William Jay Miller

What is the History of Baseball?

Diehard fans have probably heard the myth about the history of baseball: the story goes that in 1839, Cooperstown native and future Civil War hero Abner Doubleday invented baseball by sketching the rules of the game with a stick in the dirt. But historians say that the history of baseball is actually much more complicated than that.

Baseball's origin story came into question in 1903, when British-born baseball journalist Henry Chadwick asserted that the sport had evolved from the British game rounders. Albert Spalding, a pitcher, baseball executive, and founder of the Spalding sporting goods empire, vehemently disagreed. Spalding formed the Mills Commission, a seven-person committee of prominent baseball figures led by Abraham Mills, and tasked its members with determining the true origin of the game. The committee spent three years in pursuit of baseball's true history. They were convinced by a letter from a Colorado mining engineer Abner Graves, who claimed he had been present in Cooperstown when Abner Doubleday outlined the rules of modern baseball. In 1907, the committee issued a final report stating that to the best of their knowledge, the sport was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, NY.

Baseball's History: It's Complicated

Official MLB historian John Thorn says that baseball's origins are older, more complex, and that different versions of the game were played across the United States during the 19th century. The Massachusetts version, Thorn told NPR in a 2011 interview, didn't require players to run from base to base, 'so you could lead your opponents on a merry chase into the outfields and beyond.'

Thorn says that historically, baseball started as a rural game. It eventually migrated to American cities, and become popular once gamblers realized they could make money off of it. Over the last two centuries, baseball evolved into the uniquely American game we know today.

Baseball is the heart and soul of Cooperstown. The game may not have been invented here, but the Cooperstown baseball legacy lives in the Hall of Fame, Doubleday Field, and in the baseball fans who descend on Cooperstown to celebrate America's favorite pastime year after year.

Baseball History: A Timeline

  • 1903: Baseball journalist Henry Chadwick says baseball is derived from the British game rounders. Albert Spalding, baseball executive and sporting goods company founder, disagrees.
  • 1904: Spalding calls the Mills Commission to investigate the origins of baseball.
  • 1907: The Mills Commission issues a report asserting that baseball was invented in Cooperstown by Abner Doubleday. The report relied heavily on testimony from mining engineer Abner Graves and has been discounted by historians.
  • 1939: Philanthropist Stephen C. Clark funds the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY.
  • Today: Cooperstown is a mecca for baseball fans the world over. Every summer, thousands of visitors descend upon the town to celebrate new Hall of Fame inductees and share their love of the game.