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Baseball’s history extended

2004 May 12
by Skip Sauer

Baseball historian John Thorn has established that the game’s origins now extend to 1791, in Pittsfield, Mass. How do we know? The town passed a law which restricted where the game could be played. Thorn uncovered the law initially through an internet search, and ultimately tracked down the original source:

The document is a sheet of tan paper, slightly smaller than 8 inches by 10 inches. The words it contained voiced concern over broken windows in a new meeting house, or church. In part, it read:

” 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, Batball, Football, Cat, Fives or any other Game or Games with Balls, within the Distance of Eighty Yards from said Meeting House.”

Violators were warned that they would be fined five shillings.

Thorn, 57, lives in Kingston, N.Y. He said the discovery of the document began by accident. He has been writing baseball books for 30 years, and the eighth edition of his “Total Baseball,” a 2,688-page statistical encyclopedia he edits, is near completion. He is also writing a book on baseball’s origins, and it was that effort that had him up late.

“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,” he said at the news conference. “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.”

Thorn was ultimately led to the original document via a conversation with Jim Bouton, of all people. Read the story at the NY Times for the details. Not surprisingly, the town that was once ticked off with ballplayers is now pleased to lay claim to the game’s origin. Who’ll be next?

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