Hometown home run

May 18, 2004|By Alec MacGillis

"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."

THE DISCOVERY, announced last week, of this 1791 ordinance from Pittsfield, Mass., with its reference to "baseball" has thrilled the game's historians. Previous clues traced the national pastime's roots to the 1820s in Manhattan; the new evidence offers startling proof that baseball was being played three decades earlier, in the very first years of the young country.

For me, though, the announcement prompted a more personal reflection: Why the heck didn't they tell me this until now?

Pittsfield, a struggling industrial city of 45,000 in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, is my hometown. If only I had known at the time that I was growing up in baseball's true Eden.

Had I been aware that I was breathing in the very essence of the game, might I have actually been able to hit a fastball above the belt?

Indeed, seen in retrospect, my childhood career on baseball's original green diamonds seems like a tremendous waste of home field advantage. I was, to put it mildly, no Mighty Casey at the bat - scrawny and weak-wristed, I achieved the rare feat of failing to make a Little League team.

Passed over at tryouts, I settled for the aptly named Minor League, a lower division where players were given cheap T-shirts instead of the handsome jerseys with striped sleeves that Little Leaguers got to wear.

When I graduated to Babe Ruth, the city league for teen-agers, I suffered a new indignity: My father took over as coach of my team and, unfailingly honest man that he was, decided to show his punchless son absolutely no favoritism. I may have been the only coach's son in the history of youth baseball to hit eighth in the order.

Over time, I grew into a fairly reliable fielder - I could judge flies and knock down grounders and had a decent arm. But I remained forever feeble at the plate, the kind of hitter who is euphemistically praised for his "good eye," because the best I could hope for was drawing walks. Only much later, after I'd left for college and moved on to Sunday softball leagues, did I acquire any pop.

I try not to think too much about this now, about what could have been had I been able to benefit from the inspiration of Pittsfield's baseball primacy. Instead, I content myself with the consolation that the document's discovery has given the city a much-needed boost.

Fifty years ago, Pittsfield was a thriving General Electric hub. Since then, it has lost almost 20 percent of its population and must now contend with the PCB contamination left behind after GE's near-total departure.

The city's decline can be read in the fortunes of Wahconah Park, a charming 85-year-old minor-league field where evening games sometimes suffer "sun delays." The park - built before the advent of night baseball - is one of only two in the country that face west (the other is in California), and the setting sun sometimes gets in batter's eyes.

In the 1960s, the park was home to the Pittsfield Red Sox and colorful future Boston stars such as Bill "Spaceman" Lee. When I was growing up, we had a Double-A Cubs team with its share of future Hall of Famers. This later gave way to a greener Single-A Mets team, which fled for Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2000. Pittsfield now has had to make do with an independent rookie ballclub.

The city's boosters hope that the 1791 revelation will aid efforts to bring a bona fide minor-league team back to Wahconah, which is being refurbished. They also daydream about the city becoming a mecca for baseball aficionados, though no one's going so far as to demand that Cooperstown, N.Y., turn the Hall of Fame over to Pittsfield.

As for myself, I just look forward to being able to take some swings at a local field on my next trip home. Who knows, armed with my new knowledge of the city's claim on the game, I may just hit a ball far enough to break a window.

Alec MacGillis is a Sun reporter and the coach of the newsroom's softball team.

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