Officials and historians in Pittsfield, Mass., released a 213-year-old document yesterday that they believe is the earliest written reference to baseball. The evidence comes in a 1791 bylaw that aims to protect the windows in Pittsfield's new meeting house by prohibiting anyone from playing baseball within 80 yards of the building.

That bylaw would have been produced well before Abner Doubleday is said to have written the rules for the game in 1839.

Historian John Thorn was doing research on the origins of baseball when he found a reference to the bylaw in an 1869 book on Pittsfield's history.

He shared his find with former major leaguer and area resident Jim Bouton, who told city officials about the ordinance.

A librarian found the document in a vault at the Berkshire Athenaeum library. Its age was authenticated at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. "It's clear that not only was baseball played here in 1791, but it was rampant . . . enough to have an ordinance against it," Thorn said.

The long-accepted story of baseball's origins centers on Cooperstown, N.Y., where Doubleday is said to have come up with the rules for the modern game. That legend long legitimized the Baseball Hall of Fame's presence in Cooperstown, although later evidence pointed to the first real game being played in Hoboken, N.J., in 1846.

The Pittsfield group hopes its find puts to rest the debate about the game's origins.

"Pittsfield is baseball's Garden of Eden," Mayor James Ruberto said.

But experts say it may be impossible to say exactly where and when baseball was created.

"There's no way of pinpointing where the game was first played," said Jeff Idelson, a spokesman for the Hall of Fame. "Baseball wasn't really born anywhere." Still, Idelson said if the Pittsfield group's document is authentic, it would be "incredibly monumental."

-- From News Services


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