A Canadian doctor’s account of a game played in Beachville, Ont., on June 4, 1838 may have been the inspiration behind the myth that Cooperstown, N.Y., was the birthplace of baseball.
That’s the theory that Brian “Chip” Martin convincingly proposes in his meticulously researched book Baseball’s Creation Myth: Adam Ford, Abner Graves and the Cooperstown Story.
For this project, Martin, whose day job is writing for the London Free Press, digs deep to present extensive details about two complex men – Adam Ford and Abner Graves – who are credited with the first documented accounts of baseball games north and south of the border.
To understand these men, Martin tenaciously combed through files in Cooperstown, St. Marys, Ont., and Denver, Colo., and even tracked down Graves’ granddaughter. His passion for his work is evident in the depth of the details he presents and the liveliness of his prose, which offers numerous revelations. His efforts make this one of the best and most important books ever written about Canadian and American baseball history.
For decades it was generally accepted that baseball was created in Cooperstown by future Civil War general Abner Doubleday. The man behind this myth was Graves, who was born on a farm just outside of Cooperstown in 1834. In April 1905, Graves penned a two-page letter to the Akron Beacon Journal while on a business trip in the city after he read an article in the paper in which sporting goods magnate A.G. Spalding wrote of his desire to prove that baseball was invented in the U.S. Spalding went so far as to form a commission that was headed by A.G. Mills and encouraged Americans to write to him with any information they had about the early days of baseball.
In his letter, Graves, an avid reader and hyperbolic raconteur, described a game of town ball modified by Doubleday in Cooperstown that he witnessed as a child in 1839 or 1841.
Martin paints a fascinating picture of Graves as an ambitious and ultimately successful businessman who savoured the spotlight. After false starts as a flour mill operator and banker, Graves found his career calling as a mining consultant in Denver. Over the years, Graves was known to embellish his story about the Cooperstown game. In his later-life recollections, he had graduated from a witness to the historic contest into a participant in it.
Spalding and Mills received plenty of responses from Americans willing to share their first recollections of baseball, but none that they liked as much as Graves’ tale. After all, who could concoct a story better than the country’s national game being invented by a future civil war general in a picturesque, pastoral setting like Cooperstown?
Without mentioning Graves in his final report for the commission, Mills passed off his story as fact and selected 1839 as the birth year of baseball. People, for the most part, ate it up. It mattered little to Americans that it was later revealed that Doubleday wasn’t even in Cooperstown at that time or that the war hero never breathed a word about inventing the game to his close friends or confidants. Graves’ uncorroborated tale would eventually transform Cooperstown into a prime tourist destination and home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame – a shrine that now attracts close to 300,000 visitors annually.
Despite some subsequent questioning of Graves’ mental stability, it appears, according to Martin’s research, that he was of reasonably sound mind until the final few years of his life. In 1909, Graves married Minnie Latham, a Virginia woman 41 years younger than him. The two often quarreled and after 15 years of marriage something snapped in the 90-year-old Graves on a night in June 1924 and he shot and killed his wife. To this day, Graves remains the oldest man in Denver’s history to be charged with first-degree murder. By that point in his life, however, Graves was suffering from dementia and experts deemed him mentally incompetent to the jury. Graves would spent the final two years of his life in a mental institution in Pueblo, Colo.
Martin also uncovers sordid details about Graves’ Canadian equivalent, Dr. Adam Ford. Born on a farm in Zorra Township in 1831, Ford evolved into a prominent doctor in St. Marys, Ont. – now the home of Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. While living in St. Marys, Ford immersed himself in several community organizations, including the town’s senior baseball program. He also ventured into municipal politics and became the town’s mayor in 1877.
Martin recounts that while Ford was mayor, another doctor Thomas F. Guest and his father, Thomas B. Guest, a former mayor and prominent businessman, became his biggest political foes. At one point, the younger Guest and his brother Alfred were charged with assaulting Ford on the street in downtown St. Marys.
On June 4, 1878, Ford, who had a habit of inviting people up to his office for after-hour drinks, was entertaining Guest’s nephew Robert in his quarters and allegedly poisoned his drink. When the nephew died, Ford was arrested but was later freed when it was ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed with a trial against him.
Despite his release, Ford’s reputation in St. Marys was ruined and the doctor eventually fled the town with his two sons, Arthur and Leon, but left his wife Jane and daughter Julia behind in his house on Queen Street that still stands today.
Like Graves, Ford relocated to Denver, first settling in the city in 1880. It was from there that he would write a reminiscence of the first baseball game he witnessed, a contest that took place on June 4, 1838 (Militia Muster Day) in Beachville, Ont. His account of that game was published in the May 5, 1886 edition of Sporting Life magazine, but was seemingly quickly forgotten.
In contrast to Graves’ story, Ford’s account has been largely validated by researchers. Bob Barney, a highly respected sports historian and long-time associate professor at Western University in London, Ont., and his research colleague, Nancy Bouchier, reviewed and dissected Ford’s account of the Beachville game and most of the details checked out.
Martin’s riveting portrayals of Graves and Ford are reason enough to buy this book, but Baseball’s Creation Myth becomes even more fascinating when Martin connects the two men. The ambitious author discovered that Graves and Ford had offices within one block of each other in downtown Denver from 1902 to 1905. There were a number of saloons in the area and both men liked to imbibe and tell stories. Given the details that Martin has provided, it’s not difficult to envision the two men sharing baseball stories over drinks.
The two also likely attended the same baseball games, including those of the professional Denver Grizzlies, and Ford’s son Leon was a mining engineer that likely crossed paths with Graves.
Taking into account the similarities between Graves’ and Ford’s recollections of their first baseball games, it seems entirely possible, as Martin suggests, that Graves may have borrowed details from Ford for his story that he shared 19 years after Ford’s account was published. And if we’re able to draw that conclusion – which seems likely given the depth of Martin’s research – then Cooperstown, the baseball mecca as we know it today, owes much of its existence to a Canadian.
In his long tenure with the London Free Press, Martin has shown that he possesses superlative investigative reporting skills. Those skills are on full display here. Martin digs where no other baseball researcher has dug before to present the first detailed accounts of the lives of two complex men with links to the origins of baseball. In doing so, he has not only penned a compelling and groundbreaking page-turner, but he has written a book that should rank as one of the best and most important Canadian and American baseball history books ever released.
You can purchase Baseball’s Creation Myth: Adam Ford, Abner Graves and the Cooperstown Story here: http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-7199-7