Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ghosts and Floating Baseballs

     Here's an astonishing fact about the birthplace of baseball: A Denver mining engineer was solely responsible for establishing that baseball was born in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Hall of Fame. Abner Graves, a native of Cooperstown and a Denver resident in 1906, wrote a letter to a Special Baseball Commission which had been appointed to decide where the sport first was played and who fathered the game. After a year of research, all the records, except Graves’ letter, were destroyed in a fire. The commission’s decision that baseball was devised by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown in 1839 was based entirely upon the Graves letter.

First published in 5280 Magazine:

History Ghost Story

or "How a turn-of-the-century Denver gadabout, who also happened to be a self-promoting, wife-killing fabulist, helped create one of baseball's greatest myths—and, just maybe, a specter that still haunts the streets of the city."
     In 1905, Albert Spalding, sporting goods Goliath and publisher of the popular Base Ball Guide, set out to discover the "true" origins of baseball by placing articles in newspapers and sports magazines across the country and soliciting ex-ballplayers to submit their earliest recollections of the game. Over the subsequent months dozens of letters poured in, but none of them made a greater impression than an account written by a Denver mining engineer named Abner Graves.
     Graves claimed that, around 1839, when he would've been five years old, he witnessed the first game of baseball in Cooperstown, New York. That's when, according to Graves, another Abner—an older boy (and future Civil War hero) with the last name of Doubleday—busted up a game of marbles, scrawled a diamond in the dirt, and proceeded to explain the rules to something he'd devised called "Base Ball." Graves' vividly recounted tale included "a six foot ring within which the pitcher had to stand and toss the ball to a batsman swinging his hand below his hip," and a ball "covered with leather or buckskin, and having plenty of bouncing qualities, [from which] wonderful high flys [sic] often resulted." A few years after Spalding's call for testimony, a panel of the game's elders issued a final report based on the letters, declaring Cooperstown baseball's point of origin and Abner Doubleday the game's inventor. Although Graves wasn't mentioned by name in the report, he was recognized as the "reputable gentleman" whose "circumstantial statement" provided "the best evidence obtainable to date [that the game] was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839."
     More than a century later, it seems clear that Abner Graves was either mistaken or lying. Yet despite the ongoing efforts of baseball scholars to debunk the Doubleday myth, it persists for many people, as does the local legend that the Denver engineer's other misdeeds, ones that are considerably more, well, grave, than merely fabricating a baseball game, may have left some eerie specters lingering around central Denver.
"Denver is a city that has always been full of schemers, dreamers, and suckers," says Phil Goodstein, author of several rambling tracts on local history, including The Ghosts of Denver: Capitol Hill. "It's also been a place of great opportunity." His catalog of Denver's ghosts and legends includes a small parking lot near the intersection of East Colfax Avenue and Logan Street that, some say, is doubly haunted by Graves' spirit and a glowing "ghost ball" that allegedly hovers and spins in midair. But despite devoting his career to these pursuits, Goodstein says he doesn't believe a word of the Graves legend. "I haven't seen a thing; I'm a total skeptic," he says, thanks largely to Graves' dubious biography.
     About 45 years before settling in Denver, Graves headed west from New York in search of gold in California, taking a ship around Cape Horn to become an original '49er. He claimed to have ridden with the Pony Express in 1852—eight years before it was formally established. From the 1860s through the 1880s, Graves lived in eastern Iowa, where he married a girl from a wealthy family and took to ranching and farming.
     When Graves finally arrived in Denver in 1894, the bottom had fallen out of the silver and real estate markets, and the city was mired in panic and recession. But Graves thrived. He abandoned agriculture for mining and worked as a consultant in the Bank Block building at 17th and Arapahoe streets. He also prospected for copper and gold in Mexico and Nevada, accumulated coalfield claims in southern Wyoming, and had the wherewithal to build a railroad spur that accessed properties he owned near Medicine Bow.
After his wife died around the turn of the century, the 75-year-old widower married a 33-year-old named Minnie—her last name remains a mystery—and the couple moved into a house at 1535 Logan St., just north of East Colfax Avenue. Among the couple's neighbors in this ritzy part of town were steel magnate and Colorado Senator Simon Guggenheim, streetcar mogul Rodney Curtis (for whom Curtis Street is named), telegraph tycoon Benjamin Woodward, Henry Miller Porter of Porter Hospital renown, the "unsinkable" Molly Brown, and Thomas Patterson, Colorado's first congressman and onetime publisher of the Rocky Mountain News.
Although he accumulated (and eventually squandered) a small fortune—along with a measure of fame after the release of the Mills Commission report—Graves' twilight years turned murderously dark. The cantankerous octogenarian became increasingly frail yet volatile, walking with a crutch and taking wild swings at anyone he caught staring. In 1924, the 90-year-old Graves shot Minnie during an argument. She died soon after telling authorities—"with her last conscious breath," as the Denver Post reported—"Tell Abner I forgive him." Graves justified his actions by saying that Minnie had tried to poison him. "I had to do it," he said. "One of us had to go."
      Today there is little dispute among baseball scholars that Graves' baseball remembrances are unreliable at best—pure fiction at worst—and 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 centuries—possibly 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 laws—enacted in the late 1700s—banning 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 ball—which was supposedly recovered from a trunk belonging to Graves and could have been a key piece of evidence that the 1839 game had taken place—is 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 Avenue and Logan. Flanked by the Capitol dome and the skyscrapers of downtown, this is where Graves' house—where he likely penned his account of the 1839 game—once 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 Post—before 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, baseball—much like Denver, the West, and all of America—remains 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

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