How Sloppy (Or Dishonest) Historical Research Can Deceive For Decades: The Daniel “Doc” Adams Affair


While we’re on the topic of “disinformation”….

Let’s have a show of hands, shall we? How many of you think that Civil War General Abner Doubleday invented baseball? Let’s see, one…two...thirty four…wow, that’s still a lot, especially since Doubleday’s connection to the game was thoroughly debunked almost a century ago and there is no evidence that he ever claimed any credit for the development of the game. Nevertheless, a commission appointed in 1905 to determine the origin of baseball announced in1907 that “the first scheme for playing baseball, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, New York, in 1839.”

We now know—well, some of us know—that the “best evidence” was, to put it technically, crap. Abner wasn’t much of a general either.

OK, now those who have heard of “Doc” Adams ( 1814 – 1899) and know he was one of the major contributors to the invention of baseball as it is played today raise your hands. That’s all? Documents show that all Adams did—he was an early baseball player and later a league executive who oversaw writing “The Laws of Baseball”—was to establish the distance between bases at 90 feet apart, settle the length of a game at 9 innings and define a baseball team as nine players rather than eight, ten or eleven. He also invented the position of “shortstop.”

Baseball, you see, like television, had no single inventor, much as baseball historians wanted to find one. Its rules evolved quickly in a 75 year period after people started playing versions of the game in the 1830s. Adams can lay claim to being one of the primary forces in baseball’s evolution, but two men who contributed far less or nothing are recognized by baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.: Doubleday, since the very site of the Hall was based on the myth that he oversaw the first game played there, and Alexander Cartwright, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1937 as “the father of baseball” on flimsy evidence and incompetent research. On his museum plaque, Cartwright is credited with establishing the baseline distances, the number of innings and the number of players on a team, none of which he had anything to do with. Those were all te work of Adams. But as the Doubleday lie began to unravel, baseball was desperate to identify its game’s “creator.”

They chose…poorly.

This fiasco of historical incompetence and bias is highlighted today because it was announced that Marjorie Adams, the great-granddaughter of Daniel “Doc” Adams, died earlier this month. She had been laboring for years to get “Doc”—yes, he was a real M.D.— the recognition he deserved and to see him finally inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. She lobbied for him on a website, at conferences, at meetings of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and at vintage baseball festivals. Gradually, the message got through. On the SABR website, Doc Adams’ biography concludes, “For his role in making baseball the success it is, Doc Adams may be counted as first among the Fathers of Baseball.”

Yet Marjorie Adams died before her mission was accomplished. Doc Adams was nearly elected to the Hall when the new Pre-integration Era committee voted in December 2015. He received 10 votes, more than any other candidate but two short of the required 12. More evidence of Adams’ crucial role has emerged since then, and it is widely believed that he will finally be admitted to the Hall when the committee votes this coming December.

14 thoughts on “How Sloppy (Or Dishonest) Historical Research Can Deceive For Decades: The Daniel “Doc” Adams Affair

  1. I don’t know. Last I looked at this, around 2015, it seemed to me that, while Adams was certainly an organizer and recorder, it was murky as to who actually innovated. Intellectuals tend to have a large bias in favor of viewing the history of the game through the contributions made by administrators and other off-field people, and I think that bias has recently had an impact in favor of Adams’s candidacy.

    • Well, they can’t enshrine committees. (There a Charles Addams cartoon about that!) There’s no question that Cartwright’s plaque falsely gives him credit for the rules that Adams’ efforts actually added to the game. I think there’s a bias for attaching a name to accomplishments for posterity’s sake, and I don’t think it’s a bad one. The SABR bio is pretty persuasive.

  2. I had no idea that Marshall Dillon’s pal, Doc Adams, was instrumental in the early development of baseball.
    I’ve seen many a discussion of the importance of the 90 foot base spacing. Any longer and there would be almost no infield hits, and shorter everything hit left of the mound would yield a base runner. And it seems that the batters increas their speed at about the same rate that infielders develop stronger arms, thus maintaining the balance.

    • There is nothing magical about 90 feet between the bases. The balance “a” talks about is determined by the position of the infielders. They know their own arm strength and batters’ speed. Consequently they take a position as deep as possible to enable them to cover more ground and still be able to throw out most batters.

      • Wrong. Many studies have been done showing that 100 feet would be too advantageous to the defense. A distance of 80 feet on the other hand saw the advantage go to the offense, and too many infield hits. At longer than 90 feet, it was too easy to field an infield grounder and throw the runner out at first base; at shorter distances, fielders could not throw base runners out even when grounders were fielded cleanly.

        Your comment makes me wonder if you have ever watched baseball. When a team pulls the infield in, it also becomes easier to get a ball through the fielders as a hit. If they play too far back, short ground balls are easily beaten out, like bunts. The idea is to have a balance so that a cleanly fielded ball just barely allows a fielder to throw a runner out, and to have all kinds of balls put in play create challenges to both the fielders and batters.

        Once the 90 feet distance became the rule, the best balance between offensive and defensive play was established and the 90 feet rule has remained the standard throughout the history of the game. Thank goodness for that.

  3. Baseball goes further back than the 1830’s. It is mentioned in ‘Northanger Abbey’, which was published in 1803, although I suppose it was more of a children’s game than a professional league sport back then.

    • What? You mean “rounders,” which isn’t baseball, though in baseball’s family tree? I see no suggestion anywhere that the American game of baseball, by that name, emerged anywhere but in the USA. Hitting balls with sticks in various kids games had been around for centuries.

      • Exact quotation:
        ”Mrs. Morland was a very good woman, and wished to see her children everything they ought to be; but her time was so much occupied in lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves; and it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books—or at least books of information—for, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all.”

  4. “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
    Harry S. Truman

    This seems to be a worthwhile truism to me!

  5. Pingback: The Daniel "Doc" Adams Affair - Doc Adams Base Ball (Official)

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