No disrespect meant to Abner Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright or anybody else who might claim responsibility for the game we call baseball, but Thutmose III had them beat by three millennia or so. Thutmose ruled Egypt during the 15th century BC, and is the first known pharaoh to have depicted himself in a ritual known as "seker-hemat," which Peter Piccione has loosely translated as "batting the ball."
"The word they use is `sequer,' which literally means `to strike' or `to hit,"' said Piccione, 51, an Egyptologist and professor of comparative ancient history at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, "but in the context, he's there with the bat. I translated it as `batting the ball."'
The context he's referring to is a wall relief at the shrine of Hathor, the goddess of love and joy, in Hatshepsut's temple at Deir-el-Bahari, where Thutmose is seen holding a softball-size ball in one hand and a long stick, wavy at the end, in the other. The hieroglyphic over the scene reads: "Batting the ball for Hathor, who is foremost in Thebes." The date is 1475 BC.
Piccione makes a specialty of Egyptian religion.
He's particularly interested in the sports and games that the ancient Egyptians included in festivals honoring certain deities, a pursuit that led him to muse on the relationship between ancient Egyptian "baseball" and American baseball.
His findings are included in a popular lecture -- called "Pharaoh at the Bat" -- that he recently delivered in Charleston and has been honing since delivering a paper on the subject at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995. In it, he describes a relationship similar to the one between, say, pterodactyls and cardinals, orioles or blue jays.
"There's no direct connection, and Egyptians don't play anything like this at all today," Piccione said. "But the Egyptian game did function as a precursor. There are only a few bat and ball games that have ever been around."
Actually, Piccione said, Egyptians probably batted the ball around, even if it was just for infield practice or a game of pepper, for nearly 1,000 years before Thutmose III. There are references to the activity in inscriptions inside the pyramids dating to 2400 BC.
Evidently the Egyptians weren't merely sluggers. They had a healthy respect as well for defense; the picture of Thutmose also shows two priests, small figures, in the act of catching a ball.
"They have their arms raised up and balls in their hands like you would catch a softball," Piccione said. "The inscription says, `Catching it for him by the servants of the gods."'
It isn't known precisely how the game was played, or if the umpires wore chest protectors. "To be honest, we don't know if they did any running," Piccione said, "but I suspect they did, because kings did a lot of running rituals."
Actually, the connections Piccione's lecture makes between then and there and here and now are more broadly cultural in nature.
"It started in Egypt as purely a boys' game," said Piccione. "And it was probably played in a festival, so the actual ball-playing took on some kind of religious meaning because it was played in a religious context."
When the king came out and played, therefore, the excitement and fun of the game and its religious meaning were consolidated, he said.
"Baseball functions the same way," he said. "Over time it has accumulated meaning. It's an interesting parallel development."