Baseball is the talk of the town! We have seen an increased interest and questions from Pittsfielders surrounding the Berkshire Athenaeum’s “Baseball Document.” The story about this document uncovered by Berkshire Athenaeum goes back nearly 14 years! In April 2004, Pittsfield received national publicity for a 1791 bylaw, which is believed to be the earliest written reference to baseball in North America. Our Local History & Genealogy Department maintains and preserves the original baseball document and town records in their collection. The town record and document is currently on display in the Blake Reading Room for library patrons to view; a copy of the transcription is available on the library website.
The history of this document is significant and of interest to baseball fans. The document was written in September of 1791 by Woodbridge Little, the first lawyer in Pittsfield and long-time town selectman. This is the original document presented for a vote at the town meeting of September 5, 1791 for the purpose of creating a bylaw that would insure the protection of the windows of the new meeting house, soon to be built. (This would have been the Congregational Church, designed by renowned architect Charles Bulfinch in 1789 and completed in 1793.)
The original document shows evidence of having been folded, with the word “Recorded”written on the back. Normal procedure would have been to store the original in some type of a docket envelope and record the new bylaw in the town record book. This is precisely the procedure followed in this case, as is confirmed by consulting Book 2 of the Pittsfield Town Books, where a “true copy” was entered under the date of September 5, 1791 by town clerk Joshua Danforth. This town book remains in the possession of the Pittsfield City Clerk to this day.
At some point in time, the original document, along with close to 1000 others with dates ranging from 1739 – 1843 were affixed into a large ledger volume using a form of tape (this is not scotch tape) or small metal straight pins. Many other documents in this collection bear the same tape residue seen on the right hand side of this document. At some point during the first half of the twentieth century, this book of original documents was transferred from the Pittsfield City Clerk to the Berkshire Athenaeum, where Local History Librarian Fanny Clark (who retired in 1956) compiled a partial index to the documents. In 1988 Athenaeum staff, in a first step toward archival preservation, removed these documents from the ledger book, carefully maintaining the original order, and re-housed them in archival folders and document storage boxes.
In the fall of 1998, Berkshire Athenaeum librarians created an item level annotated guide to the collection, with each document being assigned a unique number for identification purposes.
In the spring of 1999, with funding provided through an LSTA Grant administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, the Athenaeum commissioned the microfilming of this entire collection to assure the permanent preservation and protection of the original documents while simultaneously facilitating future public access to the wealth of information they contain.
It is certain that Joseph E A Smith quoted from this document in the first volume of the History of Pittsfield, published in 1869 (p. 447). Whether he consulted the original documents, the Record Books, or both in his research is unknown; but he definitely used at least one of these sources.
In 1972, Edward R. Knurow, during the course of his research into the Record Books at City Hall, copied this document along with several others outlining the construction of the Meeting House. Knurow’s manuscript books are now in the possession of the Berkshire Athenaeum where this record can be found in Volume # 33, p 573 – 574.
During 1999, while the collection of Original Pittsfield Papers was being prepared for microfilming, the Berkshire Family History Association was also indexing this volume of Knurow’s materials. The material concerning the Meeting House having been noted in both of these sources, the reference was published in the Winter 2000 edition of the Berkshire Genealogist (Vol. 21, No. 1, P. 36) with the following editorial comment included:
“According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘It was in Cooperstown, New York, in the summer of 1839, that Abner Doubleday was alleged to have laid out the first baseball field and conducted the first game of baseball ever played.’ Could Pittsfield have jumped the historical gun by over 48 years?”
During your next visit to your favorite library, be sure to enjoy this one of a kind document on America’s favorite past-time! For further information about Pittsfield’s 1791 Baseball Bylaw, please contact the Berkshire Athenaeum’s Local History Department at (413) 499-9480 ext 204 during regular library hours or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.