Academic journal article Base Ball

1791 and All That: Baseball and the Berkshires

Academic journal article Base Ball

1791 and All That: Baseball and the Berkshires

Article excerpt

This essay has been modified slightly from a speech delivered at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on June 17, 2006.

Thanks to Pittsfield, the public now knows what only a handful of scholars had suspected: that baseball was played in America long before 1839, the year it was said to have sprung full-blown from the mind of young Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown. Thanks to the astonishingly preserved minutes of a town meeting here in 1791, we know that a game called baseball, if played too close to a newly built meeting house, was banned- at a time when the United States of America was only a teenager and the Constitution was a mere toddler, four years old.

Still a puzzle, however, is what the Pittsfield game of that season looked like, what its rules may have been-no eighteenth-century box score survives or is likely to have existed. Despite the prohibition's explicit reference to "baseball," can we recognize in this early game any of the elements visible when the Red Sox meet the Yankees? And what does 1791 mean to Pittsfield, to the history of baseball, and to today's players and fans? These are the questions we'll at least begin to answer.

Pittsfield has many fine baseball stories of more recent vintage, from the first intercollegiate baseball game, played on July 1, 1859, at a field north of the town lot and east of the Maplewood Institute for Young Ladies, to the Hillies of the Eastern League in 1919 and the future stars who honed their craft at Wahconah Park for decades thereafter. The 2006 induction of Frank Grant, born in Pittsfield in 1865, into the Baseball Hall of Fame added to the Berkshires' baseball legacy. But because the unique milepost in Pittsfield's baseball history is 1791, and because I had something to do with bringing that to light, I'm going to stay focused herein on the game of that era and its legacy.

As you may already know, I'm the guy who won fleeting fame in the spring of 2004 for finding what was not truly lost, except for its significance. While prowling the internet late at night, I came upon a mention of the now celebrated bylaw in a book entitled The History of Pittsfield, (Berkshire County,) Massachusetts, From the Year 1734 to the Year 1800. Because the book was published in 1869 under the authority of the town, I had no doubts about the authenticity of the reference. The next morning, I called folks at the Pittsfield City Hall to see if they retained minute books all the way back to the 18th century, and was informed that indeed they did. I later shared my find with baseball author and former pitcher Jim Bouton, who in turn passed it on to Mayor James Ruberto, and the rest is history, now a part of the standard encyclopedic entries for baseball and the Baseball Hall of Fame Museum timeline of the game's development.

So let's examine the old ball game, how it flowered in the Berkshires and the Housatonic Valley, and why this region might rightly be termed Baseball's Garden of Eden, a term that to some has regrettably come to mean "invented here." If pressed to create a date for baseball's taking root in America, I'd have to say, about 1735, and I'll soon tell you why. Admittedly, we are not likely to find hard evidence for that date as good as what now resides in the Berkshire Athenaeum in support of 1791. But we can only suppose that if baseball was banned in Pittsfield in 1791, it was not a nuisance devised in that year-that it had been played for some time before, and not only here. The Berkshires may have been a remote region in 1791, but not as immune to influence as the Galapagos Islands. As I will show, baseball sprang up everywhere, like dandelions, and we cannot now identify with certainty which flower was truly the first.

No ingenious lad like Abner Doubleday or inventive clerk like Alexander Cartwright created the game. Although Cooperstown is the legendary home of baseball, Hall of Fame officials no longer make special claims for Doubleday and 1839. …

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