History Ghost Story
Today there is little dispute among baseball scholars that Graves' baseball remembrances are unreliable at bestpure fiction at worstand that Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with the invention of baseball. Consensus has emerged that the sport was derived from various bat-and-ball games played for centuriespossibly for millennia.
Tom Altherr, a professor of history at Metropolitan State College of Denver, and Larry McCray, a professor of political science at MIT, have compiled a list of historic games that resemble baseball. "At last count, we have 120 different names," Altherr told me. "Some of us think that we are going to find the smoking gun"the source of baseball's true origin"in either Iraq, Iran, or Kazakhstan." He cites an ancient Mesopotamian menstrual rite, described to him by a student who is of Saudi descent, that involved hitting a rock with a stick and touching four bases, a tantalizing clue that could push baseball's ancestry to the dawn of civilization itself. "Once you see it in this light," Altherr says, "it's impossible to think of the date of 1839 as having any kind of significance ever again."
At the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, the spirits of Graves and Doubleday are gently being exorcised. The museum has revamped its section on the origins of the game over the past 15 years or so, introducing pictures of a bat-and-ball game depicted in a 14th-century manuscript as well as 3,500-year-old hieroglyphs referring to the ancient Egyptian game of seker-hemat, which translates roughly to "batting the ball." There is even a nod to Cooperstown's "birthplace of baseball" rival, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and its recently discovered local lawsenacted in the late 1700sbanning baseball near the town's meeting hall.
Most conspicuous is the absence of the "Doubleday baseball," the first item acquired by the Hall of Fame in 1937, two years before it opened. The ballwhich was supposedly recovered from a trunk belonging to Graves and could have been a key piece of evidence that the 1839 game had taken placeis sealed away in the Hall of Fame's archives and has not been on display at the museum since 2002. It is, however, still available for viewing by special request, and on an outing to the museum last spring, I could not resist the chance to check out the corporeal counterpart of Denver's so-called ghost ball.
Wearing white gloves, director of collections Sue MacKay pulled the display case from an archival box stuffed with acid-free white tissue paper. Inside its small, three-sided case the ball sat glued to a wooden pedestal. As I leaned in, MacKay said I was the first person in a few years that had wanted to see the ball. "People don't ask much about it anymore," she says. "They have sort of moved on."
A ghost can be hard to spot in the daytime, especially in the sun-bleached Colorado air. Or so I've been told. But like any proper reporter, I must go to the source. So on a bright March morning, roughly a month before opening day, I stake out a spot on the lot at Colfax and Logan. Flanked by the Capitol dome and the skyscrapers of downtown, this is where Graves' housewhere he likely penned his account of the 1839 gameonce stood. It was also where he murdered Minnie.
With little indication of anything otherworldly afoot, and getting no corroboration from the morning commuters I approach with strange questions about ghosts and floating baseballs, I decide to visit a brick house just off the lot, the headquarters for the Hall and Hall Mortgage Corporation. (Goodstein, the author, had told me this house was built around the same time as Graves' home and probably shared many architectural similarities.) Inside I meet Hall and Hall receptionist Susan Seevers, who answers my questions enthusiastically but says in her 14 years of working and parking here, she's seen nothing supernatural. "But there was a woman who worked here who swore that the ghost of a young woman haunted this house," she says, adding that the spirit supposedly wore "old-time" clothes. Could it be Minnie?
After her death, Graves was ordered to a Pueblo asylum, where he spent two years"a model patient," according to the Postbefore dying in 1926. Today we're left to wonder just how the city should view one of its most enigmatic residents and the fountainhead of baseball's greatest myth. Could this roving spirit and alleged "ghost ball" be ominous portents for Denver baseball, the kind of whammies that allegedly hexed the Boston Red Sox for decades and still haunt the hapless Chicago Cubs?
Tom Altherr says we're probably off the hook. "Denver has a long history of being a transient place, and Graves was in and out of Denver," he says. Altherr suggests that, like so many others before him, Graves came here to reinvent himself, carting in his psychic baggage and his tall tales, from elsewhere. "In that sense," Altherr says, "I'm not sure we can blame Denver for Graves."
Yet, despite the advancing scholarship, baseballmuch like Denver, the West, and all of Americaremains largely mired in its founding mythologies. Anyone on the street will probably tell you that Cooperstown is baseball's birthplace. They might mention Abner Doubleday, though even longtime Denverites likely wouldn't know a thing about his mythmaker Abner Graves. "It's all part of American mythology and folklore, like Paul Bunyan and John Henry," says Jim Gates, librarian at the Hall of Fame. "But folklore is an important part of the American story."
Jeremy Miller is a freelance writer based in New York. E-mail him at email@example.com.