With the popularity of the MLB, and baseball in general, it was understandable that there would be an attempt to determine the origins of the game. That was what the Mills Commission attempted to do when it announced its findings on this day in 1907.
Major League Baseball had been around for nearly 40 years by the time that 1907 came around. Understandably, as the MLB continued to increase in popularity, and baseball hold of the nation’s consciousness, there was a desire to learn the history of the game. As such, the Mills Commission was created, with the goal of determining who invented the game of baseball.
Headed by Abraham Mills, who was the third President of the National League and the author of the first National Agreement, the Mills Commission sought out the origins of the National Pastime. As a result, they came to the conclusion that Abner Doubleday, who served in the Civil War, invented the game in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. This was based on the testimony of Abner Graves, who claimed to be a boyhood companion of Doubleday’s, and who also produced a rotted old baseball. That ball is currently in the Hall of Fame.
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Not only was Doubleday credited with creating the game, but he also had a hand in a number of the important He codified the rules, created the dimensions for the diamond, and indicated fielder positions. In fact, Doubleday was even credited with coining the term ‘baseball.’ It was the perfect story – the all American game created by a person who would go on to become a war hero.
But that was exactly what the findings were; a story. Even at the time, the research was considered to be shoddy at best. It also did not help that Graves was five years old in 1839, and his memory could be considered spotty at best. As Graves later killed his wife, and spent his last days in an asylum for the criminally insane, further doubt could be cast upon his story.
Perhaps even more damning is the history of Doubleday himself. He first set foot in Cooperstown in 1842, a full three years after he was credited with inventing the game there. When he died in 1893, Doubleday left behind a great deal of writing, both personal and professional. None of the correspondence mentioned baseball whatsoever.
Instead, the origins of the game can be traced back to earlier times. There is little doubt that baseball is a relative of cricket and rounders, and perhaps can be traced back to an 11th century game called “stoolball.” The word baseball first appeared in the Little Pretty Pocket-Book, printed in 1744. Jane Austen referenced the game in her 1798 book Northanger Abbey, and a German book printed in 1796 printed the rules of the game.
Laws about baseball date even further back than Austen’s book. In 2004, historian John Thorn located a reference to a 1791 bylaw in the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, prohibiting anyone from playing baseball within 80 yards of the new meeting house. This is the earlier reference to the game stateside, further damaging the idea that Doubleday invented the game.
Essentially, it appeared as though the Mills Commission was more interested in having a feel good story than in doing any actual research. They got exactly what they wanted with Doubleday; a war hero who just so happened to be in a small town in the middle of upstate New York. The credibility of the “witness” did not matter, so long as the tale could be sold to the masses. Even today, Doubleday’s supposed place in the game persists, although his contributions have long since been debunked.