Baseball and the Virgin

Here is the first of two posts that make a great story. And what a terrible surprise to lovers of America’s favorite pastime….

Baseball lovers know – don’t they? – that the game was invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839, in Cooperstown, New York. Well, it turns out that what people think they know is not always correct. Even beyond simple mistakes, sometimes we are even taught to believe something as part of a clever ruse. The imagined past has a way of fooling us like that.

Even, an attempt to put a serious internet face on A&E’s History Channel, admits that the Doubleday-in-Cooperstown story is a deceit. It was concocted first on the basis of flimsy evidence by Albert Spaulding and then by Cooperstown businessmen looking to cash in on a tall tale. According to the story “Who invented baseball?” the game’s origins go back further, not to Abner Doubleday but to English games like rounders and cricket. The story is here:

Well, didn’t have it right either. As the writers of the “Who Invented Baseball?” piece said about the inventors of the fictitious Doubleday-in-Cooperstown origin story… “not even in the ballpark.” Their claim that cricket and rounders are the earliest progenitors of baseball doesn’t get there either. Why their research missed the mark is anyone’s guess, since many medievalists have additional evidence that we would gladly have shared. Perhaps the people landed on their English-origins angle because that story fits the interests of their demographic.

Something like baseball goes even farther back in time than English rounders and cricket. How much father? Let’s say thirteenth-century Europe! Need proof? Here is an image from a thirteenth-century manuscript – the famous El Escorial Ms. T.I.1 codex of the Cantigas de Santa Maria:

Is that guy a slugger, or what? – Yes, by the way, that’s a male. The little cap, which looks rather feminine to us nowadays, is a coif typical of thirteenth-century male peasants. Check out his shoes, too. Man, don’t those look like Nike Alpha Huarache Elites? [insert paid advertisement here]

I heard the Doubleday origin story when I was a kid, and, later, a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame showed me how the game gets pitched as a facet of American culture. I’m an American, so it is not my desire to throw shade on lovers of baseball or those committed to some other aspect of Americana. Still, I can’t seem to suppress my curiosity about why we adopt and retell stories of beginnings, why we take collective ownership of thing and ideas that are clearly the results of processes that took time and with which we had little or no direct involvement, and why we feel that sense of nostalgia that comes with retelling the story or imagining its subject. What do we want to keep or gain, what notions of ourselves are we buying into, perhaps being convinced to buy into by others, when we make claims about the origins of “America’s pastime”?

There is some truth, of course, in the talk about the emergence of baseball in America. Many of the fundamental rules, culture, and appeal of the game took shape in the mid- to late- nineteenth century: nine batters run four bases, not seven; baseball caps are for baseball, not football; its Cracker Jacks or beer, but not both; etc. But this is not so much a case of a single moment of invention as a case of cultural integration: a number of things came together to make something more of each than could otherwise have been. A historian of sport in 1953 pointed to “industrialization, journalistic exploitation, commercialization, intercommunity competition, and sundry other developments” as key ingredients in the emergence of modern sport back in the time of Doubleday and Spaulding.  From a historical perspective this makes sense.

From a historical perspective, and an anthropological one too, it also makes sense to not get too caught up in stories of origins. Origin stories almost always have pre-histories, which often also have their own precedents. The image above, from a thirteenth-century text, is evidence that somebody in medieval Europe (at the very least King Alfonso X of Castile and some members of his court) knew that a game could be made of hitting a ball of rolled up animal skins with a stick, and even that the hitter would do better with a stick in the shape of a Louisville slugger. That picture does not tell a lie. Still, let’s not start telling it like an alternative origin story. Who knows when or where a person, or maybe even a proto-human, first tossed something into the air to swat at it with a stick or a bone? How much later was that activity conjoined to the game of chase, which probably arose with, like, Adam and Eve?

In the next post, I’ll tell in more detail the story found in the manuscript from which the image comes. It is an amazing tale of love, betrayal, and the jealousies of the Virgin Mary. Go team Mary!

One thought

  1. A fantastic super thought provoking post! It’s very imported as you stated “to not get too caught up in stories of origins,” which only makes me ponder upon why origin stories draw us in so much? I like to think that origin stories allow not only for the creation of a community, as is the case with ethnogenesis myths, but that inherent in the statement “my country created [blank]” some type of tangible representation of that community. Maybe the draw of origin stories on some level could be that they help ourselves mentally solidify the imagined communities which we see ourselves as part of?


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