An Incomplete Portrait of Baseball and America

A new Library of Congress exhibition showcases the sport’s ties to the best parts of U.S. history—while overlooking some of the darker implications of those connections.

Little League tryouts in New Jersey on April 3, 1974 (Bettye Lane / Library of Congress )

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 Still, surveying the rich trove of historical documents and artifacts on display, it’s easy to see why organized baseball embraced the myth.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.

“Base-Ball,” from A Little Pretty Pocket Book, 1787. This first American edition of a British children’s book (originally published in England in 1744) contains the earliest known printed reference to baseball in what would become the United States. (Library of Congress)

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.

“Even people in the early-20th century knew that the Abner Doubleday story was garbage,” Reyburn said. “There were people who could tell you already that the game had British origins.” Nevertheless, the Mills Commission made the Doubleday myth baseball’s official origin tale—not because they believed it, but because ascribing the sport to a Civil War hero enhanced baseball’s connection with the best aspects of American history. “I’ve often thought of the Doubleday story as something not unlike George Washington chopping down the cherry tree,” Reyburn said. “Nobody may have really ever accepted that as a true story, because it’s almost too virtuous, but it was well-intentioned, and it was patriotic.”

Young glassworkers in Indiana pose with their bat in August 1908 for the photographer and social reformer Lewis Hine, who was documenting the state of working-class children for the National Child Labor Committee (Lewis Wickes Hine / Library of Congress)

Baseball Americana, while clearly more invested in historical accuracy than the Mills Commission, achieves a similar purpose as the Doubleday myth. The exhibition presents an upbeat picture of how baseball’s growth has tracked that of the country, rendering the sport uniquely American while also masking some of the more complicated elements of that story.

One of the show’s most prominent themes is the way baseball, and the United States with it, has grown more inclusive over time. One of the game’s first stars, Mike “King” Kelly, offers a prime example. Kelly’s rags-to-riches story encapsulated the American dream: Born in 1857 to Irish immigrants during a time of extreme anti-Irish prejudice, he rose to national fame through the sheer force of his talent. By the time he retired, he not only had published the first-ever athlete autobiography (1888’s Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field, on display in Baseball Americana), but he was also the subject of the song “Slide, Kelly, Slide,” which the exhibition notes became “the earliest bestselling popular music recording” in 1892.

The Jackie Robinson Story film script with signatures of actors, 1950 (Library of Congress)

Hollywood soon emerged as an avenue of choice for telling the stories central to baseball history. Jackie Robinson, who helped spur the civil-rights movement by breaking baseball’s color barrier, also presented his biography to the public by starring in 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, whose script is part of the exhibit. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, formed as men were leaving to fight in World War II, served as a precursor to future women’s sports leagues; the exhibit honors them with uniforms, pictures, and even clips from the classic 1992 film A League of Their Own. All of these stories, Baseball Americana argues, speak to how the country’s identity evolved from encompassing a privileged subset of white men to better reflecting the U.S. as a whole.

The exhibition is so focused on this positive conception of baseball that it leaves little room for examining the sport’s more troubling chapters. For example, visitors would be hard-pressed to find allusions to the rampant steroid abuse in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, which still casts a shadow over many of the game’s more recent stars, or to the “Black Sox” scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banned from organized baseball for life for conspiring with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series.

Reyburn acknowledged that the exhibition is light on baseball’s dark side. While that’s partly due to gaps in the Library of Congress’s collection—“We didn’t necessarily have the best means to support those story lines, and we had other story lines we were more interested in that we could tell a little better,” she told me—there was also a conscious decision to accentuate the positive. “The way we look at the drug use and the gambling and the various unsavory factors—that wasn’t part of the story that we were really interested in,” Reyburn said. “We’ve all been inundated with it, and we really thought that isn’t the story of America either.”

Visitors to the Library of Congress’s Baseball Americana exhibition (Shawn Miller / Library of Congress)

But if, as the exhibit contends, baseball’s history reflects America’s, then eliding the game’s controversies also glosses over uglier aspects of the nation’s past. A display emphasizing players’ decades-long battle against the hated “reserve clause” (contractual language binding players to their teams in perpetuity) fails to situate it within the context of the stridently anti-labor jurisprudence of the early-20th century. Focusing on heartwarming, rags-to-riches stories like that of Ozzie Smith, who fashioned his first glove from a paper bag, seems shortsighted in the face of modern concerns about the sport’s growing inaccessibility to poor children and the exploitative practices of scouts in Latin America.

The Library of Congress recognizes how the success of figures such as the Native American athlete Jim Thorpe and the teenage pitching phenom Mo’ne Davis attests to baseball’s diversity. But it fails to complicate that narrative by acknowledging people such as Glenn Burke, the sport’s first openly gay player. Though Burke didn’t officially come out until two years after leaving the league, most of his teammates were aware of his sexuality. Eventually, the homophobia Burke experienced, along with an injury and demotion to the minors, prompted his departure from pro baseball. Sometimes, the exhibit’s framing is as troubling as its omissions. One prominent display, featuring Japanese Americans who played ball in the Manzanar internment camp during World War II, takes an oddly optimistic angle, emphasizing the sense of American identity the sport provided rather than the inhumanity of the players’ detention.

Curation by nature often entails trade-offs between telling a cohesive story and comprehensively documenting history. In the case of Baseball Americana, the result of this process is a portrait—of a sport and of a nation—that feels at once thorough and lacking. The impressive historical record on display capably makes the case that baseball’s arc is inextricably linked to America’s; the exhibit’s lacunae speak to a side of that connection that’s much harder to confront.