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Graves Letters of 1905 Say that Doubleday Invented Base Ball

Salience Prominent
Tags Pre-modern Rules
Location Western New York
City/State/Country: Cooperstown, NY, United States
Game Town Ball
Age of Players Juvenile

[A] Abner Doubleday, who was to become a Civil War notable, is much later (1905) said to have "invented" baseball at Cooperstown, New York, according to the findings of the Mills Commission (1905-1907), a group of baseball magnates appointed by the American and National League Presidents to investigate the origins of baseball. The Commission bases its findings almost entirely on letters received from Abner Graves, a resident of Cooperstown in his childhood. The Commission's findings are soon discredited by historians who proclaim the "Doubleday Invention" to be entirely a myth.

The Doubleday game, according to Graves' offerings, retained the plugging of runners, eleven players per team, and flat bats that were four inches wide. Graves sees the main improvement of the Doubleday game that it limited the size of teams, while town ball permitted "twenty to fifty boys in the field."

Graves believed that Abner Doubleday was 16 or 17 years old when he saw him lay out his improved game [in fact, Doubleday was 20 in 1839, and at West Point]. Graves himself declined to fix a year to the Doubleday plan, suggesting that it might have occurred in 1839, 1840, or 1841. In choosing 1839, the Commission rested its story on the memory of a boy who was then 5 years old.

 [B] Mark Pestana provides a scenario of this game, which he considers more likely to have taken place in 1840.

[C] As Pestana does, Hugh MacDougall wonders if Graves was confusing (General) Abner Doubleday with his younger cousin, Abner D. Doubleday, who was closer to Graves' age and was in Cooperstown at the time.


[A] Three Letters from Abner Graves -- two letters to the Mills Commission, April 3, 1905 and November 17, 1905 and one of unknown details. To read them, go here.

[B] Mark Pestana, "The Legendary Doubleday Game", Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century (SABR, 2013), pp. 3-5

[C] Hugh MacDougall, Abner Graves: The Man who Brought Baseball to Cooperstown, 2011. 

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Supplemental Text

Graves Letters of 1905 Say that Doubleday Invented Base Ball

[Addressed to and transcribed by the Mills Commission]

First Letter, April 3, 1905 

The American game of baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, N.Y., either in the spring prior, or following the “Log Cabin ad 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 during the Civil War.  The pupils of Otsego County and Green’s Select School were then playing the old game of “Town Ball” in the following manner: 

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 takings 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 in the field he would for an out goal about fifty feet and return, and if the ball was not caught on the fly, and he could return home without getting “plunked” with the ball by anyone, he retained his innings came 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 players, and have equal sides; calling it baseball because it had four bases, three being where the runner could rest free of being put out by keeping his foot on the first stone base, while next on his side took the bat, the first runner being free 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 batman by swinging his hand below his hip.  There were eleven players on a side, four outfielders, three basemen, pitcher, catcher and two infielders being placed respectively back of 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 ball, then covered with leather or buckskin, and, having plenty of bouncing qualities, wonder high flys often resulted.  Anyone getting the ball was entitled to throw it at a runner and put him out if he could hit him.

This “Base Ball” was crude compared with the present day “ball”, but it was undoubtedly the first starter of “Base Ball”, and quickly superseded Town Ball with the older boys, although the younger boys stuck to Town Ball and the Old Cats.”  I well remember several of the base players of sixty years ago, such as Abner Doubleday, 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.

“Base Ball” is undoubtedly a pure American game, and its birthplace Cooperstown, N. Y., and Abner Doubleday entitled to first honor of its “inventor.”


Second Letter, November 17, 1905

You ask if I can positively name the year of Doubleday’s invention, and, replying, will say I cannot, although am sure it was either 1839, 1840, or 1841, and in the spring of the year when the smaller boys were “playing marbles for keeps,” which all stopped when ball commenced, as I remember well Abner Doubleday explaining base ball to a lot of us that were playing marbles in the street, in front of Cooper’s 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 the center for pitcher, a punch mark just back of home base for catcher, and four punch marks for outfielders, and we smaller boys didn’t like it as it shut us out of playing while Town Ball let in everyone who could run and catch flies, or try to catch tem [sic].  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 I remember before starting being a big game of 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 Prof. Green and his Select School boys.  Great furore and fun marked the opening of the game on account of the unprecedented thing of “First man up, three strikes and out.”  Elihu Phinney was pitcher and Abner Doubleday catcher for Academy, while Green’s had innings and Prof. Green was first at the bat; and Doubleday, contrary to usual practice, stood close a Green’s back and caught all three balls, Green having struck furiously with a four-inch flat bat and missing all, then being hit in the back when he started to run.

While everyone laughed and roared at Green’s three misses, he claimed that Doubleday caught every ball from the front of the bat so there was no ball to hit, and that made he furore greater.  I was an onlooker, close up to the 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 twenty-two boys, so we had to play “Old Cat.”  Abner Doubleday unquestionably invented base ball in 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 “Otsegos” and “Greens,” which I surely identify with early April, 1844, before my start to Massachusetts, and I am certain that it had been played at least three years earlier under the same name, and the larger boys had become proficient in it.

Abner Doubleday, I think, was 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 at the main four corners in Cooperstown.  The Phinneys were running a large bookbindery there, and I believe one in New York at the 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 boy’s drawing of improved ball game would have been preserved for 85 [sic] 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.

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 the winter of 1848-49 for the gold fields of California, and have lived in the West ever since, where the aging climate of New York hasn’t touched me.

[Marked as Exhibit 72-32.]


Third Letter, Date and Addressee Unknown

Note: Cooperstown Scholar Hugh MacDougall points out that parts of a third Graves letter are known.  His email to Protoball of 12/13/2012 reads:

There exists what may have been a third letter known today only by a long excerpt quoted in The Story of Cooperstown, published in 1917 by Ralph Birdsall, the Rector of Cooperstown's Christ Episcopal Church. Here Graves again describes the game between the two Cooperstown schools in which the so-called "Professor Green" was humiliated, though in slightly different terms:

          "Abner Doubleday was several years older than I. In 1838 and 1839 I was attending the "Frog Hollow" school south of the Presbyterian church, while he was at school somewhere on the hill. I do not know, neither is it possible for anyone to know, on what spot the first game of Base Ball was played according to Doubleday's plan. He went diligently among the boys in the town, and in several schools, explaining the plan, and inducing them to play Base Ball in lieu of the other games. Doubleday's game was played in a good many places around town: sometimes in the old militia muster lot, or training ground, a couple of hundred yards southeasterly from the Court House, where County Fairs were occasionally held; sometimes in Mr. Bennett's field south of Otsego Academy; at other times over in the Miller's Bay neighborhood, and up the lake.

          "I remember one dandy, fine, rollicking game where men and big boys from the Academy and other schools played up on Mr. Phinney's farm, a mile or two up the west side of the lake, when Abner Doubleday and Prof. Green chose sides, and Doubleday's side beat Green's side badly. Doubleday was captain and catcher for his side, and I think John Graves and Elihu Phinney were the pitchers for the two sides. I wasn't in the game, but stood close by Doubleday, and wanted Prof. Green to win. In his first time at bat Prof. Green missed three consecutive balls. Abner caught all three, then pounded Mr. Green on the back with the ball, while they and all others were roaring with laughter, and yelling "Prof. is out!"  " (ref. 1)

          This third letter, though it was apparently in existence as late as 1939, has rarely been cited in baseball circles, as have the other two, although portions of it were quoted from, with slight alterations, in the Official Program of the 1939 Baseball Centennial. (Ref 2)) , and different portions in a 1939 letter to a Utica, New York, newspaper stating that the original was in the Hall of Fame. (ref. 3)  I strongly suspect that this third letter, which I have referred to as the Birdsall letter, may have been the carbon copy of Graves' first draft of his April letter to the Akron Beacon-Herald, giving what he called "full particulars" of Doubleday's invention, and which had asked Spalding to return.



1.  Ralph Birdsall, The Story of Cooperstown, 1917 and many later editions, pp. 230-231.


2..  "The Invention of the Game of Baseball," in 1839-1939 Official Program of the Baseball Centennial Celebration at Doubleday Field, Cooperstown, N.Y. Cooperstown: Cooperstown Baseball Centennial, Inc., p. 9:

3.  Robert D. Wood, a former Cooperstown resident and local historian then living in Ilion, quoted from this specific letter (including phrases not in the Centennial Program) when writing to "Stan Clark's Daily Dozen" column in a Utica, New York, newspaper, prefacing his remarks by stating that: "In the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown there is an old, faded letter written by Abner Graves in 1838 or '39, part of which says:...." Utica (NY) Observer-Dispatch, March 16, 1939.


The Hall of Fame doesn't seem to have any record of this "third letter."