NEW YORK -- The quest to nail down the origins of baseball has been thrown a curve, with the discovery of two newspaper articles showing the game was played earlier than historians thought.
The articles appeared on April 25, 1823, and show that an organized form of a game called "base ball" was being played in Manhattan, in what is today Greenwich Village.
The articles were discovered by George A. Thompson Jr., a librarian at New York University. Historians have long wrestled with the task of discovering the true origins of the game - and whether it was invented or simply evolved.
For decades, the widely accepted version was that Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday dreamed up the game in 1839 while a cadet at West Point, and later encouraged it among his Union troops during the Civil War.
That legend led to the founding of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Doubleday's home town of Cooperstown, N.Y., although later evidence pointed to the first real game being played in Hoboken, N.J., in 1846.
Last fall, Thompson was poking through the pages of the long-forgotten National Advocate when he discovered a brief item from 1823 referring to Saturday games of "base ball" at what is now Broadway and 8th Street in lower Manhattan.
The writer, calling himself "A Spectator," was "much pleased in witnessing a company of active young men playing the manly and athletic game" and said another contest was to be held on the same field a week later.
The same day, the New-York Gazette and General Advertiser carried a one-paragraph item saying it had "received a communication in favor of the manly exercise of base ball," presumably from the same "Spectator."
"When I found the item, I was struck by the fact that the game was actually called 'base ball,' and that it had to be a very early reference, if not the earliest," Thompson said Sunday.
The newspapers saw no need to explain what "base ball" was, Thompson noted, suggesting that many people were already familiar with the game.
"They took it for granted that people would understand what it was about," he said.
The Advocate called the game "innocent amusement ... attended with but little expense" and "no demoralizing tendency," an apparent reference to the insidious effects of gambling.
Thompson, a baseball fan, said one of his pastimes is looking through old newspapers for items on early life in New York City, and that he is puzzled he has found no mention of baseball between the 1820s and the 1840s.
"It would seem that there ought to be references that filled that gap," he said.
The Baseball Hall of Fame confirmed the 1823 articles represent at least a very early reference to the game, Thompson said. Thompson's discovery was reported in Sunday's New York Times.
Recently, historians credited Alexander Cartwright, a New York bank clerk, and the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club with inventing many of baseball's rules and using them for the first time in the game in Hoboken in 1846.
Also, Thompson said a newspaper in 1825 in the northern New York town of Oneonta referred to a game of "base ball" there - two years after the one in Manhattan.
"There also was a 'Massachusetts Game' in the 19th century that had five bases and home plate located between what is now home and third," he said. "I'm pretty hard-pressed to see how they could play it that way."
Could that explain why the Red Sox haven't won a World Series in 83 years?
"Well, they did sort of get off on the wrong foot, didn't they?" said Thompson.
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