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Early Ball

Updated on June 15, 2012

Following a hard winter of cold and near-starvation at Valley Forge, General Washington’s soldiers must have been grateful when spring arrived, and when the men weren’t drilling and before they started out on their summer campaign, they diverted themselves with games. They played a game called long bullets, that is, lawn bowling with cannon balls, and a game called base, which was a very early version of baseball.

There is an account of General Washington coming upon some soldiers playing their game and the general, who was, and how best to say it, an aristocrat who lacked, or disdained, the common touch, picking up a bat and taking a couple of swings, to the delight, and bemusement of his men.

Alas, most accounts say it was cricket, not base, the general played that day, if however briefly. Cricket is a British game, baseball is ours, and the general too, so let’s settle the issue - it was base, not cricket, or rounders, either, another British game that was a forerunner of baseball and popular in America when we were colonies and before we flexed our muscles and invented, or evolved, our own national pastime.

Sometimes it seems as if everything we have, we got from the British, in some early form or other.

Except golf. We got golf from...Scotland.


Anyway, we didn’t need any of those early versions of ball. We had our own game inventor right here in America, Abner Doubleday, famous for inventing baseball, except, well, he didn’t really invent anything, or know much about baseball, or care much about it. That’s not to say he shouldn’t be remembered. He should, and for a very good reason.

When the Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and the Federal forces inside the fort returned fire, the first Federal shot was aimed (and perhaps fired, as well,) by Captain Abner Doubleday.

And in what can only be considered an ironic twist, the man who was to become famous for inventing a game he didn’t invent, was also, probably more through an oversight than through malice, denied credit for something he did actually accomplish - saving the country.

The Battle of Gettysburg is considered to be the deciding event of the Civil War. The Union forces won the battle on the third afternoon, when they stopped Pickett’s Charge and what made that glorious third afternoon possible was the tenacity of the Union First Corp on the first day. The First Corp repulsed a number of Confederate attacks, buying time for the rest of the Union army to arrive and take possession of the higher ground, without which, the third day heroics wouldn’t have been possible. The First Corp, on that fateful morning, was led by Major General John Reynolds, and when Reynolds was killed, command devolved onto another Major General - Abner Doubleday.

And what did Abner get for it? Demoted immediately afterward. Seriously.


The Civil War accelerated the development of America and of baseball, too. Formal rules had already been set down, not by Abner Doubleday, but by Alexander Cartwright, who, in 1845, established the Knickerbocker Baseball Club and who also formalized, that is, put down on paper, the rules of the game. Abner was an innovator, establishing some pretty fundamental pieces of our modern game - a diamond shaped field, 3 outs per inning, 9 innings per game, foul territory, the distance between bases and, oh, yeh, he made it illegal to retire a base runner by hitting him with a thrown ball, which must have taken some of the fun out of it.

By the time the war started, baseball was already gaining popularity, more in the north than in the south. It was a gentleman’s game, not something for ruffians. (Players, prior to the war, were considered ungentlemanly if they accepted payment for playing.) With the war, and with half a million men gathered together in army camps and with time on their hands, the game’s popularity soared.

In 1861, the 71st NY Regiment’s ball team defeated the Washington Nationals, another army team, 41 to 13. The players didn’t use mitts and the pitchers pitched underhand. The 2 teams played a rematch a year later and this time the Nationals triumphed, 28 to 13, but, as a wag pointed out, the 71st NY had lost some of its best players, permanently, at Bull Run.

On Christmas Day, 1862, a ball game played between 2 Union teams drew a crowd of more than 40,000. (Take that, Cleveland.) In another ball game, a Union center fielder was shot and killed, the beginning of a Confederate sneak attack. The left and right fielders, it was reported, got safely back into the dugout, or to wherever players retreated to in those days.

I don’t know if Bobby Lee or Jeff Davis were baseball players, but Abe Lincoln was. It seems President GW Bush wasn’t the first president to lay out a diamond on the White House lawn. Lincoln had 1 as well, probably for his sons and the neighborhood boys. We can imagine the president taking a break from work and coming outside and handing off his stovepipe hat and swallowtail coat to an aide and rolling up his sleeves and joining the boys in their game. God knows he needed a diversion, with all that weighed on him. And with those long legs, Abe must surely have led the White House league in triples.

After the war and with the armies disbursing, the men took the game home with them and 1 place it went was to the Narrows, a farming community in Georgia. Years later, a boy born there at the Narrows, Ty Cobb, returned north with the game, and with the war, too.

Hall of Famer Sam "Wahoo" Crawford, a teammate of Cobb, had this to say about the Georgia Peach:

"Ty Cobb was still fighting the Civil War, and as far as he was concerned, we were all damn Yankees."

When President Lincoln was assassinated and lay mortally wounded, he turned to Abner Doubleday and spoke those immortal words:

"Don’t let the game die."

OK, probably not. Most assuredly not. Doubleday wasn’t, so far as we know, present at Lincoln’s bedside (although he probably did accompany the President to Gettysburg for the Address.) Baseball wasn’t on anyone’s mind that fateful night and those fanciful last words weren’t reported until 75 years later and by a sportswriter who had a way with words and a flair for what he thought was the dramatic. Besides, we don’t need invented words for the night the president died. We already have the immortal words spoken by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who really was at Lincoln’s bedside and had this to say, when the president breathed his last:

"Now he belongs to the ages."


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