Mythical Centennials

Baseball: America's Home Run

Major League Baseball commemorated two mythical centennials in the twentieth century. The first, in 1939, marked one hundred years since the sport's purported invention at Cooperstown, New York. The second, in 1969, was billed as the "Centennial of Professional Baseball," even though individual players were paid long before baseball's first salaried team took the field in 1869. On both occasions, the Post Office Department issued commemorative postage stamps, lending an air of federal respectability to dubious milestones.

Objects on exhibition in display cases in the wood-paneled Postmasters Suite
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Postmaster General James Farley watches baseball centennial stamps come off the press at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, May 26, 1939.
Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Local boosters parlayed the Abner Doubleday story into a Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at Cooperstown, New York. The June 12, 1939 opening events and dedication ceremonies, known as the "Cavalcade of Baseball," were the first professionally marketed sporting anniversary in American history. Postmaster General and New York Yankees fan James A. Farley issued a postage stamp for the occasion.

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3¢ Centennial of Baseball Issue first day handstamp, June 12, 1939
Loan from National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

The Cooperstown post office sold more than 630,000 baseball stamps on the first day. Many were affixed to first day covers that were canceled with one of these devices.

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3¢ Centennial of Baseball Issue pane of fifty autographed by Postmaster General James A. Farley, 1939
Scott Catalogue USA 855

To avoid favoring any team or player, the baseball centennial stamp pictured a sandlot game. The Post Office Department also steered clear of picturing Abner Doubleday, although the dates 1839–1939 are an indirect reference. Eighty-one million baseball stamps were issued.

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Player-autographed 3¢ Centennial of Baseball Issue first day cover
Scott Catalogue USA 855
Loan from Wade E. Saadi
Lou Gehrig’s New York Yankees road jersey with Baseball Centennial arm patch

Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth were among the ten "immortals" inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame during the 1939 centennial celebrations. Both came from humble backgrounds and transcended troubled, violent upbringings to rise to the pinnacle of the game. In nearly every other way, however, they were a study in contrasts.

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