February 20th, 2013

The Letters of Abner Graves

Abner Graves

Abner Graves

The following are the two letters submitted by Abner Graves in 1905 describing the purported invention of baseball by Abner Doubleday. The first of these was addressed to the editor of the Akron, Ohio, Beacon-Journal newspaper in response to an article in that paper by Albert G. Spalding. The second letter was sent directly to Spalding. Graves’ original spelling and punctuation are largely preserved. These letters may be termed the invention of the invention of baseball, as prior to this date no one had imagined that the game sprung from the mind of a lone individual at a specific point in time. The real story of how baseball began, as an outgrowth of earlier games of ball, has been on display here at Our Game. Recent book length studies by David Block (Baseball Before We Knew It) and myself (Baseball in the Garden of Eden) give the fullest picture of the rise of the game and the history of its history, real and fabricated, while Robert Henderson’s Ball, Bat and Bishop (1947) is a pioneering classic. These books address the Graves claims–whether confused or fabricated–with specificity.

Letter #1

[FROM:] Abner Graves, Mining Engineer, 32 Bank Block, P.O. Box 672, Denver,Colo.

April 3rd, 1905

[TO:] Editor Beacon Journal, Akron, Ohio

Dear Sir:

I notice in saturdays “Beacon Journal” a question as to “origin of ‘base ball'” from pen of A. G. Spalding, and requesting data on the subject be sent to Mr J E Sullivan, 15 Warren Street, New York.

The “American game of Base Ball” was invented by Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, New York, either the spring prior, or following the “Log Cabin & Hard Cider” campaign of General Harrison for President, said Abner Doubleday being then a boy pupil of “Green’s Select School” in Cooperstown, and the same, who as General Doubleday won honor at the Battle of Gettysburg in the “Civil War.” The pupils of “Otsego Academy” and “Green’s Select School” were then playing the old game of “Town Ball” in the following manner.

Abner Doubleday 1861

Abner Doubleday 1861

A “tosser” stood beside the home “goal” and tossed the ball straight upward about six feet for the batsman to strike at on its fall, he using a four inch flat board bat, and all others who wanted to play being scattered all over the near and far field to catch the ball, the lucky catcher then taking his innings at the bat while the losing batsman retired to the field. Should the batsman miss the ball on its fall and the tosser catch it on its first bounce he would take the bat and the losing batsman toss the ball.

When the batsman struck the ball into the field he would run for an out goal about fifty feet and return, and if the ball was not caught on the fly, and he could return to home goal without getting “plunked” with the ball thrown by anyone, he retained his innings same as in “old cat.” There being generally from twenty to fifty boys in the field, collisions often occurred in attempt of several to catch the ball. Abner Doubleday then figured out and made a plan of improvement on town ball to limit number of players, and have equal sides, calling it “Base Ball” because it had four bases, three being where the runner could rest free of being put out by keeping his foot on the flat stone base, while next one on his side took the bat, the first runner being entitled to run whenever he chose, and if he could make home base without being hit by the ball he tallied. There was a six foot ring within which the pitcher had to stand and toss the ball to batsman by swinging his hand below his hip. There was eleven players on a side, four outfielders, three basemen, pitcher, catcher, and two infielders, the two infielders being placed respectively a little back from the pitcher and between first and second base, and second and third base and a short distance inside the base lines. The ball used had a rubber center overwound with yarn to size some larger than the present regulation ball, then covered with leather or buckskin, and having plenty of bouncing qualities, wonderful high flys often resulted. Anyone getting the ball was entitled to throw it at a runner and put him out if could hit him.

William Henry Harrison Brooch, Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

William Henry Harrison Brooch, Campaign of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

This “Base Ball” was crude compared with present day ball, but it was undoubtedly the first starter of “Base Ball” and quickly superceded “town ball” with the older boys, although we younger boys stuck to town ball and the “old cats.” I well remember several of the best players of sixty years ago, such as Abner Doubleday, Elihu Phinney, John C Graves, Nels C Brewer, Joseph Chaffee, John Starkweather, John Doubleday, Tom Bingham and others who used to play on the “Otsego Academy Campus” although a favorite place was on the “Phinney farm” on west shore of Otsego lake.

“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

32 Bank Block, Denver, Colorado.

Letter #2

[FROM:] Abner Graves, Mining Engineer, 32 Bank Block, P.O. Box 672, Denver, Colo.

November 17th, 1905

[TO:] A G Spaulding Esq.

126 Nassau Street, New York City

Dear Sir:

Your letter of 10th regarding origin of Base Ball received and contents noted. You mention sending me copy of “Spaldings Base Ball Guide for 1905,” which I have not received, although I would like it to note the discussion mentioned. I am at loss how to get verification of my statements regarding the invention of base ball made in my letter of April 3rd 1905 to the “Akron, Ohio, Beacon-Journal,” the carbon copy of my original draft of which I herewith enclose, this giving full particulars, and which after using, please return for my files.

A. G. Spalding 1910

A. G. Spalding 1910

You ask if I can positively name the year of Doubledays invention, and replying will say that I cannot, although am sure it was either 1839, 1840 or 1841, and in the spring of the year when we smaller boys were “playing marbles for keeps” which all stopped when ball commenced, as I remember well Abner Doubleday explaining “base ball” to the lot of us that were playing marbles in the street in front of Coopers tailor shop and drawing a diagram in the dirt with a stick by marking out a square with a punch mark in each corner for bases, a ring in center for pitcher, a punch mark just back of home base for catcher, two punch marks for infielders and four punch marks for outfielders, and we smaller boys didn’t like it because it shut us out from playing, while Town Ball let in everyone who could run and catch flies, or try to catch them. Then Doubleday drew up same diagram on paper practically like diagram I will draw on back of another sheet and enclose herewith. The incident has always been associated in my mind with the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign of General Harrison, my Father being a “Militia” Captain and rabid partisan of “Old Tippecanoe.”

I know it was as early as spring of 1841 because it was played at least three years before April 1844 when I started for Leyden Mass. to live that summer with my Uncle Joseph Green, the last prominent thing that I remember before starting being a big game of Base Ball on the “Phinney Farm” half a mile up the west side of Otsego Lake, between the Otsego Academy boys (Doubleday then being in the Academy), and Professor Green and his Select School boys. Great furore and fun marked opening of the game on account of the then unprecedented thing of “first man up, three strikes and out.” Elihu Phinney was pitcher and Abner Doubleday catcher for Academy, while Greens had innings and Prof. Green was first at bat, and Doubleday contrary to usual practice stood close at Green’s back and caught all three balls, Green having struck furiously at all with a four inch flat bat and missing all, then being hit in the back by the ball as he started to run.

While everyone laughed and roard at Green’s three misses he claimed that Doubleday caught every ball from in front of the bat so there was no ball to hit, and that made the furore greater. I was an onlooker close up to catcher, and this incident so impressed me with the glories of Base Ball that on arriving at Leyden, Mass. I tried to get up a game but couldn’t find anywhere near 22 boys so we had to play “Old Cat.” Abner Doubleday unquestionably invented Base Ball at Cooperstown, N.Y. as an improvement on Town Ball so as to have opposing sides and limit players, and he named it Base Ball and had eleven players on each side. If any Cooperstown boys of that time are alive they will surely remember that game between the “Otsego’s” and “Green’s” which I surely identify as early in April 1844 before my start to Massachusetts, and I am certain it had been played at least three years earlier under same name and the larger boys had become proficient at it. Although I never saw any mention of ball playing in a newspaper when I was young, it might be that some mention of the game was made in the “Otsego Republican” about that time, said paper then (and now) being leading paper in Cooperstown.

Abner Doubleday was I think about 16 or 17 years old when he invented the game: he lived in Cooperstown but I do not know if born there. His cousin “John Doubleday” (a little younger) was born there and his father was a merchant with a store in the main four corners in Cooperstown. The Phinneys were run a large Book Bindery there, and I believe one in New York at same time. Of course it is almost impossible to get documentary proof of the invention, as there is not one chance in ten thousand that a boys drawing plan of improved ball game would have been preserved for 65 years as at that time no such interest in games existed as it does now when all items are printed and Societies and Clubs preserve everything.

The United States Primer,  H. & E. Phinney, Cooperstown, NY, 1820

The United States Primer, H. & E. Phinney, Cooperstown, NY, 1820

All boys old enough to play Base Ball in those days would be very old now if not dead, and this reminds me of a letter. I have a letter dated April 6th 1905, from Mary, wife of “John C Graves” mentioned in my printed letter saying, “Dear Cousin, I received a paper this eve from Akron,Ohio, with an article you wrote about Base Ball! Every one of the boys you named are dead except John, and perhaps you do not know that John has been sick over a year with the gout, and now his mind is very weak so sometimes he does not know me.” She was mistaken in saying all for I am aware that Nels C Brewer whom I mentioned now lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and I think his address is 230 Superior Street, or near that, and although he is aged he may possibly remember about the Base Ball.  John C Graves is about 85 and still lives in Cooperstown.

Also I have a brother (Joseph C Graves) still in business in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I have added a few years experience since Base Ball was invented, but am still young enough to make a lively hand in a game, as I did last July, and I attribute my youth to the fact that I left Cooperstown and New York early in winter of 1848-9 for the Goldfields of California and have lived in the west ever since where the ageing climate of New York hasn’t touched me. My Typewriter thinks this is a pretty long letter on one subject and I guess that is about correct, but your letter asked for as full data as possible and I have given you all the items I can in a rambling sort of way, but I think you have hea[r]d enough to pick out the gist of it and be better satisfied than if I had been less explicit or prolix. Just in my present mood I would rather have Uncle Sam declare war on England and clean her up rather than have one of her citizens beat us out of Base Ball.

Yours truly

Abner Graves, E.M.

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