Wednesday, May 12, 2004 Baseball's origin traced to Massachusetts Document found in Pittsfield could be earliest written reference to sport; Cooperstown shakes off discovery Staff and Wire Report Move over Cooperstown. Another city is claiming to be the home of baseball. Although this is nothing new. "We stopped laying claim to being the birthplace of baseball a long time ago," National Baseball Hall of Fame spokesman Jeff Idelson said. "Cooperstown is one of the earliest places it was played. The game evolved over time, it wasn't born in one place." Officials and historians in the western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield released a 213-year-old document Tuesday that they believe is the earliest written reference to baseball. Advertisement Their pitch to rewrite the sport's history is based on a 1791 ordinance that aims to protect the windows in Pittsfield's new meeting house by prohibiting anyone from playing baseball within 80 yards of the building. "It's clear that not only was baseball played here in 1791, but it was rampant," baseball historian John Thorn said Tuesday at a City Hall news conference to announce the find. "It was rampant enough to have an ordinance against it." The document - dug out of an archive vault at the Berkshire Athenaeum library in Pittsfield - is the earliest known written reference to baseball, predating the next known documentation of the game by three decades. "Pittsfield is baseball's Garden of Eden," Mayor James Ruberto said. But it was an Eden that was stumbled upon accidentally by a historian with insomnia. Unable to sleep one night, Thorn took to the Internet to research a book he was writing on the origins of baseball. That's when he found a reference to the Pittsfield ordinance cited in an 1869 book on Pittsfield's history. Thorn sat on the information for about a year, until he met former major league pitcher Jim Bouton at a baseball conference in April. "If I made a big deal of the find myself, it would've been seen as self-promotional," said Thorn, author of "Total Baseball" and several other books on the sport. Bouton, who lives in nearby Egremont and is helping to organize a restoration of Pittsfield's Wahconah Park baseball field, prompted city officials to hunt down the original ordinance. Bouton is the author of the 1970 book "Ball Four," which offered a scandalous look at pro baseball. "We knew we had the document catalogued in our vault," said Ron Latham, director of the Berkshire Athenaeum. "But we didn't necessarily appreciate the significance of it." The document, well-preserved if not a bit yellowed around the edges, was authenticated by researchers at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, who dated the paper and ink to 1791. "Over the last few decades, more and more research is being uncovered, which is all pertinent to explain how baseball has been part of Americana," Idelson said. "It's certainly believable, but it remains to be authenticated. If the documentation is legitimate, we're hopeful to at least obtain a copy for our research library." For now, the ordinance will be tucked back in the vault until city officials figure out how to properly display it. A copy will be hung at Wahconah Park. The long-accepted and recently disputed story of baseball's origins centers around Cooperstown, where Abner Doubleday is said to have come up with the rules for the modern game in 1839. That legend long legitimized the National Baseball Hall of Fame's presence in Cooperstown, although later evidence pointed to the first real game being played in Hoboken, N.J., in 1846. And in 2001, a librarian at New York University came across two newspaper articles published on April 25, 1823 that show an organized form of a game called "base ball" was being played in Manhattan. The Pittsfield group said they hope their find will put to rest once and for all the debate about the game's origins, but they acknowledge it may just be a matter of time before they're one-upped by another town. "Pittsfield is baseball's birthplace until further notice," Thorn said. "We know that baseball was like a field of dandelions in the late 1700s and early 1800s - it was growing up everywhere." Experts say it may be impossible to ever say exactly where and when the game was created because it evolved from earlier games, such as cricket and rounders, English games played with a bat and ball. "There's no way of pinpointing where the game was first played," Idelson said. "Baseball wasn't really born anywhere." But Pittsfield might be a sensible home for the sport. Some historians have documented "the Massachusetts game" as a precursor to modern baseball, where runners were thrown out if they were hit by a ball. Bouton, whose decade-long career as a pitcher included stints with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros, is betting that the discovery will bring attention to Wahconah Park, one of the nation's oldest ballparks and the former home of several minor league teams. "We thought this was a lucky stroke," Bouton said. "I'm sure Pittsfield will live off this for a while." Said Idelson: "That's what's great about us as a country. We're never satisfied until we can dig deeper and deeper until we find the truth. All of these findings are significant. They help define baseball even more." From http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/4954063
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