Who Invented Baseball, Anyway?

Was It Abner Doubleday or the English?

Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, sixth and seventh from left, respectively, in Santa Barbara, in 1927.

TRUE OR FALSE: Babe Ruth played baseball in Santa Barbara.

True or false: As everyone knows, baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, NY, in 1839. Right?

Answers: Yankee slugger Babe Ruth did play here in a 1927 exhibition game against locals at Peabody Stadium.

About 300,000 people a year make a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, where baseball’s Hall of Fame is located, but Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with “inventing” baseball and never claimed to have.

He was still at West Point in 1839 and went on to become a Civil War hero. Sorry to report that the whole Doubleday-Cooperstown legend is just that: cooked up by (you guessed it) a committee of promoters. Is nothing sacred?

In 1907 sporting goods merchant and former player A.J. Spaulding used flimsy evidence that wouldn’t stand up in any real court to come up with the Cooperstown baloney.

Stop for a moment. Do you really believe that a guy walked out to a small-town vacant lot with a ball and a stick and told assembled townsfolk: “I hereby declare that this game I have devised will be the National Pastime. Here are the rules.”

In truth (are we still interested in it?), what we call baseball has a long history back into the 1700s and earlier. As my friend Ralph Waterhouse delights in reminding me, our all-American hot-dogs-and-apple-pie game came across the ocean as an English game known as “rounders.”

According to History.com, “Its most direct ancestors appear to be two English games: rounders, a children’s game brought to New England by the earliest colonists, and cricket.

“By the time of the American Revolution, variations of such games were being played on schoolyards and college campuses across the country.” The rules fluctuated wildly, and they’re still changing. Then in 1845, a group of New York City men founded the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. A member, volunteer fireman and bank clerk Alexander Cartwright, decided to codify the rules, according to History.com.

They would form the basis for modern baseball, calling for a triangle-shaped infield, foul lines, and the three-strike rule. “He also abolished the dangerous practice of tagging runners by throwing balls at them.

“In 1846 the Knickerbockers played the first official game of baseball against a team of cricket players, beginning a new uniquely American tradition.”

As for Babe Ruth and the barnstorming Yankees, they had just whipped the National League Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, four games to zero.

On October 27, 1927, Ruth, with a team from the visiting battleship USS Colorado, met a team of Santa Barbarans headed by star Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig. The town was wildly excited. About 3,500 fans turned out, many of them schoolchildren with written parental permission, according to Michael Redmon, Santa Barbara Independent columnist. Ticket price: $1.10.

Right off the bat, Ruth hit a home run, struck out, and went two for four. His Bustin’ Babes beat the Larrupin’ Lous, 7-6. Hal Bacon, local clothier, actually struck the Babe out, a memory I’m sure he treasured, even if Ruth didn’t. Gehrig hit a homer that would have gone 500 feet if it hadn’t hit a car in the parking lot, according to Redmon.

HIGH JINKS: To get away from the world’s woes for at least a few hours, pop into a night of delight with High Society, starring Cole Porter’s great music and a cast headed by Santa Barbara’s own Katherine Bottoms.

If you’ve ever seen the 1940 movie The Philadelphia Story, try to imagine it set to music. Can’t. No way could you see in your mind’s eye the dancing servers, the wacky in-laws, and Bottoms — playing Tracy Lord — dizzy from dance and champagne, skinny-dipping in the mansion pool, trying to figure out whom to marry — and whom not.

Kudos to the Theatre Group at Santa Barbara City College, director R. Michael Gros, and musical director David Potter. High Society runs through Saturday, July 29.


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