Skip to main content

A Few Words On Behalf Of Uncle Abner

April 2024
2min read


Victor Salvatore’s article about baseball and Abner Doubleday (June/July 1983 issue) did not get all the facts correct. If he is going to kill a myth, he should do it properly. If he is going to shoot Santa Claus, he should shoot him dead!

I grew up with Abner Doubleday. My interest in him came about naturally; it was genetic. My mother used to call him “Uncle.” So did her five sisters and two brothers, and all of her maternal cousins. In 19601 began gathering all the material I could about “Uncle Abner” for a biography of the man.

Two characteristics soon emerged. Abner Doubleday was primarily a military man—outspoken, verbose and critical, and an intense nationalist; he was also very much a family man and visited relatives whenever the opportunity presented itself (though he was not always welcome, as one relative testified who thought him “an SOB” and proceeded to spend the whole course of Abner’s visit in the outhouse!).

The basis of the claim that Doubleday “invented” baseball was the letter submitted by Abner Graves to the Spalding Commission in which he stated that “the game of baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, N. Y. either the spring prior to, or following the ‘Log Cabin and Hard Cider’ campaign of General Harrison for President. ” The selection of the year 1839 was arbitrarily made by A. G. Mills, who drafted the commission’s report. In fact, the campaign took place in 1840, the year that Abner Doubleday was granted a two-plus month leave from West Point. Without doubt, he would have gone to Scipio, New York, where his father had taken up farming. It is inconceivable that Abner would have by-passed Cooperstown, where he still had many cousins.

The existence of order No. 30, dated June 18, 1840, granting Abner Doubleday a leave of absence from West Point, gives credence to the thought that he was in Cooperstown during the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign. And Doubleday’s West Point training would be an ideal background for estimating the fine points of the first baseball diamond.

Abner Doubleday’s wartime accomplishments were remarkable, but he seems to have been denied credit for many of them and suffered intense frustration as a result. The prime example was his treatment by Gen. George Gordon Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg. Doubleday performed brilliantly on July 1, 1863, the first day of the fighting. With nine thousand men against an attacking Confederate force of thirty thousand he managed to capture his old classmate James Archer’s brigade and held on until forced to retreat. It was Doubleday’s command that repulsed Pickett’s charge two days later, “thereby saving the battle and the Union.” Afterward, Meade, for some inexplicable reason, assigned Doubleday to the command of a warehouse in Buffalo, New York. President Lincoln rescinded Meade’s order by assigning Doubleday to the command of a military commission with primary operations in Washington, D.C.

Abner never forgave Meade for this incomprehensible action, nor for a subsequent rebuff. When Doubleday appeared before a board of officers for promotion to major general, who should be presiding but Major General Meade! The promotion was denied. Doubleday’s brevet rank of major general, an honor awarded him twice for bravery in the field, carried a real rank of precedence but no increase in pay. His regular army rank was that of colonel, and it was with that rank and on that pay that he retired in 1873.

A good deal of his retirement was spent in correspondence and writing, trying to have others understand matters that he could hardly understand himself and which, perhaps, are not understandable. His concerns were with the military. His memoirs omitted not only mention of baseball but many significant occurrences in his career. He barely mentions experiences at West Point: his boyhood is passed over with a shrug.

Perhaps Col. A. G. Mills, Abner’s longtime friend on the Spalding Commission, saw in the Graves letters an opportunity to redress a grievance for his old companion. He may have used the Spalding Report to correct what he saw as a historical injustice and to give Abner Doubleday the national recognition he so richly deserved.

Now, lest I be accused of nit-picking about Victor Salvatore’s article on an issue so frequently rehashed, an observation by Bruce Catton that appeared in this magazine in April/May 1977 seems appropriate: “General Doubleday is the Santa Claus of baseball. He actually existed…but his actual connection with the game of baseball is somewhat like Santa Claus’s connection with Christmas, indecipherable but unbreakable. … Skeptics have spent years trying to prove that the whole story is a myth, but that makes no difference; by this time baseball is General Doubleday’s game and that is that.”

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate