Abner Doubleday: An American Life Beyond the Legend

General Abner Doubleday of the United States Army, veteran of the Civil War and, contrary to legend, not the inventor of baseball. (Image courtesy of Legends 102.7.com)

A friendly reminder that baseball wasn’t simply created. No, America’s pastime is the creation of hundreds of years of evolution, a byproduct that would make even Charles Darwin proud. British colonists in the Americas used to play a game known as “Town Ball“, a game descendent from Rounders which is believed to be the oldest known direct descendent of our beloved game. Of course, there’s cricket which, today, is still wildly popular in England and its former realms like South Africa, India and Australia. The most concrete evidence we have of an actual modern day starting point is Alexander Joy Cartwright (The “Father of Modern Baseball”) and his team the New York Knickerbockers (No, not the one with the very talented and very tall Latvian rookie sensation). They are believed to have formed the first ever team dedicated to the game of baseball.

A portrait of a young Albert Goodwill Spalding. (Image courtesy of Fine Art America.com)

That means that it was not, in fact, the brain of General Abner Doubleday that cooked up the great game we know today. For a long while, it wad believed that the successful Union General was the father of the game. It wasn’t true, but instead the brainchild of baseball mogul Albert Goodwill Spalding. The former owner of the Chicago White Sox ran with the idea in order to create the mythology that baseball’s origins lied securely and exclusively in the soil of America. In fact, the baseball industry loved the idea so much, that they’d eventually erect a museum in Doubleday’s hometown, Cooperstown, New York. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is now recognized as the Mecca for every single baseball fan. The baseball field located next door bears the name “Doubleday” after the general.

It is a myth, more than a myth, it is baseball mythology. But behind this veil of legend there lies the story of a great American General named Abner Doubleday. Born in 1819, Doubleday’s father, Ulysses F. Doubleday, was a veteran of the War of 1812 and later held a seat in the U.S. Congress. Young Abner studied civil engineering and would later go on to graduate from the prestigious West Point Military Academy at the middle of his class. During the Mexican-American War, he served as a garrison officer, but largely missed much of the action. In the days prior to the American Civil War, Doubleday and his comrade, Major Robert Anderson were the commanding officers stationed at Fort Sumter. Following rigorous volley from upstart southern rebels, Anderson and Doubleday were forced to surrender, signifying the start of the bloodiest conflict in American history. Although, history largely remembers the name of Major Anderson when discussing the battle.

Doubleday saw his first real taste of field battle during the Second Battle of Bull Run, where he led a squadron of reinforcements to repel the attack of Confederate commander General Thomas “Stonewall Jackson”. He would go on to command troops at key battles such as Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, before briefly commanding Union forces during the early salvos of the Battle of Gettysburg. For his efforts, Doubleday would quickly rise to the rank of general and be remembered by his contemporaries as a hero. Doubleday died in New Jersey in 1893 at the age of 73, never claiming to have any participation in the game of baseball. In fact, Doubleday had a reputation for being a staunch academic and not a fan of sporting events in any capacity. It wasn’t until some years after his passing that Spalding’s false source cooked up the story linking Doubleday, Cooperstown and baseball together in a completely straight line.

We know better than to buy into our own mythology, now. There has been faults on many fronts due to this myth surrounding the great general. No, his accolades on the battlefield did not grow to insane heights of fame like that of President Ulysses S. Grant, General William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, but that doesn’t mean his contributions should be ignored. Antietam and Gettysburg were major conflicts in the war and Doubleday played a huge part in the struggles. By simply associating Doubleday with the game of baseball, we disregard the importance of his contributions of the field of battle during the critical point in our history as a nation.

Not only that, but by granting false credit, we deny Cartwright and his Knickerbockers the respect and admiration they rightly deserve. Harry Wright was a former Knickerbocker before going on to form the sport’s first professional team, the Cincinnati Reds. Yes, those Cincinnati Reds. The Knickerbockers deserve their recognition just as Doubleday deserves his. While we know the reality behind baseball’s past, we still fail to recognize Abner Doubleday’s true contribution as a man whose importance is bigger than the game of baseball. He is, in truth, an icon of Americana.

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