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Pittsfield Prevarications
2004-05-12 00:08
by Mike Carminati

So the earliest written reference to baseball has reportedly been found in Pittsfield, MA. It is in the form of a 1791 bylaw "to protect the windows in Pittsfield's new meeting house by prohibiting anyone from playing baseball within 80 yards of the building." The document was tracked down researcher John Thorn, one of authors of the once revolutionary Total Baseball.

City officials in Pittsfield are kvelling:

"Pittsfield is baseball's Garden of Eden," Mayor James Ruberto said.

The only problem is that it's not the earliest reference. A book called A Little Pretty Pocket Book printed in 1787, just a little further down the Mass Pike in Worcester,from an English woodcut shows children playing "Base-Ball". It was originally published in London 43 years earlier.

Then again baseball really had no James Naismithian start:

"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 anywhere."

Of course not. An ever-evolving version of the game had been played until the mid-nineteenth century. In England it had been "rounders", which was to cricket sort of what chess is to checkers. It was widely played in colonial days as "town ball" and was often played on holidays like Election Day and Town Meeting Day by whole towns. The game featured a leather-clad sort of bean bag that was used to "soak" the runner, i.e., throw him out by hitting him with the ball, instead of tagging him.

Two forms of the game developed, the Massachusetts Game and the New York Game. The Massachusetts Game featured a 60' by 60' square instead of a diamond with poles for bases and the batter (called the "striker") would stand between home and first. There were no balls or strikes and the inning had but one out. This version was used in the first intercollegiate baseball game as it preceded the New York Game.

The New York game actually started in Philadelphia. There are reports in 1833 that the Olympic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia played on a diamond with a flat plate for home, positioned the striker at home, and used tagging (as well as soaking) to get runners out. This is the basis of the game that Alexander Joy Cartwright and the Knickerbocker club codified in Elysian Fields, Hoboken in 1845. Cartwright combined the Philadelphia field design with a rule from another offshoot of the rounders game called many names including "one hole cat", "one old cat", or "one o'cat". This game featured just a batter who with his foot catapulted the ball in the air and then running between the two bases tried to score as many "runs" as possible (sort of like the step ball that I played as a kid, though previous generations called it stoop ball, or sort of a solitaire version of cricket). He scored a run by tapping his bat, which he carried with him, in the hole at the striking position. The rule that Cartwright borrowed from this game was the idea of forcing the runner out by throwing ahead of him to his next base (also used in cricket). He also borrowed the pitcher (or bowler) and catcher combination from the Massachusetts Game.

The New York Game soon took hold in New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, baseball hot beds in the 1860s. The National Association of Base Ball Players, the grandfather of today's National League, was formed in 1857 led by the Knickerbockers. It was sort of a loose collective of all amateur gentlemen's clubs at first. After the Civil War interest in the New York Game spread as far as Massachusetts. Then in 1867 the National club of Washington traveled to the Midwest visiting Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Louisville, and Columbus, all of which became major-league perennials in the 19th century. The New York Game soon reigned supreme, evolving into the game we know today, and the Massachusetts Game was consigned to oblivion, presaging the Yanks-Red Sox rivalry.

I'm sorry for the long-winded history, but I just wanted to prove that baseball had no real start anywhere. The closest is Cartwright codifying the game and the birth of the Knickerbockers in 1845. Before that baseball could be found in any of a number of constantly evolving children's games played with a ball and a stick. Pittsfield claim to being baseball's Bethlehem is hardly any more valid than Cooperstown's apocryphal book of Genesis.

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