How the National Pastime Threw America a Curveball

-John Reinan, Senior Director at Fast Horse, a Minneapolis consumer marketing agency With baseball's annual All-Star game set for tonight, it's a good time to tell a tale calculated to drive any IP lawyer insane: how the National Pastime concocted and enshrined an entirely fictitious tale of the game's origins. Anyone who's visited baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., knows why that bucolic spot was chosen for the shrine: because Cooperstown is where Abner Doubleday invented baseball in a cow pasture in 1839. Except it's been pretty well established that he didn't. References to various ballgames can be found in English literature as far back as the 15th Century, and today's historians generally believe that baseball evolved from several other games with names like stool ball, rounders and one old cat. But the Doubleday myth has gotten far more publicity over the years than the truth, and it's likely that many fans still believe it. Doubleday, an authentic hero as a Union general in the Civil War, was indeed from Cooperstown. But in 1839, the year he was supposed to have invented baseball, Doubleday was enrolled as a cadet at West Point. Doubleday never claimed to be the game's inventor, and his extensive writings contained nothing about baseball, nor any reference to a role he may have played in inventing the game. What seems to have happened is that, as baseball gained popularity in the late 19th Century, the game's leaders sought to cement an all-American image for the national pastime. Many of the earliest baseball teams actually hailed from large cities; in that xenophobic era, the game's brain trust sought to anchor baseball's origins in the purity of rural America, away from the evil influences of industry and immigrants. A commission of baseball officials was formed in 1905 to investigate the origins of baseball. It appears to have based its conclusions largely on a letter it received from one Abner Graves, an elderly mining engineer who had spent some time in Cooperstown as a youth. Graves told the story of Doubleday inventing the game, writing up the rules, naming the positions and laying out the field. The fact that Graves later killed his wife and spent his remaining years in an insane asylum doesn't seem to have affected his credibility in the eyes of the baseball establishment. The commission adopted Graves's tale as its own, issuing a report proclaiming Doubleday as the inventor of the game. Cooperstown's status as baseball's birthplace made it a natural site for the Hall of Fame, which opened in 1939 – the 100th anniversary of Doubleday's supposed invention. Although a few voices challenged the Doubleday myth from the start, it wasn't until modern baseball scholarship took root in the 1960s and '70s that the myth was really debunked. Now even Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame admit that Doubleday didn't really invent the game. But Doubleday had a nice, long run as the inventor of baseball – an honor he neither sought nor enjoyed in life, having died in 1893. So here's my question to readers of this blog: Could Doubleday's descendants ever have made an IP claim to some sort of ownership of baseball during the period when organized baseball officially credited him with single handedly inventing the game? And do they have any recourse now that any IP claim they might once have had has been more or less rescinded? (And how about an IP claim for descendants of Alexander J. Cartwright, whom the U.S. Congress declared in 1953 to be the inventor of baseball? But that's a whole 'nother story.)

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