Doubleday Doubletake: One Ball, Three Strikes, One Man Out
Back in the early 1900s, America was growing into a new role, that of a colonial power and an emergent world leader. National pride and a newfound sense of destiny were the order of the day.
As it happened, baseball was coming into its own as well, as the professional side of the game stabilized into two Major Leagues and a common governing structure. A newly influential America needed a representative sport of its own, and baseball was the obvious choice. The National Pastime.
But just how American was it? Not very, claimed an influential early baseball writer of the time, Henry Chadwick. Chadwick, a Brit, took the view that the so-called National Pastime was merely a derivative of two old-country games -- rounders and cricket. Baseball was as British as kidney pie.
This was more than his employer, Albert Spalding, could tolerate. Spalding had been a star player himself in his younger days, then a manager, a team owner, founder and president of the National League, sponsor of the first world tour of American baseball players, and publisher of the leading baseball annual of the day, not to mention founder of the sporting goods empire that bears his name to this day. In fact, Chadwick was the editor of Spalding's own publication, and it was there that he chose to launch his attack on the American roots of the game.
No true red-blooded American could accept such an affront. So Spalding launched a commission, hand-picked, to establish once and for all the American origins of baseball. He then settled on Abner Doubleday as its inventor. It was a setup.
In addition to his stellar reputation, Doubleday offered a couple of advantages as Spalding's designated inventor. For one, by the time all of this played out, he'd been dead for more than ten years. So, even though he had never once referenced in life any association with the game, in writing or otherwise, Doubleday was not in a position to question Spalding's assertion. He was the right kind of man at the right time, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Moreover -- and if the hints and winks by baseball historians such as John Thorn and Philip Block are correct -- Doubleday had one other attribute of significance. He was a member of the American Theosophy Society, and had even served as president of its New York chapter after he retired from the military. Theosophy is not something we know much about these days. But from its founding in the 1870s well into the twentieth century, it was a global philosophical and quasi-religious movement of considerable influence. Theosophy is an admixture of selected beliefs drawn from Eastern religions (for example, reincarnation), pacifism, human potentiality, physical and intellectual rigor, and even the occult, all packaged within an appreciation for science and truth-seeking. Created by a mysterious Russian, Madame Helene Blavatsky, it attracted many prominent followers. Among them were such luminaries as writers L. Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz), Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Jack London, E.M. Forster, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Henry Miller, Maxim Gorky, Tolstoy and more. Poets William Butler Yeats and Oscar Wilde were theosophists. Thomas Edison was a member, as were Alfred Wallace, who separately from Darwin developed a theory of natural selection, famed botanist Luther Burbank, and psychiatrist Carl Jung. There were painters — Gauguin and Kandinsky and Klee and Mondrian. Gutzon Borglum, the Rushmore sculptor, was a theosophist, as was Mari Montessori. Among composers, Mahler and Sibelius. In politics, Henry Wallace, a US Vice President, was an adherent along with Nehru and others. Gandhi himself said Blavatsky had shown him the light. Then there was Edgar Cayce, the famed mind reader of the 1930s. According to some sources, you can add Kurt Vonnegut, Jackson Pollock, Gloria Steinem, Albert Einstein, Jane Goodall, Elvis Presly, and Shirley MacLaine to the list. The point: This was a serious and increasingly influential movement, especially at the turn of the last century. And Albert Spalding was himself a well connected, prominent, and even consequential adherent. Is it such a stretch, then, to suggest that, in naming his commission and pointing to a dead theosophist to enhance his claim to the American origins of his beloved baseball, Spalding might have had an ulterior motive -- enhancing the influence, even the political power, of Theosophy itself? But that is only the beginning of the story, the first in a chain of coincidences that produced what most now believe to be the myth of Abner Doubleday, Inventor of Baseball. But was it all coincidence? After coincidence? After coincidence? Start there. Then do the Doubleday Doubletake.