Credit Ben Franklin with Another Invention: Baseball

Hoax news stories in the spirit of Dr. Franklin's "Silence Dogood" letters

BEN_FRANKLIN_BALLPhiladelphia, PA – Benjamin Franklin has been famously credited as both an inventor–of such items as the wood stove and bifocal glasses–and as a founder–of America’s first fire department and hospital–so perhaps it should come as no surprise that he is now being credited with inventing America’s pastime, baseball.

Long the subject of controversy among historians, the origins of baseball remain murky. The earliest known reference to the game occurs in 1791, in a law of the town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which banned the playing of the game near the town meeting house. But beyond the name itlsef, little detail about the early nature of the game has come down to us through history. Only in 1845 did Alexander Cartwright of the New York Knickerbockers set down rules that tell us how the game was played. Or so it was thought.

But now, Prof. Graham K.R. Acker of LaSalle University in Philadelphia claims he has discovered in the archives of the Pennsylvania Historical Society a nine-page document  signed by Benjamin Franklin and dating from the summer of 1787 that sets down rules for the game and includes a description of the initial game played in America. Franklin apparently invented the game as a way for the delegates to the Constitutional Convention to blow off steam in the evenings after the contentious sessions held in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia.

The document discovered by Prof. Acker is titled, “Rules for a Game of Base-Ball, by Benjamin Franklin, 1787″ and includes many of the basic rules and terminology with which modern Americans are familiar: hits, outs, home-runs, and bunts are all mentioned. It seems that the terms “single,” “double,” and “triple” derived from the drinking of alcohol, a common activity of the delegates and indeed most Americans of the era. Franklin’s rules require that a player drink one shot of whiskey for getting a simple hit, two shots for a double, and three shots for a triple. A player hitting a “home-run” was required by Franklin to down an entire bottle of whiskey and allowed to sit “safely on the home base” while doing so.

More fascinating perhaps is Franklin’s report of the first game played among the delegates, which took place on June 29, 1787.  The teams divided into two camps, based on their friendliness to the as-yet-unfinished Constitution. There was a dispute over team names, as both wished to be called “Federalists.” Winning a coin-flip, however, those in favor of strengthening the national government took the name of Federalists, and “with much resentment,” Franklin reports, the group suspicious of the new frame of government deemed themselves “Anti-Federalists.”

Highlights of the game included George Washington hitting a three-run home-run in the 5th inning to give the Federalists a 4-1 lead, Luther Martin of Maryland being called out for downing an entire bottle of whiskey on second base when he was only entitled to a double, and Elbridge Gerry singling in the winning run in the bottom of the 9th inning to give the Anti-Federalists a 5-4 victory. Apparently, Alexander Hamilton stopped the game during the middle of the 7th inning to give a 2-hour speech, extolling the superior virtues of the British game of rounders and calling for the new American game to be modeled on this British sport. “This at least gave us all a chance to stretch,” Franklin writes in his notes.

After the game, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina apparently tried to convince the other delegates that he had actually written the rules for the game. “Such grandiosity,” Franklin writes wryly in his notes, “was quite in keeping with the character of the young Mr. Pinckney.” Franklin reports that he and James Madison served as umpires, as Franklin himself was too old to play and Madison was wearing his usual black attire anyway and “simply looked the part of the dour official.” Madison apparently excused himself from the game in the 8th inning, however, complaining to Franklin that he “felt certain he would drop over dead at any moment.” Franklin notes that the delegates were “unanimously agreed” after the game that it was a good thing that Thomas Jefferson was in Paris and not a part of the game. “Though a hearty and strong man,” Franklin states in his notes, “it was thought that Mr. Jefferson would surely have spread false rumors in the papers about the conduct of his opponents.”

The document is a stunning find and almost too amazing to be true, but Prof. Acker has verified its accuracy with handwriting experts and other authorities on Franklin. “It all makes sense in terms of the timing,” Prof. Acker explains. “The 1791 Pittsfield law indicates that the game had existed for a few years already, and as Massachusetts was Franklin’s home state–and Elbridge Gerry the hero of the first game–it is no wonder the game caught on there.” Prof. Acker is currently writing a book on his findings, called Let’s Drink Two! Benjamin Franklin and the Invention of Baseball.

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