Cooperstown vs. Pittsfield

Two weeks ago, a dog-eared letter central to baseball’s origin debate sold at auction for $270,000. That missive, penned in 1905 by Henry Chadwick, the game’s gray eminence, dismissed the legend set forth by Albert Spalding and his minions that baseball was “invented” in Cooperstown, New York in 1839 by Civil War hero Abner Doubleday.

The formal origins of the game are more appropriately traced to the publication of the widely adopted (and adapted) Knickerbocker Club rules, penned by Alexander Cartwright in 1845. But as even Chadwick noted, baseball is a game that evolved over time from a variety of bat-and-ball games, most famously rounders.

This rather murky nascence has begotten something of a holy grail quest among enthusiasts of baseball history—a never ending search for the “earliest reference” to the game. This past week a few more years were rolled back off the baseball calendar following the discovery of a 1795 Pittsfield, Massachusetts, ordinance banning the game within fly-ball distance of the town hall’s fragile windows.

It’s a wonderful find (by John Thorn, a top-notch reseacher), and we can only hope that this early reference to the game inspires Pittsfield’s town fathers to save their other piece of baseball patrimony: Waconah Park, one of the nation’s oldest minor league ballparks (see Jim Bouton’s Foul Ball on this subject) and home of the erstwhile Berkshire Bears.

As for what baseball in Pittsfield might have looked like in 1795, that’s a find for another day….

3 comments… add one
  • Pittsfield must have had some sluggers breaking windows all around town before passage of the ordinance. More proof of baseball’s urban (relatively speaking) birth; that baseball was not born on some bucolic farm but began in the nooks and crannies of our growing towns.

    JCL (YF) May 18, 2004, 12:57 pm
  • I’m not sure how “urban” Pittsfield was in 1795, but the idea that the game came from any one place—city or town—is certainly a fiction. Various forms of the-game-that-would-be-baseball developed regionally, and were often identified as such: “The New York Game” and “The Massachussetts Game” being prime examples. America’s population was mobile in the 19th century, and baseball was eminently suitable to environmental adaptation—a fact that any kid who has set “ground rules” for their back alley or back yard (as the case may be) intuitively understands.

    YF May 18, 2004, 1:50 pm
  • Having growth up in Pittsfield as a avid Red Sox fan and player of the game myself, Oddly, I only heard of the “Pittsfield Ordinance” at a family gathering in July 2007 on the Cape.
    We are crazy about baseball in this family and are all of course excited about the finding of the original 1791 (not 1795) document in which a Pittsfield ordinance made it unlawful to play “Bafeball” [sic] and “Batball” among other kinds of ball games. You can the document at pittsfield.org
    As a writer and still baseball fan, I will researching this issue more.
    However, using this document to say that baseball as we know it today was first played in Pittsfield is an easy mistake, or leap or faith, esp. when you’re a hometown boy.
    One indisputable truth is that we now know for sure that baseball was being played in Pittsfield before 1791, nearly a half century before Cooperstown, NY claimed to be the founding ground for baseball in 1839.
    Yet in doing just some preliminary research, I have found a reference to baseball in 1760 in Briton (Britian).
    So stay tuned.
    P Daoust

    phil July 4, 2007, 11:32 pm

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