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….