The old, old, old ballgame

Baseball: A 700-year-old illustration offers more evidence that those who credit Abner Doubleday aren't even in the ballpark.

April 06, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

On Opening Day 1999, baseball's much-debated creation myth took another big hit, this time from way out in left field -- at Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery of all places.

Baseball, in the form of two boys at play with a bat and a ball, appears in an illustration in a hand-lettered, hand-painted fragment of a 700-year-old prayer book unveiled last night at the Walters.

So much for Abner Doubleday, the man popularly, if dubiously, credited with the creation of baseball in 1839. The Walters manuscript, called the Calendar of the Ghistelles Hours, dates from 1301, which any baseball statistician can tell you is a good five centuries before Doubleday laid out his first diamond in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The Walters acquired the 14-page Ghistelles Calendar at auction in London in honor of Dr. Lilian M.C. Randall, curator of manuscripts at the gallery from 1974 to 1996. The acquisition was announced last night at a surprise party for Randall. The purchase of the "baseball" manuscript at about $1,600 a page was financed by the Walters Women's Committee and Octavo Plus, a group of "friends of the department of manuscripts" originally organized by Randall.

The manuscript, which has pages slightly smaller than 3-by-5-inch file cards, is a monthly calendar of saints days, produced in a monastery near the town of Ghistelles in southwestern Flanders, which is now Gistel in Belgium.

The kids playing baseball appear in the illustrated border decorating the month of September. The "batter" is taking a pretty good cut -- bat level, arms extended, good follow-through. The "pitcher" either has just released the ball or is getting ready to catch it. An adult, perhaps a batting or pitching coach or manager, watches intently.

Monks illuminating even the most sacred books often painted similar comic, whimsical or even scatological scenes in their decorative borders.

The Walters illustration is a very early depiction of the game we know as baseball, but it's probably not the first. In 1964, a writer named Harry Simmons cited an English bat and ball picture from a genealogical roll of the Kings of England up to Henry III, who died in 1269.

Regardless, the myth of Abner Doubleday as the creator of baseball (he never actually claimed paternity himself) has been pretty much debunked already.

Even a chronology of early baseball supplied by Tim Wiles, director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library at Cooperstown, lists 39 references before Doubleday. As long ago as 2000 B.C, ancient cultures played stick and ball games for fun, fertility or during religious rites. Egyptian hieroglyphics also depict bat and ball games; Mayans whacked balls around their ceremonial courts.

The first reference in English to an ancestor of baseball comes in 1085 and is called "stool ball." An English Puritan cleric complained in 1700 that people were playing "baseball and cricketts" on the Sabbath. A Revolutionary War soldier tells of playing baseball at Valley Forge. And even Jane Austen mentions boys playing baseball in her 1798 novel "Northanger Abbey."

But Stephen Jay Gould, an ardent Darwinian evolutionist from Harvard University who has taken on biblical as well as baseball Creationists, most thoroughly demolishes claims that Abner Doubleday invented baseball. He first called it "a creation myth" in an article published for Natural History magazine.

"Cooperstown," Gould says, "is the sacred founding place of the official myth about the origin of baseball."

Doubleday, who also is credited with firing the first Union volley from Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War, was dead about 14 years when a commission set up by A.G. Spalding, professional baseball's first great pitcher, named him baseball's creator -- on the slim evidence of a single letter. Spalding, by then a rich entrepreneur who had founded the sporting goods company that still bears his name, supplied the letter.

During the era of Theodore Rooseveltian nationalism, Spalding was an ardent patriot who believed the quintessential national pastime must have a purely American origin. Gould writes bemusedly about all this and much prefers an English-born contemporary of Spalding named Henry Chadwick, who argued that baseball had its origins in a British stick-and-ball game called "rounders."

Which, in fact, is pretty much what they believe at Cooperstown these days.

But the Ghistelle Calendar itself has prompted a small rhubarb. When it was auctioned off in London, cricketers claimed the illustration was "the first ever picture" of two boys playing cricket.

Says Will Noel, the Walters' thoroughly British curator of manuscripts: "I insist it's not cricket."

The bat in use looks like it's made for baseball, not cricket, and the kid up at bat is swinging for the medieval bleachers -- not a batsman defending a wicket.

"People read into an image what they want to read," Noel says. "If you're an Orioles fan, you see baseball."

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