Stockings, when it entered the fledgling National Association in 1871. The club lost its park in the Great Chicago Fire (Hulbert’s holdings in town seem to have been spared) and Hulbert provided a lot of the funding to restore the team to its status in the Association after it had to regroup following the fire. That got him a job wth the club and in 1875 he took over as team President.

The National Association floundered in 1875. There were problems with gambling, scheduling, salaries, competitiveness, rules. Well, there were a lot of problems and the league simply was in the process of collapsing.  By the end of 1875 Hulbert was convinced that the Association was failing, although some of the fault lay with him and his own contract practices. He decided to abandon the Association and establish a new league. Prior to the end of 1875 he had gotten agreements with the major western teams to form a new league. In the baseball language of the day “western” meant west of about Harrisburg, Pennsylvania not west of Albuquerque, so we’re talking teams in Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis.

In February 1876, Hulbert met with teams from Boston, Hartford, New York, and Philadelphia in a hotel in New York City (I’m informed that the hotel no longer exists-pity) to pitch the idea of a new league. According to legend, Hulbert locked the door to the room, pocketed the key, and wouldn’t let the other team presidents out of the room until they had an agreement. He got the agreement and the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was formed. It still exists.

It’s important to look at the title of the first two professional leagues for a second. There is the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players and the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. I’ve highlighted the last word in each name for a reason. It marked the real difference between the leagues. The players ran the Association but the owners ran the League. In a comment on the Pike case  post, Bill Miller noted that there was a baseball cabal that organized together for their mutual benefit. He’s right. That’s the most fundamental change that occured in February 1876. Now the clubs would run the show, not the players.

The National League worked and did so for a number of reasons. It was run on solid business principles, which meant it could turn a profit. It cut down on gambling. The money belonged to the owners and they could, and did, parcel it out as they wanted. Ultimately this became a huge problem that led to the Black Sox when owners became more parsimonious with their cash (Having just written that I can’t believe that there were owners more parsimonious than Hulbert, but there were.). Finally, the League made baseball respectable. Beer and whiskey were banned from games, there were no games on Sundays, cursing on the field was fined, as was public drunkenness. That put wealthier patrons in the stands and put more money in the pockets of the owners, some of which trickled down to the players.

Frankly, nobody liked Hulbert (well, maybe Mrs. Hulbert) so the owners drew straws (literally) to determine the first President of the National League. Morgan Bulkeley of Hartford won, but Hulbert remained the power that ran the league. In 1877 Hulbert followed Bulkeley as President (Bulkeley didn’t like the job and wasn’t all that good at it, so he didn’t even bother to attend the meeting to elect a President for 1877.) and remained the man in charge until 1882.

Hulbert ran the National League the same way Judge Landis ran the Commissioner’s office later on. Things were done his way and woe to the villain who crossed him. He tossed both New York and Philadelphia out of the league for refusing to make a western swing after they were eliminated from a possible pennant. The western teams lost gate revenue because of this and lost revenue was something akin to sin in Hulbert’s eyes. He established the idea that the National League office would set up schedules, not the teams. He handled the Louisville scandal quickly (another post for another time). He set up the first reserve rule for players to prevent contract jumping, and in 1881 expelled Cincinnati from the league for playing games on Sunday and selling beer in the stands. In 1882 he had a heart attack, dying the same day. In 1995, 58 years after Bulkeley, Hulbert was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame.

To be honest, I don’t think I would have liked Hulbert. I admire his desire to establish a league that would last, but he’s just not my cup of tea. It seems to me he spent most of his life looking for a fight and generally found one. But we baseball fans owe him.