When my brother was 12, the traveling baseball team he played on competed at a tournament in Cooperstown, New York. This place, he and his teammates were told, was baseball mecca—not just the home of Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame, but also the site where the future Union general Abner Doubleday had organized the sport’s first-ever game in 1839.
You won’t find any mention of Doubleday at the Library of Congress’s new exhibition, Baseball Americana, for a very simple reason: The story, despite its prominence over the decades, isn’t true. Still, surveying the rich trove of historical documents and artifacts on display, it’s easy to see why organized baseball embraced the myth. Baseball Americana illustrates how the game has benefited from the wealth of storytellers clamoring to burnish its all-American image over the years—even as the exhibit itself presents a polished view of the sport.
As Baseball Americana shows, the game’s origins predate Doubleday’s supposed involvement by at least a century. The sport appears to have begun in England, where the earliest known reference to “base-ball”—in John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket Book—was first published in 1744. A little more than 50 years later, Jane Austen wrote about the sport in her novel Northanger Abbey. The first known reference to baseball in America comes from a college student’s diary from 1786 (which used the term baste ball). And in fact, New York City, not Cooperstown, was the site of the 1857 convention where the gentlemen of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, led by Daniel “Doc” Adams, enshrined many of the rules still used today. The original document containing those rules is displayed in the Library of Congress exhibit as the “Magna Carta” of baseball.
So, where did the myth of Doubleday and Cooperstown originate? Susan Reyburn, who curated Baseball Americana and co-wrote a 2009 book of the same name, told me the story began with the Mills Commission, an early-20th-century body tasked with producing a report about the history of baseball. “They received a letter from a fellow named Abner Graves in Colorado, who was about 95 at the time,” Reyburn said of the commission. Graves “claimed to remember being a 5-year-old in the distant past seeing Doubleday create this game one summer, and they went with it.” The myth was further enshrined when the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which partnered with the Library of Congress and ESPN on Baseball Americana, was established in Cooperstown in 1939, the 100-year anniversary of Doubleday’s legendary game.