PITTSFIELD, Mass. - Officials and historians in this western Massachusetts city released a 213-year-old document Tuesday that they believe is the earliest written reference to baseball.
The evidence comes in a 1791 bylaw that aims to protect the windows in Pittsfield’s new meeting house by prohibiting anyone from playing baseball within 80 yards of the building.
That bylaw would have been produced well before Abner Doubleday is said to have written the rules for the game in 1839.
Historian John Thorn was doing research on the origins of baseball when he found a reference to the bylaw in an 1869 book on Pittsfield’s history.
He shared his find with former major leaguer and area resident Jim Bouton, who told city officials about the ordinance.
A librarian found the actual document in a vault at the Berkshire Athenaeum library. Its age was authenticated by researchers at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center.
“It’s clear that not only was baseball played here in 1791, but it was rampant,” Thorn said. “It was rampant enough to have an ordinance against it.”
The long-accepted story of baseball’s origins centers around Cooperstown, N.Y., where Doubleday is said to have come up with the rules for the modern game.
That legend long legitimized the 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.
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 hopes their find puts to rest the debate about the game’s origins.
“Pittsfield is baseball’s Garden of Eden,” Mayor James Ruberto said.
But experts say it may be impossible to say exactly where and when baseball was created because it evolved from earlier games, such as cricket and rounders, another English game played with a bat and ball.
“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.”
Still, Idelson said if the Pittsfield group’s document is authentic, it would be “incredibly monumental.”
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, lives in nearby Egremont and is helping to restore Pittsfield’s Wahconah Park, the former home of several minor league teams. He hopes the discovery helps bring attention to the project.
“We thought this was a lucky stroke,” said Bouton, whose 1970 book “Ball Four” offered a scandalous look behind the scenes of professional baseball. “I’m sure Pittsfield will live off this for a while.”
For now, the document will be kept in a vault until city officials figure out how to properly display it. A copy will be hung at Wahconah Park, one of the nation’s oldest ballparks.
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