Thursday, 22 February 2024 12:49

A Lie About a Ballston Spa Native Changed Baseball History

Portrait of Abner Doubleday courtesy of the Saratoga Room,  Saratoga Springs Public Library. Portrait of Abner Doubleday courtesy of the Saratoga Room, Saratoga Springs Public Library.

BALLSTON SPA — “Baseball is undoubtedly a pure American game, and its birthplace Cooperstown, New York, and Abner Doubleday entitled to first honor of its invention.” Abner Graves wrote these words in a letter to the editor of the Beacon Journal newspaper in 1905. Graves’ letter changed baseball history, but it was all a lie.

“This is a great example of fake news,” said Ballston Town Historian Rick Reynolds. “Fake news can take on its own life and become reality.”

Graves’ letter was written in response to Albert Spalding, founder of the Spalding sporting goods company, who was attempting to discover baseball’s origins. “Spalding felt that there needed to be a beginning for baseball, so he established a commission,” Reynolds said. Graves heard about this commission and “made up this story that Abner Doubleday was the beginning of baseball.”

Not only was Doubleday not the inventor of baseball, there’s scant evidence he had anything to do with baseball period. “He kept incredible diaries and journals of his life,” Reynolds said. “Never in any of his journals or any of his writings is baseball or anything like baseball ever mentioned.”

Doubleday is a significant figure not just in American history, but also in Ballston Spa. At 28 Washington Street stands a yellow house, now The Real McCoy brewery, that a historical marker declares is the birthplace of Major-General Abner Doubleday. The sign calls him “the founder of baseball.” 

The sign might be inaccurate on two counts. Not only is Doubleday not the inventor of baseball, but recently there’s been some doubt as to whether the house was actually his birthplace. “There’s pretty much definitive evidence that he lived there at some point, but whether he was born there is another issue,” Reynolds said.

Regardless of where Doubleday was born, he is probably the most consequential figure in American history to have lived in Ballston Spa. Doubleday was second-in-command at Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began. He was wounded at the Battle of Antietam. He commanded the second infantry division at the Battle of Gettysburg. After the war, Doubleday was a steadfast supporter of Abraham Lincoln, and accompanied the 16th president on a train ride prior to the Gettysburg Address. 

Despite this remarkable life, Doubleday is most remembered for Graves’ fictionalized account of baseball’s invention. “The Ridiculous 6,” a Netflix comedy starring Adam Sandler, lampoons Doubleday as making up baseball’s rules on the spot. In 1939, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was established in Cooperstown, thanks in large part to Graves’ letter. As recently as 1957, Ballston Spa featured a float in its sesquicentennial parade proudly declaring the Civil War hero to be the “founder of baseball.”

The true story of baseball’s creation is complex. Some historians point to 1840s New York City as the origin. Others believe the game evolved from 18th-century England, where a similar game called rounders was played. Hundreds of years ago, in both Massachusetts and the Carolinas, athletes were hitting balls with something resembling a baseball bat. The truth is that baseball probably evolved over time, in multiple places, as games played with bats and balls grew in popularity. 

Nonetheless, the sign declaring Abner Doubleday to be the sport’s founder still stands in Ballston Spa. Also still standing is Doubleday Field, a stadium at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, where baseball was not invented.

“Americans like finality,” Reynolds said. “We like to know answers to things, and sometimes there are no answers for sure.” 

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