Doubleday's Real Contribution

Union general's unit fired first shot of Civil War 150 years ago

Abner Doubleday probably never got a base hit or even tossed a ball around, much less invented baseball in Cooperstown, as legend says he did.

However, there's no questioning his role as a heroic Civil War officer who helped shape the course of American history.

Born on June 26, 1819, in Ballston Spa, N.Y.—about two hours from Cooperstown—Doubleday commanded an artillery unit that fired the first Union shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, S.C., on April 12, 1861. That's one of countless dramatic events being commemorated this year on the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States.

Two years later, at Gettysburg, Doubleday took command of the 1st Corps when Gen. John J. Reynolds was killed and repulsed Confederates fighting under Gen. Robert E. Lee.

"From 10:30 (a.m.) to about noon he was responsible for keeping a lot of Union soldiers from being captured and for capturing two Confederate brigades," said Lance Ingmire, chairman of the New York State Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee. "At that point, Doubleday had won the day."

Then the Union's 11th Corps began to fold, starting a Confederate rout that drove the Union army back through Gettysburg to high points south of town. Once again, however, Doubleday played a major role in the battle's outcome by establishing key defensive positions.

"They held back the Confederate advance long enough to give the rest of the army time to get to Gettysburg," said Karlton Smith, a National Park Service ranger and historian. "If they hadn't been able to buy that time, there might not have been a second and third day at Gettysburg."

Doubleday, whose father was a U.S. congressman, entered West Point in 1838. In 1839, when he was said to have invented baseball, he was a West Point plebe and wouldn't have been allowed off campus. So how did he become so entwined with the game?

In 1905, sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding, one of baseball's most powerful figures, decided the game needed a (presumably American) founder, and he commissioned a panel to find one. Abner Graves of Boulder, Colo., who spent part of his youth in Cooperstown, wrote a story crediting Doubleday for inventing the sport. Just why, will never be known. Doubleday was a war hero and he was American, and thus able to refute British claims that baseball evolved from an English game called rounders. So the story stuck.

Doubleday, who died in 1893, could neither refute nor substantiate it. However, he never mentioned baseball in all his writings. (For more on the true origins of the game, see James Bailey's review of John Thorn's new book, "Baseball in the Garden of Eden.")

And while Doubleday got notoriety in baseball that he did not really deserve, he never got the military credit he longed for. Thanks to army politics, he was demoted after Gettysburg and spent the rest of the Civil War in administrative duties. Retiring from the army in 1873, he later lived in San Francisco and was instrumental in establishing the city's first cable car company.

While military fame eluded him, Doubleday became synonymous with baseball until later evidence debunked such tales. Still, his name is prominent in Cooperstown as numerous Hall of Famers have played on the diamond, Doubleday Field, bearing his name during exhibitions down through the years.

Doubleday is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., surrounded by countless other Americans who bravely served their country. He never went 4-for-4, but was a hero nonetheless.

"Probably his best day is here at Gettysburg," Smith said.