Pittsfield stakes its claim in baseball history
By Adam Gorlick, Associated Press | May 11, 2004
PITTSFIELD, Mass. -- Officials and historians in this western
Massachusetts city released a 215-year-old document Tuesday that they say
is the earliest written reference to baseball -- produced decades before
Abner Doubleday is said to have written the rules for the game.
The evidence comes in a 1791 by-law that aims to protect the windows in
Pittsfield's new meeting house by prohibiting anyone from playing baseball
within 80 yards of the building.
Historian John Thorn was doing research on the origins of baseball when he
found a reference to the by-law in an 1869 book on Pittsfield's history.
He shared his find with former Major Leaguer and area resident Jim Bouton,
who told city officials about the ordinance.
A librarian found the actual document in a vault at the Berkshire
Athenaeum library. Its age was authenticated by researchers at the
Williamstown Art Conservation Center.
"It's clear that not only was baseball played here in 1791, but it was
rampant," Thorn said. "It was rampant enough to have an ordinance against
The long-accepted story of baseball's origins centers around Cooperstown,
N.Y., where Doubleday is said to have come up with the rules for the
modern game in 1839.
That legend long legitimized the National Baseball Hall of Fame's presence
in Cooperstown, although later evidence pointed to the first real game
being played in Hoboken, N.J., in 1846.
And in 2001, a librarian at New York University came across two newspaper
articles published on April 25, 1823 that show an organized form of a game
called "base ball" was being played in Manhattan.
The Pittsfield group hopes their find puts to rest once and for all the
debate about the game's origins. "Pittsfield is baeball's Garden of Eden,"
Mayor James Ruberto said.
But experts say it may be impossible to say exactly where and when the
game was created because it evolved from earlier games, such as cricket
and rounders, another English game played with a bat and ball.
"There's no way of pinpointing where the game was first played," said Jeff
Idelson, a spokesman for the Hall of Fame. "Baseball wasn't really born
Still, Idelson said if the Pittsfield group's document is authentic, it
would be "incredibly monumental."
Pittsfield might be a sensible home for the sport. Some historians have
documented "the Massachusetts game" as a precursor to modern baseball,
where runners were thrown out if they were hit by a ball.
Bouton, whose decade-long career as a pitcher included stints with the New
York Yankees and Houston Astros, lives in nearby Egremont and is helping
to restore Pittsfield's Wahconah Park, the former home of several minor
league teams. He hopes the discovery helps bring attention to the project.
"We thought this was a lucky stroke," said Bouton, whose 1970 book "Ball
Four" offered a scandalous look behind the scenes of professional
baseball. "I'm sure Pittsfield will live off this for a while."
For now, the document will be kept in a vault until city officials figure
out how to properly display it. A copy will be hung at Wahconah Park, one
of the nation's oldest ballparks.