A week and a half ago, on June 10, when the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., celebrated its 50th anniversary, one of the keynote speakers was James Vlasich, a history professor from Southern Utah State College.
Vlasich had the rapt attention of all in attendance, and not because of the baseball program which, ironically, was recently dropped. The reason for his marquee value was he recently became the proud curator of a collection of papers belonging to no less than Alexander Cleland.And who was Alexander Cleland? He was only the man who, in 1934, came up with the idea to build the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, that's who, and who saw the idea through to its reality in 1939, when Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and 23 others whose baseball cards are now worth millions were inducted into the Hall as its charter class.
Vlasich is originally from Illinois. It was there, as a boy, that he rooted for the Cubs and Cardinals and became so hooked on baseball he joined the Society for American Baseball Research. As a member in good standing and reputation of that organization, he was thus approached by Cleland's grandson, Don Cleland, who lives in Las Vegas. Don had a pile of papers his grandfather had taken home with him when he retired as the inaugural executive secretary of the Hall of Fame.
Nobody had seen these papers in a good 40 years. They contained details of how the Hall of Fame came to be, and, more intriguing yet, they shed new light on how baseball came to be; or didn't, as the case may be.
To a baseball historian's eyes such as Vlasich's, these papers were the Rosetta Stone and the Magna Carta all rolled into one. They were also the foundation for his soon-to-be-published book, entitled "A Legend for the Legendary: The Origin of the Baseball Hall of Fame."
"Can you believe it? Don Cleland calls me, I go to Las Vegas, and I'm the first one to see them (the papers), besides the grandson?" says Vlasich, still having a hard time believing his good fortune. "Most historians go their whole life and never get a find like this."
The find detailed how Cleland, a social worker and an aide to a wealthy Cooperstownian named Stephen Clark, decided that since Cooperstown was allegedly the birthplace of baseball - in 1839 - that it would be appropriate to open a Hall of Fame museum there on the 100th anniversary of the grand old game.
This, Vlasich told in detail to the Hall of Fame guests, not to mention to Sports Illustrated, and to Bryant Gumbel when he was invited to the set of the Today Show in New York City. His find carried with it a certain amount of exposure.
So as not to spoil the 50th anniversary mood, his speech didn't go into as much detail about how some of the things in Cleland's papers further dispute the notion that A) Cooperstown was where baseball was invented and B) that a Cooperstown native named Abner Doubleday did the inventing.
Cleland, who wasn't much of a baseball fan, picked Cooperstown as the town for the Hall of Fame only because he wanted to do something progressive for the town, and because myth had it that it was there, in 1839, that Doubleday set up some bases in a cow pasture and said "Play Ball!" or something somewhat similar.
He didn't do so because there was any hard evidence to support the above. Indeed, a special commission set up by sporting goods and publishing giant Albert G. Spalding in 1905 settled on the Cooperstown and Doubleday theory chiefly on the rather flimsy evidence of a letter written by one Abner Graves, then 71, who said he was there, playing marbles in front of the tailor shop in Cooperstown in 1839, when Abner Doubleday explained his new game to Graves and several companions, after which they retired to the cow pasture to give it a tryout.
As Vlasich explains, the flaw in Graves' testimony is that, in 1839, he would have been five years old, and Abner Doubleday, who was born in 1819, would have been 20 and a plebe at West Point.
Further, in Doubleday's memoirs, which were published after his death in 1893, Vlasich says that Doubleday does not take any credit for discovering baseball. He does take credit for designing the first cable cars in San Francisco, and for ordering, as a Union Army General during the Civil War, the firings on Fort Sumter. But he never mentions the national pastime.
Popular thinking is that Spalding preferred the Graves/Doubleday theory because it gave baseball a 100 percent American pedigree.
So who does Vlasich think invented baseball?
"Either God or nobody," he says, explaining that either the game came to be through an evolutionary process _ from, say, "Oh Cat," to "Rounders" (in England), to Ty Cobb to Pete Rose _ or by, well, a purer process.
"My contention is God, because it's too perfect for any man," says Vlasich, bleeding baseball blue.
As for the inventor of the American game, Vlasich thinks a man named Alexander Cartwright, who started the New York Knickerbockers professional baseball team in 1845 in Hoboken, N.J., is the likeliest suspect. But Cartwright is likely to remain in a category with Leif Eriksson, believed to be the first white man to discover America, and Abner Doubleday is likely to remain in a category with Christopher Columbus.
Vlasich can live with that; just as he can live with the Hall of Fame being in Cooperstown. "We should be applauding what Cleland did," he says. "What a marvelous thing. You can't blame Cooperstown."
So he didn't. He went there to praise them. And now that he's back in Cedar City, he's busy putting the finishing touches on his book manuscript. If all goes as scheduled, it should be published by Christmas, available at, among other places, the Hall of Fame gift shop in Cooperstown. As Abner Doubleday would no doubt be the first to agree, there's more than one way to get into the Hall of Fame.