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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Early Days of Baseball in Western Mass.

One of the first historical references to the game of baseball would seem to indicate that the game was being played in Pittsfield Massachusetts as early as 1791. That year, during President George Washington’s first term in office, a bylaw in town in prohibited the playing of baseball too close to Pittsfield's meetinghouse.

"…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."

Baseball enjoyed a long century of amateur status where local legends ruled the roost before national heroes, when it was still only a national “pastime.”

In 1866, the weekly Springfield Oracle recounted in typical flamboyant manner a typically flamboyant baseball challenge in western Massachusetts between Chicopee team, the Hampdens, and a team from the Northampton village of Florence called the Eagles. It was not merely the season championship, it was a heroic joust.

“So to Florence last Saturday, they went full of beer and courage,” the writer wrote of the underdog Hampdens. Fortified, the Chicopee boys quite unexpectedly clobbered the champions “in the wilds of Florence”.

“It would be difficult to find a happier set of men than are the Hampdens at the present time.” In their celebration, full of more beer, we can only hope they made their way back to town safely. It was not an easy trip then, no matter the amount of beer or courage.

It was surely a different game then. Batters could request high or low balls to be pitched to them. It took nine pitches and not four to get a base on balls. It was a time when gloves were only thin, tight slips of leather.

It wasn't until the 1870s that bunts were played, or runners leading off base could be thrown out. Stealing was new. Some weren't even sure it was moral.

In his “A.G. Spalding and the Rise of Baseball” ( 1985), author Peter Levine notes the famed Cap Catch rule of 1873, where players were no longer allowed to catch fly balls in their caps. They did it because their gloves were so thin it hurt to catch the baseball.

It was a rugged game, a manly game more metal was tested in Homeric contests, and dramatized by some wonderful sportswriters who viewed men like Springfield’s Rabbit Maranville and A.G. Spalding with blatant hero worship. The white knickers, mustachioed chaps were gods.

A.G. Spalding, Bain News Service, Library of Congress, photo now in public domain.

In 1874, the Boston Red Stockings was the best team in the country. Their star pitcher was Albert Goodwill Spalding.
In 1875 Spalding moved over to the Chicago White Stockings. It wasn't quite like the curse of the Bambino, but nobody in Boston was too happy about it. Spalding would later help establish the National League, and he was posthumously selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

While still a player he became involved in sporting goods. In the summer of 1890, he came to the manufacturing town of Chicopee, Massachusetts, home to the former courageous and beer swilling Hampdens, to negotiate with the Overman Wheel Company to market bicycles. He later manufactured tennis rackets, dumbbells Indian clubs, baseball and golf equipment at the Spalding’s factory established here in 1904. Spalding's moved to a more modern plant on Meadow Street in Chicopee in 1948 which later focused on golf equipment. Now a division of Russell Corporation, the company has offices in Springfield and Holyoke.

The turn-of-the-century was an important time for amateur sports. Being amateurs they were taken away from the game by war by jobs and personal commitments, and our hero worship shifted to professional ballplayers.

For more on Pittsfield’s place in early baseball history, have a look at this website.


John Hayes said...

Having played both amateur baseball & softball, I can attest that on this level folks still go "full of beer and courage!" I love stories of old baseball--didn't know Spalding came from Chicopee. Also interesting that--at least in the west--amateur & semi-pro leagues often sprang up around railroad lines. In this part of Idaho in the early 20th century there was the "PIN league" named for the Pacific Idaho Northern line that connected the competing towns.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, John. Spalding didn't actually come from Chicopee; he just established his firm here. That's interesting about the leagues starting around railroad lines in the west. I guess that makes sense. I love the beer and courage line.

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