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6/10/2014 9:31 A.M. ET

How it came to be in Cooperstown

A story here, an old ball there, and a New York hamlet becomes 'birthplace' of baseball

Just to the left of the entrance to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is a scoreboard, a basic list of the scores from the Major League games of the day before. The symbolic point is clear: once the game is over, it is history, and it belongs to Cooperstown.

For a first-time visitor, the walk down Main Street to the Museum is impossible to perform slowly; the undertow of the building is too hard to resist. But Main Street, Cooperstown, provides a complimentary experience of baseball in America, a living museum that provokes thought and wonder of a different sort. Along with the coffee shops and drugstores is a souvenir extravaganza, from trinkets and cards costing less than a dollar to autographed rarities that could be in the Museum itself. The tradition is long: Curio sellers lined the path of the Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land, and peddlers' shacks were a blight at Niagara Falls by the 1840s. In Cooperstown, however, the row of shops is pleasing. Thanks to the foresight of the village fathers, even stores selling plastic coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and "authentic replicas" must hawk their dubious wares from reasonably attractive venues. A jewel like the Hall of Fame must have a proper setting.

Step inside the Museum, your heart racing, then pause to catch your breath and find your bearings. Relax -- there is no wrong turn. The story of baseball may be approached from the beginning, or from the end, or from any of the thousands of entry points between. If you go straight ahead, you find yourself in the Hall of Fame Gallery, with its silent array of plaques. Do you like to save the best for last? I suggest that you go around the bases, then return here, to baseball's real-life home plate.

Baseball is at the core of our national life, and the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is the game's national shrine, the repository of its heritage. Dedicated souls make the pilgrimage to Cooperstown, N.Y., a picturesque village of 1,852 inhabitants that is not served by an airport, a passenger train or major highway. They don't get here by finding it on the way to there.

If baseball is played everywhere today, and bat-and-ball games have been played everywhere for centuries, why do visitors to Cooperstown have such a sense of reverence, even a belief that baseball started here? There are several answers, and they tell a wonderful American tale, equal parts history and myth, which begins with Abner Doubleday and ends with him. Along the way, his legend was created, enlarged, punctured and enriched. He is not baseball's inventor, but has become, oddly, its Father Christmas, offering bounteous gifts with a wink and a nod.

While the precise origins of the game we call baseball can be debated (and David Block I have done so, in our books and articles), we can state with certainty that it did not spring full-blown from the fertile mind of Doubleday, or anyone else, in Cooperstown, or anyplace else. But the selection of the remote hamlet of Cooperstown was based on just such a notion: that anything as glorious as baseball must have begun in one place, at one particular time, and must have been the brainstorm of some ingenious American lad. Given these premises, a creation myth was inevitable; all that remained was to determine its particulars. To the question, "How did baseball come to be?" evolution seemed an unsatisfactory answer -- messy, purposeless and undramatic. It is at this point that the interests of Albert Goodwill Spalding and the good people of Cooperstown intersect.

Before 1939, Cooperstown was a typical American village, although one blessed by a spectacular setting. At one end of the town, the glorious Lake Otsego, the shimmering body of water that James Fenimore Cooper (for whose father the village was named) called Glimmerglass in his "Leatherstocking Tales." All around the nine-mile lake were softly rolling hills and a democratic mixture of stately homes and sportsmen's cabins. The Susquehanna River has its origin here, at the south end of Lake Otsego, flowing from its height of 1,200 feet above sea level all the way through Pennsylvania and into the Chesapeake Bay. And here is the spot known as Council Rock, where the Iroquois nations met. And there is the spot known as Phinney's Pasture, where baseball is said to have begun.

In the late 1880s, when Spalding's World Tourists -- two teams of Major Leaguers -- attempted to spread the gospel of baseball to heathen lands, there was a widespread good-willed debate about the origins of baseball among such prominent figures as Spalding, John Montgomery Ward and Henry Chadwick. Chadwick -- sports journalist, hopeless egotist, inveterate rule tinkerer and relentless proselytizer -- had played rounders in England before coming to these shores. Ever since he commenced to write about baseball in 1856, he had always ascribed the origins of his adopted game to rounders. In the 1904 edition of The Spalding Guide, for which he had long been the editor, Chadwick once again made the case for baseball's debt to the British game.

Spalding had heard Chadwick's argument a hundred times before and had always been content to disagree, politely. But this time he either lost his patience or saw his opening, or -- as Chadwick believed -- was merely having some fun at his old friend's expense. Rhetorically, Spalding took the position that Ward had previously articulated: that something so typically American in every way could not have been of exotic origin. Those of a skeptical bent might add that Spalding's motivation for stirring the pot had more to do with commerce than sport, history or even patriotism. Through the promotion attendant to the "Great Debate," Spalding's sporting-goods company might be counted on to sell additional balls and bats.

Spalding published his rebuttal to Chadwick in the 1905 Guide, but he wasn't satisfied. He encouraged the presidents of the two leagues, National and American, Harry Pulliam and Ban Johnson, to form a commission to settle the issue once and for all. In the end, the organizing task fell to Abraham G. Mills, an old sidekick of Spalding's from the dawn of the National League in 1876. The appointed members of the Mills Commission, also veteran cronies, set out to find an unknown genius because he simply had to exist, like the source of the Nile. It was not surprising that they found their man.

The critical piece of evidence in the eyes of the commission was a letter from Abner Graves, a mining engineer living in Denver. In the letter, Graves said he remembered with unusual clarity an incident related to the discovery of baseball. One summer day in Cooperstown, in 1839 or so (Graves at first was uncertain as to the year), a group of boys had gathered for a day's play of town ball, in which the Cooperstown lads typically ran headlong into one another, injuring themselves in their enthusiasm. But on this day, young Abner Doubleday drew a diagram of a baseball diamond in the dirt at Elihu Phinney's cow pasture, and from that point on, the boys began to play this new, organized game. To Spalding, this was glorious stuff -- the game for all of America invented by a great general of the Civil War, and as has recently been revealed, an ardent theosophist, as was Spalding's second wife. Doubleday was long dead, so no one could ask him whether Graves was telling the truth or not, but Robert Doubleday, Abner's nephew, claimed his uncle told him at length the story of how he invented baseball.

The commission asked Graves a few more questions, and its members were satisfied. They filed their report on the final day of 1907, fulfilling their three-year mandate. It was official: Baseball came from America and nowhere else; Abner Doubleday made it happen, in a spark of boyhood genius reminiscent of the already legendary though still quite alive Tom Edison. The league presidents accepted the commission's findings in 1908. Chadwick was denied his chance at rebuttal, for he caught cold on Opening Day in Brooklyn and died before the month was out. The issue was settled ... sort of.

The official pronouncement, however, was what America and Spalding were ready to hear. The next step was the one that sparked the establishment of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. In Ilion, N.Y., in the winter of 1917, five men sat around a hot stove at Michael Fogerty's cigar store and agreed that there should be a monument to Doubleday in Cooperstown to honor his "creation." Besides Fogerty, the men were Hardy Richardson, who had a 14-year career in the Majors in the 19th century, baseball enthusiasts George Oliver and Patrick Fitzpatrick, and former ballplayer and coach George "Deke" White (who pitched in three games for the 1895 Phillies and was not Jim "Deacon" White, a Hall of Fame inductee in 2013). They each pitched in the munificent sum of 25 cents and started the Doubleday Memorial Fund. But what they did next was more important. They enlisted the efforts of Sam Crane, former Major League second baseman and then a sportswriter for the New York Journal. Crane promoted the idea.

Next, the citizens of Cooperstown got into the act. Dr. Ernest L. Pitcher (perfect name) was a local dentist who headed up the fund drive to buy Phinney's field and make it a baseball park. The folks of Cooperstown chipped in $3,772 and did just that. It took some further legal wrangling over the next few years and some help from outside sources to close the deal. Ground was broken on June 2, 1919, and the first game was played there on Sept. 6, 1920, with NL president John Heydler in attendance. Before the decade was over, people who wanted to see where baseball was born began to make trips to the hamlet on the lake.

The people of Cooperstown saw they had a good thing going. They approached Major League Baseball for its support of a celebration in 1939 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Doubleday's invention. The response from the leagues was encouraging, and the locals set to work. In a merger of national and local interests, federal funds from the Works Progress Administration were combined with Village of Cooperstown funds to expand Doubleday Field, add stands and make it the gem that it is today. What other village of fewer than 2,000 inhabitants has a ball field that seats 10,000?

The concept of a baseball museum to go along with the field was the brainchild of Stephen C. Clark, Sr., whose grandfather, attorney Edward Clark, had represented inventor Isaac M. Singer in a patent-infringement suit. The elder Clark's association with Singer grew through the years, as they formed a partnership and Clark became the business head of I.M. Singer & Company. With the success of the Singer sewing machine and the thoughtful leadership of Clark, the company prospered, as did the fortunes of both men. Prior to the Civil War, Edward Clark began to spend summers at his wife's birthplace, Cooperstown. Over the next three generations, the Clark family's wealth grew, and with it grew their love of Cooperstown. By the 1930s, their philanthropy was evident throughout the village. They had funded numerous construction projects, including a hospital and a community gymnasium.

In 1935, Stephen C. Clark, Sr., was the vice president of the Otsego County Historical Society. The story goes that in that year, a farmer in nearby Fly Creek discovered an old trunk in his attic that had belonged to the Mills Commission's star witness, Abner Graves. Graves had left New York in 1848 at the age of 14 to find his fortune in the Gold Rush. In the trunk were the possessions he had left behind, including a homemade baseball, battered and beaten, the cover torn open. This was indeed a baseball of great antiquity, hand-sewn and of a small diameter like the few others that survive from the town-ball era. Mr. Clark purchased the ball for $5 and displayed it in the historical society's exhibition room, where it came to be called the Doubleday Ball -- although there is no indication that Doubleday ever used it.

At this point, one of Clark's New York City employees, Alexander Cleland, a man with a keen promotional sense, got behind the idea of a national baseball museum. They formally incorporated as the National Baseball Museum, Inc., a not-for-profit educational institution, in September 1936. The five-member board of directors contained names familiar to all Cooperstown residents: Clark employee Waldo C. Johnston, mayor Rowan D. Spraker, newspaper editor Walter L. Littell, writer James Fenimore Cooper (grandson of the novelist) and Stephen C. Clark. Cleland was retained as the organization's executive secretary and point man.

To the Doubleday Ball, Clark added his own collection of baseballs and two of the game's most famous pieces of early art -- a lithograph of Union prisoners playing ball in Salisbury, N.C., during the Civil War and the 1866 Currier & Ives print of a championship game at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J. NL president Ford Frick donated the 1889 championship trophy of the New York Giants.

The idea for a baseball Hall of Fame to salute the game's immortals was Frick's. It wasn't brand new: In 1901, New York University had opened a Hall of Fame for Great Americans, though it didn't include any sports figures. Frick suggested the concept of a baseball hall, and everyone loved it.

Many donations came in. One man gave a collection of old Spalding Baseball Guides. Clark Griffith, a pitcher for the Chicago White Stockings and later owner of the Washington Senators, presented Cooperstown with his collection of photographs, and Christy Mathewson's wife donated the pitcher's glove. (The museum's collection was thus built by the generosity of a nation of fans, players and executives who wanted to "make it to the Hall of Fame." This method endures as the sole path in acquisitions; while millions have been spent to display and preserve the collections, the museum has spent not a penny to acquire them.)

But how to select those who deserved enshrinement in the Hall? After trying out the idea of somehow having the fans choose, Cleland decided instead to have the Base Ball Writers' Association of America make the determinations. The controversy over who gets in and who doesn't began with the first voting procedure. There were two categories of players -- those who played in the 19th century and those who played from 1900-35. The plan was to elect 10 from the list of 33 nominees from the "modern" era, and five were to be selected from 26 nominees from the 19th century by a special panel. Instantly, the press began to bicker about the choices, so the list of nominees was dumped. All that was required to be elected, the new rules said, was for a player to receive votes on 75 percent of the ballots cast.

When the votes were tabulated, more howls went up. Only five modern players had received enough votes, and none of the old-timers did. Cy Young received votes in both categories, but not enough in either. The first Hall of Fame plaques -- for Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson -- were displayed in December 1937. Although not without squabbles, the voters seemed to straighten things out by the formal opening of the Hall on June 12, 1939, when 25 greats of the game were inducted.

As the Doubleday myth unraveled over the years, much like the stitching on the Doubleday Ball, Hall of Fame officials felt concerned, as if the Alexander Cartwright advocates had been trying to move the Hall to Hoboken, or the town fathers of Pittsfield, Mass., were trying to steal their thunder. But calm and reason prevailed, and after some agonizing about the unseemly implication that the Hall of Fame was tossing old Abner overboard, in the 1980s, Hall executives settled upon this elegant official position:

"Whatever may or may not be proved in the future concerning Baseball's true origin is in many respects irrelevant at this time. If baseball was not actually first played here in Cooperstown by Doubleday in 1839, it undoubtedly originated about that time in a similar rural atmosphere. The Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown to stay; and at the very least, the village is certainly an acceptable symbolic site."

That's severely understating the case. If baseball was not in fact invented in Cooperstown, it ought to have been. And by now, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is not merely a monument that commemorates a historic event, real or fanciful, it has a 75-year history of its own, in its own time, in its own place.

Even though Cooperstown was not truly the home base of baseball in 1939, it has been ever since. Like Mount Olympus, it is where the legends live.

John Thorn is the official historian for Major League Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.