On September 5, 1791, Pittsfield, Massachusetts banned playing baseball within 80 yards of the town’s meeting hall. This is the first written mention of baseball in the United States.
In an effort to protect the new town hall’s windows—and taking into account the locals’ affinity for sport—Pittsfield officials banned baseball, along with several other activities, from being played within 80 yards of the structure during a council meeting in 1791. Written on a sheet of the meeting’s minutes by Woodbridge Little, the first lawyer in Pittsfield and long-time town selectman, the other sports that received mention included wicket, cricket, batball, football, cat, and fives. Offenders were to be fined five “schillings”.
The meeting house for the town on the western edge of Massachusetts was designed by architect Charles Bulfinch, who previously designed Faneuil Hall in Boston and would eventually help design the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. Besides being used for town meetings, it also doubled as a church.
It is unsure what “baseball” would have looked like in the 1700s. According to Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorne (who found the 1791 mention back in 2004), no box scores of the game exist from that century. Regardless, it likely differed from the other ball games mentioned in the document.
Before Thorne dug up the 18th century mention, a popular belief was that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York in 1839. However, Pittsfield’s ordinance (and several other earlier mentions before 1839) certainly put this idea to rest. Perhaps former Baseball Hall of Fame spokesman (and current president) Jeff Idelson put it best after Thorne announced his findings in 2004: “Baseball wasn’t really born anywhere.”
Be it ordained by the said Inhabitants that no Person, an Inhabitant of said Town, shall be permitted to play at any Game called Wicket, Cricket, Baseball, Batball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other Game or Games with Balls within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House — and every such Person who shall play at any of the said Games or other Games with Balls within the Distance aforesaid, shall for any Instance thereof, forfeit the Sum of five schillings to be recovered by Action of Debt brought before any Justice of the Peace to the Use of the Person who shall sue and prosecute therefor —
Pittsfield’s prohibition on sport within 80 yards of the town meeting house
Despite its early ban on baseball, Pittsfield continued to weave in and out of early baseball history. In 1859, two Massachusetts school played the first intercollegiate baseball game in the town (Amherst beat Williams College 73-32). Besides that, ballplayer Ulysses “Frank” Grant was born in the town in 1865. He is regarded as one of the best African-American players to compete in white-organized baseball before the drawing of the color line in the late 1800s.
Pittsfield, which was founded in 1761, is now home to over 40,000 residents and is the county seat of Berkshire County.
A year ago, at 2 a.m., I was searching the net for baseball with various spellings: B-A-S-S, B-A-S-E, B-A-S-E with a hyphen. For some reason, I don’t know why, I was looking at the University of Michigan’s site “Making of America”. There was a reference to a 1734-1800 history of Pittsfield, and there it was. It was not just a reference to a game of ball, but it was the real thing: baseball.
The official MLB historian in 2004 on finding the 1791 reference to baseball
After 10 days of searching, the original council minutes were found by the Pittsfield library, the Berkshire Athenaeum:
- In 1791, town officials of Pittsfield, Massachusetts banned an array of sports—including baseball—in an effort to protect the windows of a the town’s meeting hall.
- This reference is believed to be the earliest written reference to baseball.
- Pittsfield has weaved in and out of baseball history since: the town played host to the first collegiate baseball game, and Ulysses “Frank” Grant, one of the best African-American players to compete in white-organized baseball before the drawing of the color line in the late 1800s, was born there.
- “Grant, Frank”, Baseball Hall of Fame
- “Pittsfield’s 1791 Baseball Bylaw”, Berkshire Athenaeum via The Internet Archive
- “Pittsfield uncovers earliest written reference to game”, ESPN
- “BASEBALL; Now Pittsfield Stakes Claim to Baseball’s Origins”, The New York Times
- “The Pittsfield ‘Baseball’ Bylaw of 1791: What It Means”, Our Game
- “July 1, 1859: Baseball goes to college”, Society for American Baseball Research