15 November 2010

Baseball Deniers

Is it possible that some non-zero proportion of Americans believe something that is widely accepted as not true?  Surely, in this day and age, that cannot be the case.

Witness, however, Bud Selig, Commissioner of Major League Baseball, cited in the New York Times:
The old chestnut about Abner Doubleday’s inventing baseball in a cow pasture in upstate New York has been so thoroughly debunked that it has taken a position in the pantheon of great American myths, alongside George Washington’s cherry tree, Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed.

So it came as a surprise when a letter surfaced recently on the Internet in which the commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, wrote an author who inquired of his views on baseball history: “From all of the historians which I have spoken with, I really believe that Abner Doubleday is the ‘Father of Baseball.’ I know there are some historians who would dispute this, though.”

The letter touched off ridicule from historians and bloggers and provided fresh legs to an enduring legend that was discredited almost from the moment it was fashioned — in 1908, after the overlords of baseball sought an American creation story for the game and settled on a dead Civil War hero.
The enduring myth of Abner Doubleday has prompted many calls for better baseball education and a call for sports reporters to end the "balance as bias" reporting in which those deniers such as Selig are given a forum to propagate their long debunked views.  Again, the NYT:
[F]or decades there has been virtually no debate among credible historians about whether Doubleday had any role in the founding of baseball, which most agree evolved incrementally from earlier games of bats and balls in England.

“The thing that amazes me is the durability of this idea,” said Lawrence McCray, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the chairman of the origins committee at the Society of American Baseball Research. “You just don’t run into people now who think of this as historically accurate.”

The circumstances of the mythmaking have long been embraced as a quirky and colorful chapter of the game’s past. Even the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., the town where Doubleday supposedly invented the game in 1839, treats the story as fiction.

“The Doubleday Myth Is Cooperstown’s Gain” is the headline of an article in a book published this year by the Hall of Fame. “The Doubleday Myth has since been exposed,” Craig Muder, a Hall of Fame official, wrote in the book. “Doubleday was at West Point in 1839, yet ‘The Myth’ has grown so strong that the facts will never deter the spirit of Cooperstown.”

In fact, according to the baseball historian John Thorn, the only documented connection between Doubleday and baseball is a letter he wrote in 1871, while commanding a regiment of African-American soldiers in Texas, asking his superiors to “purchase baseball implements for the amusement of the men.”

Most historians contend that baseball directly evolved from English games like rounders and cricket and that it has even earlier roots in bat and ball games stretching as far back as 2500 B.C. in Egypt, where the pharaohs played a game called seker-hemat.

Instead of denoting one founder of baseball, the historiography has coalesced around a collection of men who advanced the game toward its modern version. Among the most prominent are Alexander Cartwright, credited with developing many rules of the modern game in New York City in the 1840s and with helping to form the New York Knickerbockers, and Henry Chadwick, a pioneering journalist in scorekeeping and statistics. Others, Thorn said, include Daniel Lucius Adams, a Knickerbockers player credited with establishing 90 feet as the distance between bases, and Louis Fenn Wadsworth, credited by some for setting the standards of nine players and nine innings.

“One of the things that distinguishes baseball from football and basketball is there is no clear inventor of the game,” said Andrew Schiff, who wrote “The Father of Baseball,” a biography of Chadwick. “Chadwick is called ‘the Father of Baseball’ not because he invented it but because he nurtured the game as it developed.”
Thorn is finishing a book about baseball’s origins titled, “Baseball in the Garden of Eden: A Secret History of the Early Game,” scheduled for publication in March. He said Selig’s apparent beliefs were testament to the power of myths in American culture and the connection between baseball and youthful innocence.

“The real question is, why do we hold on to myths?” Thorn said. “Some of the best parts of us as adults are these very things that have survived from childhood, including our idealism.”

He added: “It’s merely odd that the commissioner believes this. It is surprising. I don’t think you can mistrust his other judgments.”
With the prevalence of baseball deniers at the highest echelons of  baseball governance, it is no wonder that we have seen steroids scandals and the elevation of the San Francisco Giants, among other tragedies.  For better baseball decision making it is time for a renewed campaign to defeat the deniers.  Abner Doubleday, here we come.