Out to the old ball game the old school way
As the public address announcer asks fans to sing along to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” an elderly man sitting twenty feet from us picks up his banjo, adjusts the microphone in what would normally be called the press box but is really just a desk sitting in the middle of the wooden grandstands, and leads everyone in the time-honored seventh inning stretch tradition.
Finishing our hot dogs and lemonade, my son and I join the several hundred (maybe a thousand) fans chorusing together, as the sun sinks low in the western sky above the Berkshires. In the distance, across the grassy field and beyond the scoreboard resting on the outfield wall stands Mount Greylock, which looks back at the tiny ballpark, just as it has since 1892.
This isn’t heaven. Or Iowa. It’s Wahconah Park, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. But the timeless sense of sports nostalgia is at least as apt as it was in Field of Dreams.
We Massachusetts sports fans are familiar with our fair share of dirt diamond history. The Boston Red Sox, after all, were formed back in 1901 (when they were incorporated as the Boston Americans), while famed Fenway Park was built in 1912. Baseball in the Berkshires, however, impressively predates Beantown’s professional playing days by at least a hundred years.
“In 2004, historian John Thorn unearthed a 1791 Pittsfield bylaw banning baseball, along with other ball sports, within 80 yards of a newly constructed meeting house,” reads an article in The Boston Globe. “The bylaw is the oldest known reference to the national pastime.”
It also predates an early 1800s document forbidding the playing of baseball near Northampton’s Town Hall, which was documented by John S. Bowman and Brian Turner in their book The Hurrah Game: Baseball in Northampton: 1823-1953. (The baseball descriptor “hurrah game,” incidentally, is attributed to Walt Whitman, who called “baseball … the hurrah game of the republic.”)
No sport so successfully adorns itself with the mythology of historic lore like baseball does, which makes Wahconah Park’s significant place within that pantheon all the more appreciable.
With the game heading to the top of the eighth, we scurry from our seats (general admission) to the concession stands in search of some soft serve ice cream. Along our way, we pass the main entrance of the old park, as well as a sign noting that Pittsfield was the “birthplace of college baseball” as well.
“The first intercollegiate baseball game was played on July 1, 1859 in Pittsfield between Amherst College and Williams College,” the sign reads. “Amherst won the game and the Chess Match the following day.” As far as I know, games in Pittsfield are no longer followed by chess matches, though the practice seems an admirable way to spend a rain delay.
Not surprisingly, for a park with such an extensive history, the field at Wahconah has been trod on by several legendary ballplayers, Jim Thorpe, Casey Stengel, and Lou Gehrig among them. Former New York Yankee Jim Bouton pitched here as well, long before the ballplayer-turned-Berkshires resident became involved in the epic quest to save the small ballpark from its proposed demolition, to make way for a new stadium.
“To attend a game [at Wahconah] – with its wooded grandstand, corrugated roof, and plastic owls dangling from the rafters to ward off the pigeons,” Bouton writes in his book Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ball Park, “is to step back in time.”
“Here’s a ballpark that gives you a feel for what life might have been like just after World War I. It’s like those villages they set up to recreate the past,” continues Bouton, “only Wahconah Park is a real working ballpark.”
Indeed, it is easy to see why so many baseball afficianados fall in love with Wahconah Park, which seems to offer as many eccentric intricacies as its vast history has hosted various teams in different leagues.
“Today, it is one of two [baseball stadiums] still operating in the country that face the setting sun,” the Globe continues. “So when the sun sets behind center field, the glare occasionally prompts umpires to call a brief delay for the safety of hitters and catchers.”
“It’s a sun delay,” adds Bouton, “Mother Nature’s own marketing opportunity.”
For several years, Bouton and his Wahconah Park, Inc. partners navigated the hoopla of Pittsfield politics, as the small city in the Berkshires became yet another battleground against the policies of those in power favoring publicly financed stadiums.
Between 1985 and 2005, “no fewer than 113 minor league baseball stadiums have been built by taxpayer dollars,” Bouton writes. “The fiercest competition in sports these days is not between teams or leagues but between governments and their own citizens.”
Ice creams in hand, we make our way back to the creaky grandstand, my son wondering if he chose the best topping to correspond with his chocolate swirl, and me wondering how a new ballpark would feel in Wahconah Park’s place.
Sitting next to the visitor’s dugout, we watch the home team’s closer save the game, sending the Pittsfield faithful home happy. It would be the last regular season home game for the Pittsfield Colonials (a minor league team with the New York Mets), as their Can-Am League would fold following that summer season, and the city would begin anew its familiar process of looking for yet another new team to take the field at Wahconah.
While Bouton’s group was never able (he might say allowed) to bring a team to Wahconah, their work went a long way toward keeping the park standing – though Bouton might point out that the people of Pittsfield voted repeatedly to renovate the old park as opposed to building a new one.
At any rate, last summer brought new team residents the Pittsfield Suns to the park, playing in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL) against such foes as the Brockton Rox, Torrington Titans, and Wachusett Dirt Dawgs. The Suns have a three year lease in Pittsfield, but say they hope to extend their stay for longer.
FCBL franchises such as the Suns feature “elite collegiate athletes competing in a minor league style format,” the league’s website reads. Each team plays fifty-four games over nine weeks, with the season running from early June though early August. “The League Championship is determined by a playoff immediately after the season ends … Top players will be scouted and selected in the [Major League Baseball] MLB Draft.”
Teams in the FCBL are based throughout New England, and include the Martha’s Vineyard Sharks, New Hampshire’s Nashua Silver Knights, and the Old Orchard Beach Raging Tide, on the coast of Maine. The league is similar to the Cape Cod Baseball League, and other Summer Collegiate Leagues like the Alaskan Baseball League (midnight sun baseball, anyone?), whereby players have already competed in at least one year at the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) level, and have at least one year of eligibility remaining.
The appropriately-named Pittsfield Suns are owned by the Goldklang Group, whose chairman, Marv Goldklang, “has been a limited partner of the New York Yankees for over thirty years,” their website reads. The group also lists noted actor and lifelong Chicago Cubs fan Bill Murray as its “Director of Fun.”
With the final Pittsfield Colonials game in the books, and another chapter written of Wahconah Park history, we exit the small stadium, still humming along to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” We’re already looking forward to singing along with that banjo player again.
(Originally appeared in Preview Massachusetts.)