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ON HISTORICAL GROUNDS

The Birth of College Baseball
By Dan Skwire

In May of 2004, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, made national headlines through the discovery of a 1791 bylaw that prohibited playing baseball within eighty yards of the Congregational Church, which doubled as the town meetinghouse.1 The document was the earliest known printed reference to baseball, and local leaders proudly trumpeted the news. "Pittsfield is baseball's Garden of Eden," said Mayor James Ruberto in 2004.2

The true origins of baseball, of course, are unknown—and perhaps unknowable. "There's no way of pinpointing where the game was first played," said Hall-of-Fame spokesman Jeff Idelson, responding to the Pittsfield discovery. "Baseball wasn't really born anywhere."3 The citizens of Pittsfield can rest at ease, however, for their city's true place in baseball history rests on another historic first. On July 1, 1859, Pittsfield played host to teams from Williams College and Amherst College in the first intercollegiate baseball game ever played.

 

The Challenge

Williams College, located in the Berkshire Mountains in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, was founded in 1793 through a bequest from Colonel Ephraim Williams. The college grew slowly, and many faculty members and trustees supported a move east to attract more students. When plans for the move fell through in 1820, the college's president, Zephaniah Swift Moore, left the school, taking fifteen students and—according to legend—a portion of the school's library with him. In 1821, Moore founded Amherst College in the central Massachusetts town of Amherst, named for the British general Lord Jeffrey Amherst.4

From that moment to the present time, Williams College and Amherst College have been archrivals in every field of human endeavor, but most notably on the athletic fields. Although the schools' teams are named for their institutions' respective namesakes (the Williams Ephs and the Amherst Lord Jeffs), Williams' vernacular still refers to Amherst athletes as "the Defectors." Through 2004, the two schools have played 119 football games and over 300 baseball games. The rivalry is no less intense today than it was in 1821.

The notion of a baseball game between the two schools began with a challenge from students at Amherst in the spring of 1859. Williams accepted and made a return request for a chess match, to which Amherst agreed. Detailed negotiations then began. The town of Pittsfield was chosen as a neutral site, although the choice was controversial because Pittsfield was much closer to Williams than to Amherst. The Pittsfield Base Ball and Chess Clubs, however, offered their facilities to host the two-day event, and the Western Railroad promised half-fare tickets to attendees from Williams. The baseball game was scheduled for July 1 and the chess match for July 2.5

Of great importance in the negotiations were the rules to be used for the baseball game. Because the sport was still in its infancy, considerable regional variation existed in the rules. The two most prominent variations were known as the New York rules and the Massachusetts rules. The New York rules more closely resembled today's game. The field was configured in the familiar diamond shape, with the batter and catcher positioned at the home base. The game was nine innings long, and each inning consisted of three outs. The ball had to be put into play between the first base and third base lines to be considered fair, although the batter could be called out if a batted ball were caught either on a fly or on one bounce by an opposing fielder. Teams consisted of nine players.

In 1859, however, the New York rules were just beginning to take hold as the dominant form of the game, and the Massachusetts rules were still widely observed. Under the Massachusetts rules, the field was configured as a square. There was a base at each corner, but the batter and catcher were positioned along one side of the square, halfway between first base and home base. There was only one out per inning and no fixed number of innings in a game. Rather, the game continued until one team had scored a predetermined number of runs. There was no foul territory, so all batted balls were in play. An out was made if a batter swung and missed at three pitches, if a batted ball were caught on the fly by an opposing fielder, or if a baserunner were hit by a thrown ball (called "soaking") while not standing on a base. The number of players on each team was variable.6

The two schools decided to play by the Massachusetts rules. They agreed that each team would consist of thirteen players and that the winning team would be the first to score sixty-five runs. Neither school had an organized baseball club at this time, so the players were chosen by a vote of the students.7


To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2005 issue.

—EFQ

 

DAN SKWIRE is a graduate of Williams College, yet he has never played Major League Baseball. Instead, he pursues a career as an actuary in Portland, Maine, where he cheers on his hometown Cleveland Indians and the local Portland Sea Dogs.

© 2005 Dan Skwire

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