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Truth struck out when Albert Spalding, a player-turned-sporting goods magnate with a spiritual bent, invented the Doubleday/Cooperstown hoax.
If you head out to a Padres game this month, you might assume you’re enjoying the national pastime invented by a man called Doubleday in a bucolic place called Cooperstown. But this origin story is a hoax, perhaps the greatest in all of sports, and it has its roots right here in Point Loma, where wealth, the occult and shameless myth-making collided early in the 20th century.
At the center of it all was a man named Albert Goodwill Spalding, the early baseball player-turned-sporting goods king whose last name is emblazoned on countless baseballs, bats and gloves. He landed here around 1900 at the urging of his mistress-turned-wife, a follower of a pioneering New Age-adjacent religion known as Theosophy that had set up its fantastical “White City” headquarters along the shore.
Theosophy, one of the first New Age religions, blended Asian philosophies like Buddhism and Hinduism with homegrown American mind-over-matter philosophy and occult beliefs like clairvoyance and communication with spirits. (Unfortunately, no one appears to have tried to reach Abner Doubleday from beyond the veil to consult him about his supposed baseball bona fides).
While he only lived here about 15 years, Spalding was hugely influential in the growth of Point Loma, especially the Theosophical Society headquarters section dubbed “Lomaland.” The Spalding house still sits on the stunning seaside campus of Point Loma Nazarene University, complete with a landmark amethyst dome that was reportedly a tribute to neighbor and Theosophical Society leader Katherine “Purple Mother” Tingley.
According to historians, Spalding named and popularized Sunset Cliffs, advocated for the pioneering road to downtown that would become the traffic nightmare known as Rosecrans Boulevard and developed such a high profile that he came close to becoming the first U.S. senator from San Diego, an honor that went to Pete Wilson seven decades later.
And then there was the matter of the Baseball’s Greatest Hoax, which had everything to do with Spalding, his powers of persuasion and the legacy of a prominent Theosophist by the name of Abner Doubleday. Yes, that Doubleday — Civil War general (on the Union side), bushy mustache aficionado and supposed inventor of baseball.
There are a few hitches to the idea that Doubleday came up with the concept of bats, balls and bases in Cooperstown, N.Y., back in the 1840s. For one thing, he never said he did. For another thing, he didn’t do it. (Baseball appears to have evolved from a traditional British sport called “rounders.”) Still, as historian George B. Kirsch wrote in a 2010 commentary titled “Patently False Baseball Myth That Refuses to Die,” everyone from the then-baseball commissioner Bud Selig to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum have persisted in promoting the Doubleday/Cooperstown hoax.
Blame Al Spalding for all this. Blame him big-time. John Thorn, the official Major League Baseball historian, goes as far as accusing him of “inventing baseball’s inventor” in his 2011 book “Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game.”
Spalding himself was a major force in early baseball as both player and team owner, and he was eager to mythologize his sport as having appeared, Venus-like, from the sweet Eden of rural America. Enter a veteran of the Gold Rush named Abner Graves, a “possible Theosophist and certain vagabond, crank, and teller of tall tales,” who regaled anyone who’d listen with his story of watching the first-ever baseball game in history at the age of 5 featuring (who else?) Abner Doubleday in (where else?) Cooperstown.
Doubleday was an ideal choice as inventor for a few reasons — he was a military hero, an early baseball player and onetime head of the Theosophical Society in American. He also, conveniently, happened to be mum due to being dead. And so it was that Spalding, a former hurler, pitched the Doubleday myth to the world. A commission co-signed onto the hoax in 1907, and it has never left us.
Spalding died in 1915, and his death sparked mammoth legal battle over his estate. Four years later, the “Black Sox” scandal over the fabulously fixed 1919 World Series reminded those in the know that baseball is hardly an immaculate sport born from the pure driven dirt of a pitcher’s mound in upstate New York. (Thorn notes that the sport had its beginnings in the gambling culture of the 1840s, and historian Kirsch writes that while Hoboken, N.J., has a better claim to be its birthplace than Cooperstown, “who wants to go to Hoboken … ?” Sorry, Hoboken.)
Meanwhile, the man who supposedly watched that first baseball game at the age of 5 later said he played in it, which would have been quite a feat for a boy who’d be playing T-ball today. In 1924, at the age of 90, he shot his 48-year-old wife to death and was committed to an asylum.
The truth, it’s fair to say, struck out in Point Loma, and it’s spent the last 110 years trying to get to first base. As Thorn notes, rural New Yorkers embraced the “packaging of a patron saint and pilgrim shrine” in the Depression era of the 1930s and baseball’s hall of fame was born in Cooperstown. “If in the end no one invented our national game, and its innocent Eden is a continuing state of delusion,” Thorn writes, “[Spalding], as unwittingly as Abner Doubleday invented baseball, invented its religion and its shrine.”
So think of Spalding the next time you head to the ballpark. And as the game drags on toward the three-hour mark, consider this supposed Spalding quote: “Two hours is about as long as any American can wait for the close of a baseball game, or anything else for that matter.”
Turns out he got more than one thing wrong.