By-Law of 1791
The citizens of Pittsfield in the early 1790's were excited about the prospect of a new meeting house going up in the center of town. Designed by renowned Boston architect Charles Bullfinch, the building was the pride of the townspeople, "whose hears swelled with pride" when they showed it off to visitors, according to city historian J.E.A. Smith. This jewel must be protected, though, and since it sat facing onto the town common, an ordinance was deemed necessary to protect its exterior, especially the window glass, from sporting games played on the lawn.
The sensible, if fun-spoiling, law retains its importance today, long after the demise of the Bullfinch Church and the shrinking of the common to Park Square, a park ringed by paved streets. The ordinance is recognized as one of the very first published uses in America of the word "baseball," indicating that some rudimentary version of the sport that became known as the National Pastime was popular in Berkshire County even in the eighteenth century.
The history of baseball in the county includes 28 men born or raised here who spent between one game and 18 seasons in the major leagues, and two who played at the highest level of black baseball long before professional ball was integrated. There are other major leaguers from elsewhere who settled in the Berkshires after their playing careers, and a long list of natives who played minor league baseball. Others have been front office leaders, umpires, and trainers
The list includes two players with the sport’s highest individual honor, membership in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jack Chesbro was a North Adams native who beginning in 1900 ran off nine straight seasons of double-figure wins with Pittsburgh in the National League and New York in the American League. In 1904 he started 51 games and won 41 of them, single-season totals that haven’t been beaten to this day. He was elected to the Hall in 1946 by its Veterans Committee.
Frank Grant of Williamstown likely could also have been a major leaguer, but for the fact he was an African-American player long before the “color line” ended. He had a four-year minor league career that ended with Buffalo in the International League, at the top of the minor leagues, in 1888. But opportunities for black players were drying up. So Grant left Buffalo for the very best in black ball, the Cuban Giants, and thereafter was always with the clubs recognized as the top black teams until his retirement in 1904. In 2006, when the Baseball Hall of Fame held a special election for black stars who had played during the segregation era, he was among 17 elected to the Hall.
Professionals, amateurs and popularity
Baseball's early popularity, on the Pittsfield common and elsewhere in the county, as men and boys played for just for the fun of it, with maybe a few dollars from gate receipts thrown in, was going to change. A Pittsfield team played in the first minor league, the International Association, in 1877 and ’78. Minor league baseball did not really catch on in the county until just before World War I, though.
But, even without a professional presence, by the 1880s Berkshire County was awash in local baseball teams, both amateur and semi-pro. Baseball was clearly the leading summer recreational sport. Community identity was strong and the observation of baseball historian John Thorn also applied to our local players: "They were soldiers for the honor of their community."
Berkshire County Rivals
Semi-professional baseball in the Berkshires may have reached its zenith in the mid - 1890's and was highlighted by the rivalry between the Renfrews of Adams, sponsored by the Renfrew Manufacturing Co.'s textile mills in the Zylonite section of town, and a Pittsfield team backed by the Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company, the predecessor to the General Electric plant here, known simply as "The Stanleys". Competition between the two teams was keen. Early in the decade Pittsfield pined for a chance to get a leg up on the team from the north, as when they "tackled their old enemies the Renfrews and as usual, were defeated, 13-11."
Berkshire semi-pro ball continued to be strong and popular as the century turned.The twentieth's first decade featured a pair of brothers from Pittsfield.Al and Jack Ferry between them had only six years of major league experience as pitchers, and by no stretch of the imagination could they have been regarded as stars.Back home, though, you would never have called the brothers failures.Instead, they epitomized a classic American type -- the friendly local guy who knew his baseball inside out and, yes, had actually been up to the majors in his day.Cy Ferry came back home in 1907 to organize the Pittsfield Independents, a crack semi-pro team. Jack, who was pitching for the Seton Hall University baseball team at the time, starred each summer for his brother's squad and always brought some college teammates with him, ensuring a strong roster.
Cy continued to be known as a coach and teacher of baseball until he suffered a stroke and died on his 60th birthday in 1938. Jack coached Pittsfield High School to a county championship in 1929.
The progression toward more organized and stable teams such as the Stanleys and Independents created a need for better ballfields. In 1892 baseball games and sporting activities of all types took place in locations all over the city. There was a widespread opinion that a single, large park would better serve the various teams and athletes. Contractor and civic leader George W. Burbank came to the rescue, setting aside eight acres of partially swampy land he owned on Wahconah Street next to the Housatonic River for park and recreation uses. Burbank took it upon himself to have the soggy parts filled in and built a grandstand that looked upon a baseball diamond, with a fence around it.
The baseball park opened officially on August 9, 1892. A total of about 500 fans, 400 of whom had paid admission and 125 of which could fit into the city’s first baseball grandstand, braved on and off rain, which stopped the game in the seventh inning. But the Berkshire Eagle noted that, so far as the efforts of man, as opposed to nature, were concerned, “Everything was in readiness, something new at a base ball game for a long time.” A Pittsfield Sun writer noted in September of that inaugural season that “when some big batters take it into their heads to paste the ball the men in the out-field need bathing suits or gondolas if they are going after it.” For the first several years after the park opened, the baseball season often began downtown on the First Street Common, until the river got back within its banks after spring flooding and Wahconah Park dried out. Still, the Sun’s man wrote that “out and beyond the ball field stretch the green meadows and in the distance the blue mountains form a grand background.”
One hundred twenty-six seasons later baseball is still played on the site, where a full-fledged ball park gradually developed, making Wahconah Park one of the oldest continuously-used ballfields in the country.After years of trying various solutions to the water, today the field is consistently playable in wet weather, even if the rear portion of the parking lot is not always dry.Even though the city has expanded around the park, some of the views from the stands that the Sun reporter admired are still excellent
The Minor Leagues
The first minor league team at Wahconah Park with staying power was the Pittsfield Electrics of 1913, owned by future longtime major league executive Jack Zeller. Professional baseball was played at the park until 2011, albeit with several breaks in time due to two world wars, the Great Depression, competition from the explosion of entertainment opportunities beginning in the 1950s and the constantly nagging problem of turning a team financial profit in lower level professional sports.
Over the decades Pittsfield teams were affiliated with several major league teams as members of their farm systems, including the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers, New York Mets, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers and Milwaukee Brewers.
This made it possible for fans at Wahconah Park to see a number of future major league stars over the years, including two future Hall of Famers, catcher Carlton Fisk, a member of the 1969 Pittsfield Red Sox, and pitcher Greg Maddux, a 1986 Pittsfield Cub. Several other Hall of Famers wore visiting team uniforms, including New York Yankee Lou Gehrig, who once hit a mammoth home run into the Housatonic River; Mike Schmidt of the Philadelphia Phillies; Jim Rice of the Red Sox; Ken Griffey Jr., and John Smoltz. Future Yankee manager Casey Stengel was a playing manager for Worcester in the 1920s, and Earl Weaver, later to lead the Baltimore Orioles, managed the Elmira, NY, team in 1965.
….While on Local Fields
Two teams in collegiate summer leagues, the Pittsfield Suns and the North Adams Steeplecats, form the top echelon of Berkshire County baseball at present. They are a continuation of a strong high school, youth and adult baseball culture that goes back to the Old Elms, Pittsfield’s crack amateur team of the mid-nineteenth century. In August 2000 Eagle sportswriter Derek Gentile wrote an exhaustive history of the previous century of Berkshire high school baseball, showing it was vibrant and spewing out major and minor league talent. So numerous were the stars and championship teams that he concluded: “naming the great teams over the past century is difficult. Naming the best players would need a book.”
However, Gentile reported that the 1905 Pittsfield High team, which averaged more than 10 runs a game, was the only squad to produce two major leaguers, Jack Ferry and Jack Mills. And in later years Pittsfield High produced other stars, particularly Mark Belanger, a shortstop who played on the school’s 1960 state championship team. He was regarded as one of the best fielders at his position in his 18 years in the majors, almost all with the Baltimore Orioles, winning eight Gold Glove fielding awards. The 1966 Pittsfield High team, coached by local baseball fixture George “Buddy” Pellerin, got the only run in the state championship game to win, 1-0, on a single by Tom Grieve. Four years later Grieve was a major league outfielder, and would play in the big leagues for most of the rest of that decade. His son Ben, born in Arlington, TX, when his father was playing for the Rangers, also had a nine-year big league career.
Two players with long big-league careers came out of the Berkshires during the 1940s. Dale Long hit five home runs for Adams High School in 1943. A first baseman, Long played in the majors for 10 years. He hit 132 home runs, but eight of them came in eight straight games in 1956, a major league record. Art Ditmar, a 1947 graduate, won 72 games as a big-league pitcher, most of them with the New York Yankees.
Rosters full of the best players sometimes went to national amateur championships. Teams from Pittsfield sponsored by restaurants, the Brass Rail in 1949 and the Majestic in 1952, won the All-America Amateur Baseball Association tournament. While the Brass Rail was playing in that tourney in Johnstown, PA, a team from the Lee Sons of Italy was playing in the National Baseball Congress championships in Wichita, KS.
Certain team names, and those of their organizers, show up repeatedly over the decades of sports pages in local newspapers. George Pellerin founded a semi-pro club, the Tyler Aces of Pittsfield, in the 1930s. The team was revived in 1969 by his son Buddy, the Pittsfield High coach, as an American Legion team, in the program sponsored by Legion posts for older high school and college-age players.