The Baseball Hall of Fame—like many great American institutions—was founded by a fortune and a fiction. Its story begins before the Civil War and, at first, had nothing to do with baseball.
In 1851, a mad machinist named Isaac Merritt Singer patented a sewing machine. Singer was a man of huge physical size and appetites, husband and consort to multiple women, the father of at least 20 children. Together with Edward Clark, a buttoned-down New York attorney, Singer fought a prolonged legal battle with other sewing machine inventors over the rights to the new machine. Singer and Clark wound up as partners in the IM Singer Sewing Machine Company, and quickly became two of the richest men in America.
Singer used his money to acquire a mansion on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and proceeded to scandalize polite New York society with orgies and excesses. (He was eventually arrested for bigamy and fled to Europe.) Clark spent his money in more genteel fashion. A staid Episcopalian, he moved his newly wealthy family to Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1854 and embarked on the life of an American aristocrat. Clark picked Cooperstown because the beauty of rural central New York charmed him and, mostly, because his wife had been raised in the village.
The Clark family has now dominated Cooperstown and the region around it for five generations. The Clarks own just about everything, starting with the grand Otesaga Hotel, where Hall of Famers are put up during Induction Week. The family founded the local hospital and donated the land for the public schools. The Clark Foundation decorates the town for the holidays, and more or less takes care of whatever civic emergencies arise. And, of course, the Clarks control the Hall of Fame.
To understand how forgery and fiction entered the story, you have to dial back to 1903, to a clash that occurred that year between two baseball titans.
Henry Chadwick was the first great baseball journalist and statistician—the Bill James of the 19th century. Born in England, he came to America as a young man and for 40 years was baseball’s foremost historian and reporter. He edited the Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player, the sport’s first publication, and created the game’s essential statistical measures, such as batting average and earned run average. Without Chadwick and his stats, generations of American kids would have been left with nothing to memorize.
In 1903, at the age of 80, Chadwick published an article on the origins of baseball, in which he took a Darwinian view. The game, he argued, had its roots in the two-century-old English game of rounders, which in the New World had gradually morphed into town ball; the first organized team was the Olympic Town Ball Club of Philadelphia, circa 1833. Town ball had, he concluded, evolved into baseball as it was at the turn of the 20th century.
This was not exactly news. Chadwick had been asserting this evolutionary doctrine of baseball’s origins for 25 years. But the spirit of the times had changed. America was in the midst of the biggest and, to many, the most disconcerting wave of immigration in its history. In 1892, Ellis Island opened America’s front door, and in the next two decades nearly 13 million people—almost a quarter of the entire pre-1890 population—came in. These new immigrants were not Protestant immigrants from northern Europe but Jews, Italian Catholics, and other exotic breeds. A lot of Americans worried that they would change the national character. President Theodore Roosevelt was among the concerned. He welcomed newcomers on condition that they learn English and blend into the American culture; the U.S., he warned, had no place for hyphenated citizens.
Chadwick, the man who labeled baseball a foreign import, was himself hyphenated. Someone had to challenge his account.
If Henry Chadwick was known as the Father of Baseball, A.G. Spalding was its first superstar. He broke in as a pitcher with the Boston Red Stockings in 1871 and led the National Association in wins for five straight years. In 1875, his record was 55–5. The following year, he moved to the newly formed National League, where the Chicago team paid him a salary and 25 percent of the gate in return for his services. He led the NL with 47 wins that year, then retired after the next season with a lifetime 253–65 won–lost record. He was 26 years old.
The same keen business instinct that prompted Spalding to cut himself in on the Chicago gate receipts led him to found A.G. Spalding and Brothers, which turned into the first great American sporting goods empire. In 1878, he founded Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide and Official League Book, the most important baseball journal of its time. To edit it, he hired Henry Chadwick himself. A decade later, Spalding organized a round-the-world baseball exhibition tour and returned to great acclaim. The Boston Herald, with only slight exaggeration, called him the most famous American after Lincoln and Washington.
Spalding, a proud nationalist in the Teddy Roosevelt mold, was offended by Chadwick’s notion that baseball had evolved from an Old World game. But Chadwick was his friend as well as his employee, and he loved the old guy. Besides, not even A.G. Spalding had the stature to challenge Chadwick’s authority as a historian. What Spalding needed was an alternative creation myth, one backed by evidence.
To get it, he devised the Mills Commission.
Despite its official-sounding name, the commission was not a publicly appointed body. Its members were handpicked by Spalding. For a chairman, he selected Abraham G. Mills of New York, a businessman and former president of the National League who shared Spalding’s nativist views of baseball. Other members included U.S. Sens. Morgan G. Bulkeley of Connecticut (another former president of the National League) and Arthur Pue Gorman of Maryland.
For evidence, Spalding furnished chairman Mills with a sort of baseball Book of Mormon: an eyewitness account of the origins of the game, written by one Abner Graves, a retired mining engineer living in Colorado. In the letter, Graves, who grew up in Cooperstown, described how one day in 1839 a local chap named Abner Doubleday had laid out four bases in the shape of a diamond, divided the boys of Cooperstown into two teams, and brought order out of a chaotic town scrum. In Spalding’s interpretation, this made Doubleday the architect and creator of baseball.
Doubleday was an excellent choice. He was a Civil War hero, an officer who was wounded in battle and who commanded a division at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. After leaving the Army, he moved to San Francisco, where he founded the first cable car company. Doubleday was also a prolific writer of memoirs and essays, none of which, oddly, ever mentioned playing baseball, let alone inventing it. And, when he died in 1893, none of his obituaries said anything about baseball, either.
But this didn’t bother Spalding, and it certainly didn’t matter to Mills. On Dec. 30, 1907, Mills reported that after due consideration, the committee had concluded that Abner Doubleday had, indeed, invented baseball on the green in Cooperstown in 1839. Only one member demurred.
At first, the villagers of Cooperstown were bemused by the discovery that they were living in the Bethlehem of baseball. It had been almost 80 years since Abner Doubleday had been in town—if he ever was in town—and nobody remembered him. But it gradually began to dawn on folks that there might be money in the baseball connection. In 1917, five villagers kicked in a quarter of a dollar apiece to set up a Doubleday Memorial Fund. Their idea was to establish a “national baseball field” and a players’ retirement home, which would attract tourism to the town. By 1919, a little cash was raised, enough to begin—but not complete—construction of Doubleday Field in a swampy area on the exact spot Abner Graves had cited in his letter.
The project might never have come to fruition if it didn’t eventually catch the attention of Stephen Clark, a grandson of Edward Clark. It was Alexander Cleland, one of the senior executives serving under Clark at the family’s charitable organization, who came up with the idea of cashing in on baseball. Cleland, a Scottish immigrant, neither knew nor cared much about his adopted country’s national pastime. But he saw that Cooperstown’s claim to be the birthplace of baseball was worth something. In 1934, he wrote Clark a letter proposing to establish a baseball museum that would draw fans. “Hundreds of visitors would be attracted to the shopping district right in the heart of Cooperstown, each year,” he predicted.
The idea appealed to Clark. In the spring of 1934, he dispatched Cleland to discuss the matter with Ford Frick, newly installed as the president of the National League. Frick, a former baseball writer and publicist, was a man who thought big. As far as he was concerned, if Cooperstown got some tourists, fine, but the real goal was to build baseball’s brand with something that would engage the imagination of fans everywhere. By 1935, Clark and Frick had a plan for a Cooperstown baseball multiplex—a museum; a hall of fame; and Doubleday Field, where construction, which had been going on in a desultory fashion since 1919, was now being completed by the federal Works Progress Administration.
The timing was perfect. Baseball was due to celebrate its centennial in 1939, just a few years hence. Frick went to the commissioner of baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and proposed that the birthday be celebrated in Cooperstown. Though Landis, an imperious man, ordinarily didn’t much care for ideas that originated with subordinates, this one was too good to turn down. Clark would take care of building the museum. Washington, D.C., courtesy of the WPA, was providing the stadium. The Hall of Fame was a publicity bonanza for baseball, and it wouldn’t cost Landis or his bosses, the team owners, a cent.
Frick did a tremendous job on public relations. On June 12, 1939, when the Hall of Fame held its grand opening, special trains were engaged in New York City to bring 15,000 fans to Cooperstown. Baseball heroes, including Babe Ruth, roamed the town chatting with fans.
Oddly, though Henry Chadwick and A.G. Spalding were among the baseball luminaries inducted posthumously that day, Abner Doubleday was not, and never has been.
Recently, the website of the Hall of Fame carried a statement that helped explain why:
“We may never know exactly where baseball was invented, and it’s possible it was not invented in any one place, but rather evolved in several areas over several years. We do know that some of the earliest forms of organized baseball that we are aware of took place in settings similar to that of Cooperstown. In that sense, the village serves as a fitting representation of the heritage of the game, and a fitting home to the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
From the book "Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues, and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame," ©2009 by Zev Chafets. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.