Major League Baseball has always traded heavily in its history and nostalgia. The tendency to romanticize and sentimentalize the past has been a characteristic of a lot of baseball fans, and MLB really started “retro marketing” heavily in the early ’90s. But it was part of the sales pitch long before that. Baseball’s decision to locate its Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1939 was based on two entirely fabricated myths. An important baseball pioneer, Albert Spalding, was instrumental in creating these stories.
Spalding was an innovator in the development, use, and marketing of fielding gloves. He and William Hulbert organized the National League in the late nineteenth century. He wrote the first set of official baseball rules. He formed a sporting goods store in Chicago and Spalding baseballs were used by MLB until 1976. They had a rubber core that gave the pitchers a shade of an advantage.
In 1900 Spalding married his first true love, Lizzie Churchill Mayer. She was an adherent of a burgeoning semi-religious movement called Theosophy, an early ancestor of today’s New Age movement. Spalding embraced his wife’s religious leanings and became a prominent Theosophist. They built a house and settled in Lomaland, the Theosophist colony on Point Loma near San Diego.
In 1905 Spalding appointed Abraham Mills to form a commission that would determine the origins of baseball. Based on an account that was a total fantasy, the commission decided that the game was invented in Cooperstown, New York by Abner Doubleday in
1839. Doubleday, later a Civil War general, wasn’t in Cooperstown in 1839 and very probably never had anything whatsoever to do with baseball. Today, baseball’s Hall of Fame resides in the town in which the game was not invented. There is a bronze plaque there commemorating a man who was completely unconnected with the game. Doubleday was, in what surely must be a case of divine serendipity, the president of the American Theosophical Society.
Today in Lomaland you can visit the beautiful home the Spaldings built at the colony. A few minutes walk will take you to what is claimed to be the first Greek amphitheater in America. It was built by the colony in 1901. Of course, it’s not really Greek; it’s the first copy of one. It overlooks Carroll B. Land Stadium which bills itself as “the most scenic ballpark in America.”
The amphitheater is impressive and the views of the coast and the Pacific Ocean are stunning. But I’m withholding judgment on whether or not the claims for these structures are true. That’s the thing about baseball and nostalgia. Out of pure hokum they can create such beautiful myths.
Jerry Howard’s “Baseball Notes” column appears weekly during the baseball season.
Editor’s note: While no one person “invented” baseball, since it evolved from earlier versions of the game including “town ball” and “rounders,” the man who deserves a lot of the credit for baseball in the form it eventually took is Alexander Cartwright, who codified the rules of the sport, most of which are still in use. He set the distance between bases at 90 feet, the number of players and innings at nine. His rules were used in what some historians call “the first baseball game” in 1845 between the New York Nine and the Knickerbockers, won by the Nine 23-1. – Jim Tortolano.