You may have heard that a young man named Abner Doubleday invented the game known as baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in the summer of 1839. Doubleday then became a Civil War completely, while baseball became America’s beloved national pastime.
Not only is that story untrue, it’s not even in the ballpark.
Doubleday was still at West Point in 1839, and he never claimed to have anything to do with baseball. In 1907, a special commission created by the sporting goods magnate and former major league player AJ Spalding used flimsy evidence – namely the allegations of a man, the mining engineer Abner Graves – to come up with the Doubleday origin story. Cooperstown businessmen and major league officials wanted to rely on the enduring power of myths in the 1930s, when they established the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in the village.
As it turns out, the real story of baseball is a little more complicated than the Doubleday legend. References to games similar to baseball in the United States date back to the 18th century. Its most direct ancestors appear to be two English games: rounder (a children’s game brought to New England by the earliest colonists) and cricket.
At the time of American Revolution, variants of such games were played on schoolyards and campuses across the country. They became even more popular recently industrialized cities where men sought work in the mid-19th century.
In September 1845, a group of men in New York City founded the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club. One of them – volunteer firefighter and bank manager Alexander Joy Cartwright – wanted to codify a new set of rules that would form the basis of modern baseball, and called for a diamond-shaped infield, fake lines and three strike rules. He also abolished the dangerous practice of marking runners by throwing balls at them.
Cartwright’s changes made the budding pastime faster and more challenging while clearly distinguishing it from older games such as cricket. In 1846, the Knickerbockers played the first official baseball game against a team of cricketers, embarking on a new, unique American tradition.