The Pittsfield “Baseball” Bylaw of 1791: What It Means

With this sixth of sixteen articles by scholars of baseball’s earliest period, a picture will begin to emerge of how the game first flowered in America. (For regular readers of the Our Game blog, my own contributions will be interspersed with these excerpts from Base Ball.) The article below, by yours truly, appears in print in a new special issue of the journal Base Ball.

These articles constitute only a portion of the complete special issue and appear courtesy of the publisher. Each article is keyed to the larger Protoball Chronology appearing at http://www.retrosheet.org/Protoball/; for example, the article below, indexed as 1791.1, reflects that it is the first Protoball entry for the year 1791.

1791.1 The Pittsfield “Baseball” Bylaw: What It Means 

John Thorn

In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to promote the safety of the exterior of the newly built meeting house, particularly the windows, a by-law is enacted to bar “any game of wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball,” within eighty yards of the structure. However, the letter of the law did not exclude the city’s lovers of muscular sport from the tempting lawn of “Meeting-House Common.”1

Thanks to the astonishingly preserved minutes of a Pittsfield town meeting in 1791, we know that in this locality a game called baseball, if played too close to a newly built meeting house, was a violation of the law—at a time when the United States of America was a teenager and the Constitution a mere toddler, four years old.

I’m the fellow who won fleeting fame in the spring of 2004 for finding what was not truly lost, except for its significance. While prowling the internet late at night, I came upon a mention of the now celebrated bylaw in a book entitled The History of Pittsfield, (Berkshire County,) Massachusetts, From the Year 1734 to the Year 1800.2 The bylaw, intended to protect the exterior of the newly built meeting house, particularly its windows, barred “any game of wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball,” within 80 yards of the structure. Because the book was published in 1869 under the authority of the town, I had no doubts about the authenticity of the reference. The next morning, I called folks at the Pittsfield City Hall to see if they retained minute books all the way back to the 18th century, and was informed that indeed they did.

Still a puzzle, however, is what the Pittsfield game of those days looked like, or what its rules may have been—no 18th century box score or game account survives, or is likely to have existed. We may reasonably assume that the Pittsfield game was different from the other ball games proscribed in the ordinance: “For the Preservation of the Windows in the New Meeting House … no Person or Inhabitant of said town, shall be permitted to play at any game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other game or games with balls, within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House.” This new meeting house doubled as a church, designed by Charles Bulfinch, the young nation’s most distinguished architect, who had already designed Faneuil Hall in Boston and would later design the Capitol in Washington, D.C. As it turned out, it was fickle tastes in style that doomed the building rather than flying baseballs. Deemed old-fashioned within decades of its construction, it was soon moved to a new location where it somehow survived until 1936, when it was demolished at last.

Because the old game of baseball may have originated, or at least first flourished, in the Berkshires and the Housatonic Valley, this region might not unreasonably be termed Baseball’s Garden of Eden, a term that Pittsfield’s civic boosters have been quick to adopt; for many this coinage has come to signify, in shorthand, that the national pastime was “invented here.” It was not, of course. If pressed to create a date for baseball’s taking root in America, I’d have to say, about 1735, because old-timer Henry Sargent stated to the Mills Commission of 1905–07 that his contemporary George H. Stoddard—an 1850s roundball player with the Upton Excelsiors whose grandfather and great grandfather had both played the game—believed that roundball surely dated back to just after the Revolution and was not a novelty then. It had been played, Stoddard said, “as long ago as Upton became a little village.”3 Upton was settled in 1735. Roundball was the name favored in New England for a game that was also called baseball, indeed the one that came to be termed the Massachusetts Game.

Admittedly, we are not likely to find hard evidence for that date as good as what now resides in the Berkshire Athenaeum in support of 1791. But we can only suppose that if baseball was banned in Pittsfield in 1791, it was not a nuisance devised in that year—that it had been played for some time before, and not only in this western Massachusetts city. The Berkshires may have been a remote region in 1791, but not as immune to influence as, say, the Galapagos Islands. Why did the Pittsfield legislators of 1791 ban the game as baseball rather than roundball ? My speculation is this: The border between New York and Massachusetts had long been in dispute, and had been settled only four years earlier (the New York–Connecticut border dispute wore on until 1857). But the lines that were finally drawn on a map made no matter to boys playing a game of ball long familiar under a localized name; they were going to call their game whatever previous generations had called it.

In fact baseball appears to have sprung up everywhere, like dandelions, and we cannot now be expected to identify with certainty which of these hardy flowers was truly the first. As Stephen Jay Gould explained not only the Mills Commission’s search for a baseball father but also Cooperstown’s hold on our hearts:

Too few people are comfortable with evolutionary modes of explanation in any form. I do not know why we tend to think so fuzzily in this area, but one reason must reside in our social and psychic attraction to creation myths in preference to evolutionary stories—for creation myths … identify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide no palpable, particular thing as a symbol for reverence, worship, or patriotism.4

In the nation’s straitlaced founding period, mentions of ball play came generally in the form of prohibitions or complaints. On Christmas Day in 1621, Governor Bradford was infuriated to find some men of Plymouth Plantation, who had begged off work to observe their faith, instead “frolicking in ye street, at play openly; some at pitching ye barr, some at stoole ball and shuch-like sport.”5 In 1656, the Dutch prohibited playing ball on Sundays in New Netherland, which eight years later would become New York.6 In 1724, Boston diarist Samuel Sewall was sorely disappointed that his lodger “Sam. Hirst got up betimes in the morning, and took Ben Swett with him and went into the [Boston] Common to play at Wicket. Went before any body was up, left the door open; Sam came not to prayer; at which I was most displeased.”7

Colleges too, were getting into the act. Anticipating Pittsfield, Dartmouth—where wicket was the students’ game of choice—prohibited ball play near windows in 1780, and the University of Pennsylvania followed suit in 1784.8 Three years later, the faculty of Princeton prohibited ball play “on account of its being dangerous as well as beneath the propriety of a gentleman.”9 Princeton student John Rhea Smith had noted in his diary for 1786, “A fine day; play baste ball in the campus, but am beaten for I miss both catching and striking the Ball.”10 Smith used baste as a corruption of “base” in two separate contexts: “baste ball” and “prisoners’ baste,” a game of tag. This in my view renders the Princeton diary the first textual reference to a game we should regard as baseball, if not one precisely so named, thus leaving Pittsfield with perhaps only an orthographic “first.”

Clearly bat-and-ball games were being played everywhere, and many of these games must have required a batsman to notch a tally by running around bases without being put out by a thrown ball. Each of these games varied minutely from the others, but all may be termed baseball because each exhibited, in my view, the essence of the game: a bat; a ball that is pitched or thrown to the bat; two sides alternating innings; multiple safe havens, whether bases or stones or stakes; and a round circuit of such havens that scores a run. One might object that none of these games employed the key New York innovations of foul territory and throwing the ball to the base rather than at the runner, but to such objections I would respond that the key innovation of baseball is evident in its very name: the base—just as the essential, defining characteristic of football, handball, racquetball, and basketball is evident in their names.

Notes

1. This is the first indigenous instance of the game of baseball being referred to by that name on the North American continent. The History of Pittsfield (Berkshire County), Massachusetts, From the Year 1734 to the Year 1800. Compiled and Written, Under the General Direction of a Committee, by J. E. A. Smith. By Authority of the Town (pp. 446–447). The actual documents repose in the Berkshire Athenaeum.

2. Ibid.

3. Letter from Henry Sargent, Grafton, Mass., to the Mills Commission, May 23, 1905. National Baseball Library, Cooperstown.

4. Gould, S. 1992. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History (p. 57).

5. Bradford, W. 1898. Bradford’s history “Of Plimoth plantation”: From the original manuscript with a Report of the Proceedings Incident to the Return of the Manuscript to Massachusetts (pp. 134–135).

6. Channing, E. 1905. A History of the United States (vol. 1) (p. 536).

7. Seymour, G. 1909. Papers and Addresses of the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Connecticut, Volume II of the Proceedings of the Society (p. 277). Note that this quote is not found in Van Doren, M., ed. 1927. Samuel Sewall’s Diary. It may be in Thomas, M., ed. 1973. The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674 –1729.

8. Rules for the Good Government and Discipline of the School in the University of Pennsylvania (Francis Bailey, Philadelphia, 1784).

9. Collins, V. 1914. Princeton (p. 208).

10. Smith, J. March 22, 1786, in “Journal at Nassau Hall,” Princeton Library MSS, AM 12800.

3 Comments

I used to work at a living history museum where we played the Massachusetts rules of baseball. The game had four bases plus home; the bases were in a square and home was halfway between base one and base four. The ball was fairly soft, stuffed full with cloth, so that it wouldn’t hurt the batter. You got the batter out by throwing the ball at the runner and hitting him/her. We were informed that this game was called “town ball,” which to my mind makes a lot more sense than “round ball.” After all, all baseballs are round, right? Whereas “town ball” might have originated because Massachusetts was largely rural and the game was played in town.

Yes, all balls are round. Round ball referred to the running of the bases “in the round,” rather than back and forth, as in the competing games of wicket or cricket. Town ball was a name commonly used to describe a range of localized versions of baseball–an adequate descriptor when all those in the conversation were referencing the same, mutually understood game. Tough, however,on historians today who may attempt to describe very different games–the Massachusetts version vs. the Philadelphia one, for example–while using the same name of town ball!

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