Abner Cartwright, Alexander Doubleday . . . these composite names stand for an exceedingly odd couple whose identities have been stolen, accomplishments merged, and stories intertwined for more than a century now. In truth, Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright were entirely separate, historically significant individuals who were born and died one year apart but never met each other in life. What both men share is that their hard-won fame was hijacked after their deaths by unprincipled advocates with ulterior motives, and as a result each was credited with something he did not do—that is, invent baseball.
There is no need to recite here the full story, amply reported elsewhere, of how Abner Doubleday was anointed as the Father of Baseball by the Mills Commission at the end of 1907, fourteen years after he left this life having had little to say about the game to anyone, not even his old friend Mills. What left Abraham G. Mills holding his nose while affirming Doubleday’s paternity was the lately produced recollection of Abner Graves, offered into evidence by Albert Goodwill Spalding, that in 1839 (when Graves was five years old) he had witnessed Doubleday sketch out a new game that he called baseball.
“Until my perusal of this testimony,” Mills wrote in the December 30, 1907 report of his Commission, whose mandate was set to run out at year’s end, “my own belief had been that our ‘National Game of Base Ball’ originated with the Knickerbocker club, organized in New York in 1845, and which club published certain elementary rules in that year; but, in the interesting and pertinent testimony for which we are indebted to Mr. A. G. Spalding, appears a circumstantial statement by a reputable gentleman, according to which the first known diagram of the diamond, indicating positions for the players, was drawn by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839.”
Mills’s personal knowledge that the Knickerbocker club had been an innovative force in baseball made him wary of the Spalding/Graves claim. Toward the end of his report he wrote:
“I am also much interested in the statement made by Mr. Curry, [first president] of the pioneer Knickerbocker club, and confirmed by Mr. Tassie, of the famous old Atlantic club of Brooklyn, that a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is to-day, was brought to the field one afternoon by a Mr. Wadsworth. Mr. Curry says “the plan caused a great deal of talk, but, finally, we agreed to try it.
“It is possible that a connection more or less direct can be traced between the diagram drawn by Doubleday in 1839 and that presented to the Knickerbocker club by Wadsworth in 1845, or thereabouts, and I wrote several days ago for certain data bearing on this point, but as it has not yet come to hand I have decided to delay no longer sending in the kind of paper your letter calls for, promising to furnish you the indicated data when I obtain it, whatever it may be.”
The requested data about the mysterious Mr. Wadsworth never emerged. Will Rankin, a baseball writer whose 1877 interview with Curry had been the source of Mills’s mention of Wadsworth reversed course in 1905 and said that Curry had meant to credit Cartwright rather than Wadsworth. A weary Mills ruled on baseball’s paternity suit in a somewhat contingent fashion by stating that “the first scheme for playing it, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839” (emphasis added). 
One week after issuing the report, Mills wrote to the baseball writer whose memory had improved twenty-eight years after the fact:
“. . . you quote Mr. Curry as stating that some one had presented a plan showing a ball field,’ etc., and, in the second letter, Mr. Tassie told you that he remembered the incident, and that he ‘thought it was a Mr. Wadsworth who held an important position in the Custom House,’ etc. Taking this as a clue I wrote sometime ago to the Collector of Customs, asking him to have the records searched for the years ’40 to ’45, for the purpose of ascertaining from what part of the State the Mr. Wadsworth, in question, came.
Mills was wondering whether an upstate Wadsworth, perhaps one of the Geneseo clan, might somehow have brought the Doubleday diagram to New York.
Not even ten years later, on February 2, 1916, an unnamed writer in the New York Times hilariously mashed up Mills’s equivocal support for Doubleday with his suspicions about baseball’s creation myth:
“Baseball before the days of the National League dates seventy-seven years back to 1839, when Abner Doubleday, at an academy at Cooperstown, N.Y., invented a game of ball on which the present game is based. Doubleday afterwards went to West Point and later became a Major General in the United States Army.
“The game as played at the school in Cooperstown consisted of hitting the ball and running to one base. First it was called ‘One Old Cat,’ then with two bases ‘Two Old Cat,’ and finally with three bases ‘Three Old Cat.’
“Another boy at the Cooperstown school, Alexander J. Cartwright, one day evolved a rough sketch of a diamond and the boys tried it with great success. From that day to this the general plan of the diamond has changed only in a few details.
“It was at Mr. Cartwright’s suggestion in 1845 that the first baseball club was formed.”
Is it any wonder that delegates for Doubleday and Cartwright went on to contend so fiercely for primacy? The bickering and machinations led, on the strength of the claim for Doubleday, to the founding of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown while the Cartwright faction, led by his indefatigable grandson Bruce, as formidable a propagandist as Spalding had been, won for their champion a plaque in the Hall that was denied to Doubleday.
General Doubleday went to his grave with an undeniable record of military accomplishment, especially in the Civil War; he was also known for his spiritualist beliefs. His only documented intersection with baseball came in 1871. While in command of the 24th U.S. Infantry’s “Colored Regiment,” at Fort McKavett, Texas, he addressed a request on June 17 to General E. D. Townsend, Adjutant General, U.S. Army, Washington DC:
“I have the honor to apply for permission to purchase for the Regimental Library a few portraits of distinguished generals, Battle pictures, and some of Rogers groups of Statuary particularly those relative to the actions of the Colored population of the south. This being a colored regiment ornaments of this kind seem very appropriate. I would also like to purchase baseball implements for the amusement of the men and a Magic Lantern for the same purpose. The fund is ample and I think these expenditures would add to the happiness of the men.”
Cartwright, on the other hand, was a real baseball personage. He was present at the creation of the Knickerbocker Club and possesses genuine claims to organizational and playing prowess, though the lengths to which his supporters have gone to make him the Isaac Newton of baseball have rendered his myth more difficult to deconstruct than Doubleday’s. We may look to the mid-nineteenth century’s obsession with science, system, business, and organization to answer the question of who was thought, back then, to have created the game, and why. The Knickerbockers’ claim to being the “pioneer organization” was asserted not because they were the first to play the game of baseball (children had been doing that for a century), nor because they were the first club organized to encourage men to play what had been a boys’ game.
Today we know that baseball was invented by no one man in a feat of spontaneous inspiration. We know that the New York, Gotham, Washington, Eagle, Magnolia, and Olympic ball clubs all preceded the Knickerbocker Club. We know that baseball was played under that name by two teams of grown men in New York City in 1823, by which time the game had become so pervasive that playing it within eighty yards of the town meeting house of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, had been banned in 1791. We know that baseball was the name for the game as it was played in England before anyone had heard of rounders.
In short, recent scholarship has revealed the prior history of early baseball to be a lie agreed upon, with first Doubleday and then Cartwright and his playmates as a contrived starting point. The Knickerbockers were proclaimed first because they had a formal set of rules, regular days of play, a firm roster of members, and sundry other bourgeois, upstanding values. And Alex Cartwright—rather than Duncan F. Curry, or Louis F. Wadsworth, or D. L. Adams, or William R. Wheaton—became the standard bearer for the Knickerbockers because he had a more dedicated press corps in the person of his grandson.
To separate the man from the myth, one must accept at face value none of the claims made for him by those scholars who, in debunking Doubleday, have elevated Cartwright beyond the demonstrable record of his accomplishment. For example, Cartwright assuredly did not do any of the three central things credited to him on his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame: “Set bases 90 feet apart. Established 9 innings as a game and 9 players as a team.” The plaque goes on to add: “Carried baseball to Pacific Coast and Hawaii in pioneer days.” I will not derail the argument of this essay by attempting to debunk that hoary claim, but you may sense a raised eyebrow.
Alexander Joy Cartwright was twenty-nine when he left New York for the Gold Rush and his eventual home in Hawaii, where he lived for his remaining forty-three years. His mercantile, cultural, and political involvements are significant, and the magnitude of the man cannot be understood if one looks only to his baseball years; the same may be said for Doubleday. It is true of each that by diminishing the legend, one may enlarge the man.
1. Abraham Mills, “Final Decision of the Special Baseball Commission,” December 30, 1907, in Spalding Official Base Ball Guide, 1908, ed. Henry Chadwick (New York: American Sports Publishing), page 47.
4. Letter from Abraham Mills to Will Rankin, January 6, 1908, in Mills Correspondence, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Giamatti Library.
5. Regimental Book of Letters Sent, addressed to Brigadier General E.D. Townsend, Adjutant General, U.S. Army, Washington, D.C.