Pittsfield hailed as baseball’s Eden

By Anthony FydenPrint Story | Email Story
Author and baseball historian John Thorn discovered a link to baseball’s past while doing some late-night web surfing. (Anthony Fyden Photo)
PITTSFIELD — The earliest known reference to the game of baseball in America has been unearthed in a vault in the Pittsfield library following a hectic search sparked by some late-night Web surfing by baseball historian John Thorn. Thorn, of Kingston, author of several books including “Total Baseball,” said the document clearly suggests that fly balls were being batted around Pittsfield’s downtown in the late 1700s – even to the point of endangering local church windows. The document, its discovers claim, throws out the window the notion that baseball was “founded” by Abner Doubleday in 1839 or by Alexander Cartwright in 1845. The reference to baseball is contained in a 1791 Pittsfield bylaw, which states, “For the preservation of the Windows of the New Meeting House…no Person or Inhabitant of said town, shall be permitted to play at any game called Wicket, Cricket, Base Ball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other game or games with balls, within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House.” “It’s clear that not only was baseball being played here in 1791, it was rampant,” Thorn said during a Tuesday press conference packed by local, state and national media at City Hall. “It was sufficiently rampant to warrant an ordinance against it.” Thorn first noted the mention while doing some online research at 2 a.m. nearly two years ago, saying that he “nearly leapt out of [his] chair” when he read about the possible existence of the original document. Notably, though, Thorn’s Web surfing took place nearly two years ago. It took a chance meeting with baseball author and former Major League pitcher Jim Bouton to spark a frantic search of Pittsfield’s library vault. Thorn met Bouton, who is a partner in a venture to refurbish Pittsfield’s Wahconah Park for professional baseball, on April 7 this year and told him about the possible existence of the document. Bouton then contacted Pittsfield officials and urged them to search the vault. On April 23, a meeting was held in Mayor James Ruberto’s office to discuss the search. During the meeting, a call came in from the library informing the mayor that the original had been found. The document’s authenticity was later verified by the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, and then plans for the announcement to the public were made. What does the unearthing of the arcane ordinance mean to the city? Ruberto and others at the press conference said the find is of biblical proportions. “The sun is shining, and I can tell you optimism abounds,” the mayor said. “The finding is simple and it’s one we can celebrate – Pittsfield is baseball’s Garden of Eden.” A debate has been raging for years over which community spawned baseball. Cooperstown, N.Y., used the baseball’s hometown mantle to establish the game’s Hall of Fame in that city, although that mantle had been questioned even before the unearthing of the Pittsfield “Broken Window Bylaw.” “Cooperstown used to brag about inventing baseball in 1839,” Bouton said. “Heck, by 1791, baseball was already a nuisance in Pittsfield.” Ruberto and others suggested the find goes beyond bragging rights or “trivia question” status. The document could help the city in its marketing efforts and could certainly play a role in the attempt to reestablish professional baseball. Bouton’s group, Wahconah Park Inc., is already planning a Vintage Baseball showcase, scheduled for July 4. The team will pit a hometown all-star squad against the visiting Hartford Senators, played under 1880s rules. The Pittsfield squad will be called the Hillies, after a team that played in the city in the early 1900s. Local coach Chuck Garivaltis, who coached baseball and football at Pittsfield High School, will lead the Hillies. Garivaltis will be joined by several local sports legends, including Tony Ferdyn, Ed “Itch” McMahon, Buddy Pellerin, Ray Woitkowski and Joseph Zavattero. Not only will the teams play under old-time rules and with vintage uniforms, but also they will use the language of the baseball era, with runs called “aces,” the outfield called “the garden,” ground balls called “daisy cutters” and fans called “cranks.” Bouton said if fans respond positively to the Vintage Baseball showcase, more games would be scheduled. His group hopes to purchase an independent professional baseball team to play at Wahconah Park next season. The former New York Yankees pitcher said following the press conference that the document find and the new status of Pittsfield as a baseball town underscores what he believes was a wise decision made by Pittsfield voters two years ago to reject building a new stadium downtown. “You couldn’t have this kind of Vintage Baseball in a new stadium,” he said. Bouton and his partners have hoped to market the nostalgia of 80-year-old Wahconah Park – where baseball greats including Lou Gerhig took the field. The title of “baseball’s Garden of Eden,” would add to the nostalgic appeal. “It certainly helps,” Bouton said. Ruberto said no plans have been made as to how or where to display the document. The mayor said he would consider lending it to the Baseball Hall of Fame, if asked. Thorn would not estimate the monetary value of the document, but he said similar historical documents often sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Rounders was the likely link Like to think of yourself as a baseball purist? Think the game’s never been the same since the inception of the designated hitter? Well, baseball’s roots may date back to the caveman days, according to some historians — the theory being that every culture, no matter how far back, had some form of a bat-and-ball game. One of the oldest known forms of baseball (known in its infancy as Base Ball) is called “Rounders,” a 16th-century British game. A form of Rounders is still played today in parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The game is based on a scenario of players, known as defenders, making raids in search of food, weapons and other plunder, to bring back to their castle, amid a field of “attackers.” Basically, a hitter (striker) receives a pitch from a feeder and takes unlimited swings until hitting the ball — anywhere. The striker must run with any contact of bat and ball, even a foul tip, to bases known as “sanctuaries.” The striker is out if the ball is caught in the air, or on one bounce or if “plugged,” with a thrown ball. Ouch. The player scores a tally for his team when he successfully passes all the sanctuaries and returns home to the castle. A side is out when all of its defenders are out. Then, the defenders take the field, where they become the attackers. Historians widely believe Americans brought the British game to the colonies and later amended its rules. Congress, citing research by New York City librarian Robert Henderson, declared in 1953 that Alexander Cartwright had “founded” baseball in 1845 in Hoboken, N.Y. Among other things, Cartwright created foul lines and eliminated the practice of throwing at base runners to get them out — a change modern day players are certainly grateful for. But the next time a baseball fan starts moaning about how the game was played in the old days, invite him or her over for a game of Rounders. It’s definitely old school. — Anthony Fyden

Support Local News

We show up at hurricanes, budget meetings, high school games, accidents, fires and community events. We show up at celebrations and tragedies and everything in between. We show up so our readers can learn about pivotal events that affect their communities and their lives.

How important is local news to you? You can support independent, unbiased journalism and help iBerkshires grow for as a little as the cost of a cup of coffee a week.

iBerkshires.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue; please keep comments focused on the issues and not on personalities. Profanity, obscenity, racist language and harassment are not allowed. iBerkshires reserves the right to ban commenters or remove commenting on any article at any time. Concerns may be sent to info@iberkshires.com.

Recent Stories