Tuesday, July 16, is the All-Star Game for Major League Baseball 2013. It is always an exciting event, full of excellent players, good baseball (mostly) and a nice sense of humor. The game itself is known as the “National Pastime.” One of the reasons for this soubriquet may be that it was about the only sport played during the American Civil War.
Historiography ties baseball forever to Abner Doubleday, although there is plenty of proof he had little or nothing to do with popularizing the sport. Still, the story is interesting. By the second half of the 19th century, baseball emerged as a sport that could be played without too much equipment, and at all skill levels. It was well on its way to becoming a popular sport played by both amateurs and professionals when A. G. Spalding, a Major League player himself in the 1870s and a sporting goods magnate, created the Mills Commission in 1905 to determine the origin of the game.
Within a few years, the panel found the answer it sought. Abner Graves, a mining engineer, who lived in Cooperstown, New York wrote that Abner Doubleday, decorated Union Army officer who served from 1842-1873, through the Siege of Fort Sumter, the Battle of Gettysburg, desk duty in Washington, D. C., the Indian Wars, and a tour of duty in San Francisco, claimed Doubleday also invented baseball, in 1839, in Cooperstown.
This answer satisfied the Mills Commission, made up of baseball men, not historians. The conclusions were published in 1907, claiming that Doubleday had not only invented baseball at Cooperstown in 1839, but that Doubleday had invented the word “baseball”, designed the diamond, indicated fielders’ positions, and written the rules. It did not seem to matter to anyone that no written records in the decade between 1839 and 1849 were ever been found to corroborate these claims, nor could Doubleday be interviewed. General Doubleday died in 1893.
Thirty years after the Mills Commission “findings,” Stephen C. Clark, an art collector, baseball fan, and hometown booster, asked Ford Frick, president of the National League, to support the establishment of a baseball Hall of Fame in, of course, Cooperstown, New York. Three years later the Hall of Fame officially opened. To mark the occasion, Time magazine wrote:
The world will little note nor long remember what Doubleday did at Gettysburg, but it can never forget what he did at Cooperstown.
We now know part of the truth, at least. Abner Doubleday was a student at West Point in 1839, and only stayed with an uncle who lived outside Cooperstown when he was an adolescent. To his credit, Doubleday never claimed the game was his invention, nor did his letters or diaries ever mention the game. He was never even inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Nevertheless, Baseball and the American Civil War are inextricable bound together. Recently, a baseball itself gained some attention. G. F. Hellum recovered it from the battlefield of Shiloh, Tennessee, in 1862. Giles Hellum, according to Slate, a blog with a historical bent, “was an African-American who worked as an orderly for the Union Army at Shiloh. He later enlisted as a soldier in the 69th Colored Infantry.” Hellum’s baseball is a “lemon peel” ball, and is looser and softer than modern baseballs. It is hand-stitched in a figure 8 pattern with thick twine. The ball was unveiled on the opening day of a new online baseball museum/archive www.TheNationalPastime.com.
Whether Union soldiers taught the game to Confederates during prison sentences, or whether Rebel soldiers picked it up somewhere else, baseball quickly gained a universal popularity both North and South. All that was needed was a sturdy stick, a ball, and a few willing players to provide a brief, too brief, respite from the horrors of the battlefield or the boredom of the camps.
It’s our game . . . America’s game, with the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere: it belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life. Walt Whitman
“Baseball and the Blue and the Gray” by Michael Aubrecht
“Pre-1845 Baseball: Was Abner Doubleday Really the Originator?” by Tom Helgesen
Baseball Americana by Harry Katz, Frank Ceresi, Phil Mitchell, Wilson McBee, SusanReyburn. Smithsonian Books.
“Base Ball and the Civil War” by Carole D. Bos, J.D.