Yesterday was the last day of Major League Baseball’s regular season, and the playoffs start on Wednesday,* so it seems the proper and fitting time to answer a question a reader sent me recently. To wit: “Is this really the first ever picture of people playing baseball in Western history?” And by “this,” said reader meant this:
The image in question is found in the margins of the calendar that was originally part of the Ghistelles Hours, a 14th-century Flemish book of hours probably made for John III, Lord of Ghistelles and Inglemunster or his wife. Since John died in 1315 and the calendar begins its cycle of years on Sunday, it’s usually dated to either 1301 or 1307. (If the name of the manuscript sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because the Ghistelle Hours was broken into pieces and sold as individual leaves and quires, so fragments of it are perennially on sale at Sotheby’s and Christies and the like.**)
The calendar pagers were kept together and sold all as one unit and are currently in the possession of the Manuscript Library of the Walters Art Museum, which featured the image recently as part of an exhibit titled “Checkmate! Medieval People at Play”. A few media outlets picked the story up from the exhibit’s press release, and it’s been bouncing around the web lately with various claims about its origin and subject.***
So, is it the first ever image of baseball? If you’re willing to count proto-proto-proto baseball as baseball, and put an “extant” in front of image,**** well sure. Though there’s no base in sight, various historians of sport have identified this game as a version of “stool ball” or “stump ball”, which was baseball played with only one base, where the object was for the pitcher to hit a stump or a stool or other handy protrusion with the ball while the batter protected it by batting away the pitcher’s balls. Each player stood on or near what was essentially a “base” If the batter made contact, he was expected to run around the pitcher’s base and back to his own. Various fielders could catch the batted ball and throw the ball at the stool while the batter is occupied running. We have no clue how the scoring might have worked, but apparently the game was co-ed and the sort of thing you’d play at an Easter festival. Here’s a slightly later image, from the same manuscript as my last marginalia post, MS Bodl. 264:
As I’ve written before, a favorite medieval joke is to take a conventional image and re-cast the parts. So here the Alexander illuminators are having fun by putting monks and nuns into the game. (In other words, I think we should be very suspicious of claims that this image is evidence of the actual game-playing habits of those who wear habits.)
But all this is so much prelude to the real image I want to discuss today. Found in Bodleian Library MS Douce 6 (which I affectionately call “The Big Ol’ Book of Medieval Monkeys”), a 14th-century book of hours that’s about twenty years younger than the Ghistelles Hours, I give you the oldest extant image of monkeys playing baseball:
It beats this image by at least twenty years. And I’m not sure, but I think they might be playing the game with a communion host, to boot. Oh, you sacrilegious sport-loving monkeys!
**The most recent piece I’m aware of sold at Sotheby’s for £20,000 in 2009.
***Baseball historians have been talking about this picture since the 60’s. It’s used as the cover illustration on Baseball Before We Knew It, a recent popular history of the sport’s pre-history, for example.
****And willing to discount at least one harder to decipher earlier image.