Americans catch a little more baseball history

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The Independent US

A newly discovered document dating from the late 18th century proves that baseball, America's so-called national pastime, was being played here almost half a century earlier than was previously thought.

A newly discovered document dating from the late 18th century proves that baseball, America's so-called national pastime, was being played here almost half a century earlier than was previously thought.

The document details a by-law that prohibits the playing of the sport within 80 yards of Pittsfield's meeting house, which had been recently built. Apparently the authorities in the Massachusetts town were worried about their windows being broken.

The by-law says: "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."

The 213-year-old document was discovered in the town's library by the historian John Thorn, who was researching a book on the origins of the sport and found a reference on the internet to the bylaw, mentioned in a book about the town from 1869. Mr Thorn said: "It's clear that not only was baseball played here in 1791, but it was rampant. It was rampant enough to have an ordinance against it.

"The message here is that baseball grew up in rural areas and in urban areas, too. It was growing everywhere, like a field of dandelions."

Legend has always had it that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday, in Cooperstown, New York, in 1839, although experts no longer believe the story to be true. In 2001 a librarian at New York University found two newspaper articles published on 25 April 1823 which show that an organised game called "base ball" was being played in Manhattan.

Ted Spencer, chief curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, said the document, authenticated by the Williamstown Art Conservation Centre, was currently the undisputed earliest reference to baseball. "This is a wonderful story," he said. "This is a great piece of history in the development of the game."

Once the latest discovery was authenticated, Mr Thorn contacted the former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, who is involved in a project to renovate and reopen Pittsfield's historic Wahconah Park, which was built on a site where the sport has been played since 1892. Mr Bouton said: "This was a lucky stroke. I'm sure Pittsfield will live off this for a while."

Ron Latham, director of the Berkshire Athenaeum library, where the document was found, said: "We knew we had the document catalogued in our vault. But we didn't necessarily appreciate the significance of it."

For now, the document will be kept in a vault until town officials decide how to properly display it in Pittsfield. James Ruberto, the mayor, said: "Pittsfield is baseball's Garden of Eden. I'm tremendously excited. Pittsfield has had a long tradition of minor-league baseball, and this just fits with everything we have known about Pittsfield being a baseball town."

Meanwhile, the debate over baseball's origins will continue. Experts say it may be impossible to ever determine exactly where and when the game was created because it evolved from games such as cricket and rounders. Jeff Idelson, a spokesman for the Hall of Fame, said: "There's no way of pinpointing where the game was first played."

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