This is a post I had meant to make a few months ago, and it got lost in the busy scheduling …
Comedian Robert Wuhl, in his very funny comedic bit Assume the Position, postulated what he called the “Liberty Valance” effect, which he based on the classic western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I’ll let Professor Wuhl explain this (a little bit of PG-18 language … and if you have time, I recommend watching the whole thing for the humor):
This is hardly a revelation … we all know that what is written in history books has to be taken with a grain of salt … that military victors, conquerors and captains of industry can control history. Thanks to Thomas Edison, the truth of Nikola Tesla took a while to reach the general public, and so on.
Which takes us to Albert Goodwill Spalding.
Spalding started his young life as so many do, wanting to be a ball player (back when baseball was in its infancy). He joined the first professional baseball league (today called the National Association) and played with teams in Rockford and Boston (ironically, the Boston team would eventually become the Braves of Major League Baseball, owned by Ted Turner, who created the completely unrelated Goodwill Games).
Spalding, by most definitions of good, was an outstanding player. Over his seven year career, he pitched for a record 252-65, giving him a win-loss percentage of 0.795; an all-time professional baseball career record. His career batting average was 0.313, which in an era when nobody hit well is very good! He was a legitimate Hall-of-Fame pitcher even without his future contributions.
But not all was fun and games. While the ball players were happy to make a salary, the league was not very well organized … teams entered and left frequently in its five year existence. Worst: the players … the employees … could haggle over contracts and demand more money if they had a good year … and if they didn’t like the owner they could leave and play for another team. The owner of the Chicago White Stockings, William Hulbert, decided to start over, and got Spalding, one of the games’s best players. to come back to Illinois (his home town was Byron, Illinois), and help him get control of things. Thus the first power grab in Major League Baseball history was engineered by the owner of the team that would one day provide a pants-less bear as its mascot to rub against children of all ages. The Cubs were the Sith, Hulbert the Emperor, and now he had his Annakin. Rather than create the Galactic Empire, they created the National League which among other things created the Reserve Clause to prevent players from having any power over their careers, and politely agreed that any persons with Black skin should play baseball in some other league. Spalding helped guide his fellow players from the National Assocaition into the National League. To quote Queen Amidala: This is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause and Clark the Cub.
Spalding was no idiot … now back in Chicago, he invested in a sporting goods store. This allowed him to retire from playing to focus on being co-owner of the future Cubs and to run his sporting goods sale and manufacturing concerns. This would be kind of like if Annakin retired from day-to-day evil and went into the construction business or some ..
Spalding knew that to grow your business, you needed to get the word out, and Spalding had no small plans (did we mention that when he published the first official rules for baseball ever published, he made sure to include a rule which required the use of Spalding baseballs in every game. In an era before WGN and the Chicago Tribune, it was the first attempt by the Cubs to garner public support through mass media).
Thus was born a great idea. Spalding would send his future Cubs on a tour of the world to spread the gospel of baseball to the unclean and sometimes just smelly masses of the world … hoping that if baseball caught on, the entire world would have to buy their baseballs and bats from Spalding Sporting Goods. At this point, Spalding is veering from Sith Lord more into cartoon supervillain territory.
Spalding crated up most of his future Cubs and some stars from other teams and packed them across so-called Indian territory (not Cleveland) to San Francisco. They stopped in Hawai’i, and then on to Australia where the locals were amazed that this brand new sport was … cricket with modifications. But since Australians are like Canadians with friendly accents, they applauded the Americans and sent them on their way. The Americans were not happy to learn their beautiful sport was so close to something that was already being played all over the world … kind of like when two women show up at a party and one of them is wearing the same dress as someone else. Most people don’t care, but that doesn’t stop a Star Trek inspired hand-to-hand fight from breaking out. More on the rising angst later.
After Australia it was off to Ceylon (Sri Lanka today) and then on to Egypt where baseball was played on the Gizeh plateau under the gaze of the recently unburied Great Sphinx. Interest was … minimal. Italy and France showed little interest, but the final stop … England … was a different story. While there were crowds who came out to politely applaud the visitors, the reaction was more apathy. Newspapers dismissed and ridiculed the Americans, noting that this new game was not much different from the English game of rounders.
The tour ended with huge celebratory banquets in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The affair was dampened not only by the American tourists brooding over the whole rounders thing, but Spalding and the owners had just instituted tighter rules on player salaries, which would quickly simmer into a player rebellion (the short-lived Players League, which ended with the destruction of Alderaan). At this point, the only thing separating Spalding from full blown Sith Lord status was a cool march theme to play when he entered the room.
Spalding’s attention returned to growing his sporting goods empire and exploiting his Cubs players. That lasted until 1905.
In 1905, Henry Chadwick, generally considered the Father of Baseball for his work in developing baseball statistics (he invented the concept of the “Earned Run Average” and “Batting “Average”), writing, and reporting, wrote an article proposing that the American game of baseball undoubtedly descended from earlier English games. While the English-born scholar Chadwick and the corporate exploiter Cubs owner Spalding tolerated each other, despite being the two most influential men in the earliest days of baseball, that tolerance was about to come to an end. Spalding had enough of this idea floating around that baseball wasn’t wholly American”, and now demanded that something forcibly patriotic be done!
Spalding had a blue ribbon panel formed (with himself choosing the members … it was headed by a Spalding patsy Abraham Mills, and thus became known as the Mills Commission), and demanded that anyone who knew anything about the origins of baseball write the panel a letter. As you might expect, it would be like Bill Gates wanting to learn about who invented the computer by posting an article on Yahoo! and asking anyone who knew to post in the comment section.
Two wondrous things happened for Spalding. The first was that Chadwick died while the Commission was sifting through crank letters, allowing Spalding to get a hold of Chadwick’s notes in the name of furthering the investigation through suppression of anything he disagreed with.
The second was the arrival of a crank letter that was too good to be true … and was thus just what Spalding wanted! 71-year old Abner Graves of Denver Colorado sent a letter swearing up and down that in 1839, Graves was attending school with a young man named Abner Doubleday, and that he keenly remembered seeing Doubleday writing down the rules for a new game and designing the field layout in the dirt on the side of a lake at Cooperstown, New York. Oh, and Abner Doubleday was the grandson of a messenger for General George Washington, was later a general in the Civil War at Gettysburg who was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. He was also a president of the local theosophist society, a group Spalding was a huge supporter of. Similar religious views, check. Descended of a ‘Mericun hero, check. ‘Mericun hero, check. Wholly ‘Mericun, check!
Spalding was doing back flips. Sure enough, the Mills Commission printed the legend because it agreed with what they wanted it to be. In fact, even in an era before computers, it didn’t take long to denounce the whole Doubleday story as utter rubbish: Doubleday was from New York, but was nowhere near Cooperstown in 1839 … he was at West Point earning his officer’s commission. Despite this, the story was nice, and people were willing to believe the authorities. The legend became truth, to be repeated through the decades.
Nearly 30 years later, Cooperstown native Stephen Clark, who had gotten rich through Singer sewing machines, found an ancient baseball, which he assumed must have belonged to Abner Doubleday. He acquired some other baseball memorabilia, and displayed it in town. It drew crowds … crowds who would pay money. Clark approached the president of the NL with an idea: build a museum to hold the history of the game, and maybe also create a Hall of Fame to honor the best players of the game. And what better place to put it than in the one place where baseball was definitely
not invented: Cooperstown, NY.
So, later this week, just as Muslims make a once-in-a-lifetime hajj to Mecca to see the center of their faith, I too will make a journey to the center of baseball’s faith. I will go to Cooperstown, a picturesque village of 3,000 or so in rural New York … named for the family of James Fenimore Cooper … a writer of great American fiction … itself now home to Baseball’s soul because of more fiction.
Not that there is anything wrong with believing in legends, as long as you can tell the fact from the fantasy.