"Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow."
– Kay, Men In Black
As the nation went to sleep on the night of May 23, 1983, everyone (save for a small number of devoted baseball historians) knew that Civil War General Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. It was a well-known piece of history that helped to explain why the Baseball Hall of Fame was in such an out of the way location. Imagine the surprise around the country then when, 29 years ago today, people around the country opened their newspapers the next morning to see this article from the Associated Press:
Not only did Abner Doubleday not invent baseball, he never even mentioned the game in his journals, and neither he nor his family were in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839 when the first game supposedly was played, according to American Heritage magazine.
Doubleday and Cooperstown, as the father and birthplace of baseball, "is a double-barreled historical falsehood," said author Victor Salvatore in a story titled "The Man Who Didn't Invent Baseball."
The article was published in the June/July 1983 issue of American Heritage. Other articles in that issue were "Baseball's Greatest Song", "The Old Ball Game", and "Escape from Vichy." Salvatore's original article can be found here.
The discovery of the Doubleday story as myth by Salvatore wasn't exactly groundbreaking. In fact, the AP article explicitly mentions that "several standard encyclopedias agree that a Doubleday role in creating the national pastime is at best questionable." Even so, this article nearly 30 years ago may have been the first time the mythical nature of the story was widely broadcast to the general population. Salvatore, then, was Colombus "discovering" America to the past historians' Leif Ericson.
The Doubleday myth isn't very popular these days. There are just too many facts disproving it and, anyway, the real "father of modern baseball" Alexander Cartwright is fascinating in his own right (did you know he was the fire chief of Honolulu from 1850 to 1863?). Twenty-nine years ago, however, the news must have been enough to cause a few shocked faces and coffee spit-takes over the morning paper. It was worth it.