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Pittsfield lays claim to Garden of Eden

by Alan Schwarz
June 1, 2004

PITTSFIELD, Mass.--The underlying charm of the magazine you are holding, I have always believed, is its inherent recognition--its downright celebration--that the major league game we love is continually nourished by strong roots stretching deep. Recent feats notwithstanding, Barry Bonds was not immaculately conceived, but grew, from Bay Area bud to Sun Devil sapling to blooming big leaguer. The primordial Pedro learned his pitching and English while riding Pioneer League buses. The next generation will also come from somewhere, as do we all.

As for baseball itself, well, we've never really known where it came from. But thanks to John Thorn's insomnia we now have a most unexpected clue.

One of baseball's most accomplished historians, Thorn was trawling through the Internet one early morning last April when he came across a reference to "baseball" in a digitized book on the 18th-century history of Pittsfield, a nest in Massachusetts Berkshire mountains. Sure enough, following that scent, Thorn uncovered a 1791 Pittsfield bylaw that forbade the playing of many games, including baseball, within 80 yards of a new building--to avoid, deliciously to the grown children among us, the breaking of said building's windows.

"It's clear that not only was baseball played here in 1791, but it was rampant," Thorn said. "It was sufficiently rampant to warrant an ordinance against it."

The propitious discovery told many things for the first time--most importantly, that baseball might not have begun in urban New York, but rural Massachusetts (a reassuring omen to Red Sox fans, no doubt). Yet it still did little to settle the site of baseball's roots. As much as baseball longs to pinpoint its past, that now stands more muddled than ever.

Going back, back, back . . .

Young fans tend to be weaned on the myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 in Cooperstown, N.Y., a tale as fuzzy and fictional as the Easter Rabbit. Not only did Col. Doubleday have nothing to do with any birth of the game, but unlike basketball, there was no birth at all. Baseball's lineage dates back as far as one wants to go.

Walls of Ancient Egyptian royal tombs, ca. 1500 B.C., depict games using bats and balls. Later references to stool ball, rounders, "base" and even "base ball" stretch from England's Domesday Book (1085) to Plymouth Plantation (1621) to Valley Forge (1778) to noted seamhead Jane Austen (1798). Before the Pittsfield eureka, the first known North American reference to "base ball" had been in a New York newspaper from 1823.

But were these the game we know today? Not really. It took until Alexander Cartwright's 1845 rules for a game that resembles our own, and that one still had pitchers throwing underhand from 45 feet and teams racing to 21 aces (now runs). Chances are excellent that Pittsfield's 1791 version was an ancestor played mostly in Massachusetts, where the batter swung from a spot between first and fourth base, with those bases marked only by posts. Still, Thorn's finding was notable because one, it was the earliest reference to baseball on the North American continent, and two, because it indicates how widespread the game must have been in the nation's earliest days.

The fact that baseball probably has no big bang is at times disappointing. "We seem to prefer . . . a moment of creation--for then we can have heroes and sacred places," Stephen Jay Gould once wrote. Sure enough, spurred by the Pittsfield find, the zeal to identify baseball's Jerusalem will now only intensify.

"We're all into it because baseball is our game," Thorn said. "It's the one that connects us with the past. It's a member of our family. We want to know where our Uncle Joe came from, where our Great Aunt Sarah came from. So we care where baseball comes from."

A persistent wonder

Pittsfield needs a pick-me-up, baseball-wise. Wahconah Park, a wonderful wooden bandbox built so long ago (1919) that its home plate faces the setting sun, lost its affiliated minor league team in 1995 and independent ball two years ago. So you can understand why the town's mayor, James M. Ruberto, would seize the opportunity to stand at a city hall press conference and boast, "Pittsfield is baseball's Garden of Eden." After all, manure helps things grow.

Pittsfield is nothing more than the site of the North American game's earliest known mention; as for where the game truly began, we probably won't ever know. Massachusetts has wrested the torch from New York, but someday, another site, from Brooklyn to Bangor, will grab it away. Thorn understands this. "This drives a post into the streambed," he said. "The stream keeps moving before and after. 1791 isn't the start of anything. Baseball was probably played in the 1720s."

But as Thorn stood at the podium, he knew how his serendipitous discovery transcended some obscure town ordinance. It told us all a little bit more about where our Great Aunt Sarah came from.

"If you're looking for a baseball Garden of Eden, or a personal Garden of Eden, you can't find it by looking for it," he said. "It finds you."

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