An almost history of the baseball origin myth

Jim McIsaac

This is baseball, this is our heritage, this is our constant source of overly romanticized sentiment, and that is our spittoon, so please pass it this way and let's learn something.

Baseball is unlike any other sport. It is, so they say, a "pastoral" game most suited to the open fields of grass under a blue sky (go to hell, AstroTurf); a leisurely game synonymous with vacation, sunburn, and -- for some reason -- watery "lite" beer. It's a game in which the action is sporadic, leaving plenty of time for conversation, speculation, contemplation, and committing grotesque crimes against the English language on Twitter and Internet discussion forums.

It is, on the one hand, the world's easiest game, and yet also, an impossible game of constant failure. A game in which a batter who consistently succeeds only 40 percent of the time is considered worthy of the Hall of Fame, and a team that loses 40 percent of its games is probably headed for the playoffs. That is why baseball fans are usually overweight and prone to alcoholism. Because even if you have the best hitter on the planet on your team, you still have to watch him make an out in three of his five at-bats, and even if your team is headed for the World Series, you still have to watch them lose three to four games per week. Let's face it, your options are beer, pie, chocolate ice cream, insanity, or more beer.

So where did it all begin? What are the origins? Where does baseball come from? (If you said, "From its tiny little sex organ," I'd like to buy you a drink later.)

For many thousands of years, give or take, the holy legend has held that Abner Doubleday, a Civil War general in the Union Army, single-handedly (no one remembers where his other hand was at the time) invented the game of baseball in 1839 after watching a group of young men play something called "town ball" in a field in Cooperstown, N.Y. Yes, you read that correctly. The man who supposedly invented the national pastime -- an American hero, no less -- did so in Cooperstown. Clearly, this is a truckload of horse feces, because everyone knows that Cooperstown is where the Baseball Hall of Fame is located, so obviously Doubleday got his idea for the game after he visited the famous museum.

Perhaps the biggest clue as to the dubious nature of this "origin myth" is that it came from a commission that was appointed by A.G. Spalding, who had been arguing about the game's origins with Henry Chadwick, a English writer-type who said his country (Englandia) had basically invented the game (only they called it "Rounders," because that's so much more damned British-sounding).

Obviously, there was a lot at stake: On one hand, you had an American sporting goods tycoon and former pitcher, saying that baseball was an American game, and on the other, a British-spawned journalist saying it was a British game. To the surprise of no one, Spalding's commission "found" that the game had been for sure invented by Doubleday, in Cooperstown, probably with the assistance of his mom and while eating an apple pie. The commission could not say for sure whether Doubleday was sitting in a Chevy truck at the time, or whether he at some point needed to borrow a pencil from a youngster by the name of Babe Ruth who just happened to be passing by. But the commission wasn't exactly denying those things either, if you catch the commission's drift.

The commission's primary evidence was the testimony of Abner Graves, because the more guys named "Abner" in this story, the better. Graves allegedly had memories of seeing Doubleday's baseball-related sketches, and his story was published in a local paper. The commission decided that if it was in the paper, it must be true, and they published their "findings" based on that "research."

This version of the baseball origin myth stood for centuries, until just last Tuesday, when someone finally pointed out that a.) Abner Doubleday was at West Point Academy in 1839, b.) "Doubleday" is the name of a book publisher, and c.) Abner Graves' Twitter account isn't even verified. Even though several of Doubleday's letters and papers were found after his death, none of them mentioned anything about baseball, although they did refer to "twerking" an alarming number of times.

The real origin of baseball is closer to what Chadwick had said: It was a variation on Rounders -- a game invented by Matt Damon and Ed Norton to cheat poker players out of their money. It also has roots in a Boston-ized version of Rounders known as "base," which included rules governing the concept of strikeouts. For instance, a really good pitcher (or "feeder") who could strike out a lot of batters (or "strikers") was to be known as "An Ace of Base."

The original rules of the game were very different from what we know today. The batter was allowed to specify where he wanted the pitcher to throw the ball, the pitcher threw underhand, and the batter could take pitches all day long until he saw one he liked. The offense only got one out per inning, and a batter could be retired -- this is absolutely true -- by hitting him with the ball, also known as "soaking."

So the next time someone complains about catcher collisions or "neighborhood plays" in baseball, point out to them that in the old days players used to deliberately throw the ball at each others' bodies. If they won't listen, point it out again, this time by way of live demonstration. They'll thank you and probably offer to buy you a drink.

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