Baseball and the Berkshires go hand-in-glove
For Norman Rockwell, few things were sadder than a rained-out baseball game. The painter’s “Tough Call,” in which three umpires grimly study a darkening sky, appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in April, 1949.
As it does nearly every summer, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge offers a couple of special events this June to honor the great American artist’s affection for the great American pastime. For baseball fans, the Berkshires — Rockwell’s adopted home — offer a surprisingly rich history, ballparks to visit, and ways to pass the time even on rainy days.
Despite the old myth that Abner Doubleday invented the game of baseball one sunny afternoon in 1839, there is ample evidence that variations on the game were already familiar to young Americans decades before. One notable reference — one of the oldest known in the country — was a 1791 ordinance passed in Pittsfield, banning any ball games, including “Baseball and Batball,” from the town common. The city was preparing to unveil a new meeting house designed by the architect Charles Bulfinch and was eager to keep its windows intact. The historic site of those early pickup games is today’s Park Square.
Just northeast of the city center, on the grounds of another old town common, Williams and Amherst College competed in the first-ever intercollegiate baseball game in 1859. They played by the “Massachusetts rules.” (Early baseball developed with two basic sets of rules, the other being the New York version.) Amherst scored 10 runs in the 26th inning to pass the goal of 65 runs, finishing off their rivals, 73-32. In a doubleheader billed as “brains and brawn,” the two schools also played a chess match. Williams lost that contest, too.
When Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player in Major League Baseball, breaking the so-called “color line,” his Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese was praised as the white player who embraced him. But it was a lesser-known teammate who suggested, when Robinson began fielding death threats, that all the Dodgers wear his number, 42, in solidarity.
That player was Gene Hermanski, who was born in Pittsfield. Hermanski’s glove, his baseball card, and some autographed photos and local newspaper clippings are on display at the Baseball in the Berkshires Museum, a two-year-old venture located, for now, in the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough. The museum, launched by several baseball researchers including Larry Moore, the current director, has created pop-up exhibitions around western Massachusetts, in Pittsfield, Lenox, North Adams, and Sheffield; they’ll have a new one this summer in Lee.
Moore, a retired gym teacher and soccer coach, has a story for every artifact in the well-stocked museum. “There were 147 minor leaguers born or raised here” in the Berkshires, he says proudly.
Nearly every one of those minor leaguers, as well as the handful of Berkshires natives who ascended to the major leagues, are represented with vintage uniforms, signed contracts, continuous-looping videos, and much more.
Wearing a tie printed with the umpires from Rockwell’s painting, Moore regales a visitor with tales of the late shortstop Mark Belanger, who was born and raised in Pittsfield; Frank Grant, also born in Pittsfield, a Hall of Famer who played for the Cuban Giants and other great black teams of the late 19th century; and Turk Wendell, an eccentric pitcher for the Cubs, Mets, and other teams who was known for his habit of brushing his teeth between innings. Wendell played soccer for Moore at Wahconah High School in Dalton.
Displays note the accomplishments of local teams such as the North Adams Steeplecats, a community-owned collegiate team that plays at Joe Wolfe Field (“the Joe”), and the Pittsfield Red Sox minor-league affiliate of the mid-late 1960s, where future stars such as Carlton Fisk and Reggie Smith honed their skills.
Pittsfield’s various professional teams have played at historic Wahconah Park for 100 years, since 1919. (An earlier ballpark served the community on the same site along the Housatonic River beginning in 1892.) One of the last pro ballparks in America with a wooden grandstand, Wahconah Park holds another rare distinction, as one of only two parks in the country built so the batter faces directly into the setting sun. In the old days, of course, games were played in daylight. Since the advent of ballpark lighting, night games at Wahconah have been subject to a brief “sun delay” while the sun sets. The park’s current occupant, a Futures Collegiate Baseball League team, is known, aptly, as the Pittsfield Suns.
An easy drive from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the Berkshires were the home, until his death in 1997, of one of the game’s great chroniclers. Robert Smith wrote several cherished books about the game, beginning with one simply called “Baseball,” published in 1947. Smith lived in Lenox, where he once rented an apartment to Matt Tannenbaum, owner of the long-running shop known as the Bookstore. They became good friends.
If you go, Tannenbaum will greet you at the wine bar he recently installed in the bookstore. He’ll gladly tell you stories that Smith passed down to him about the early days of their favorite sport.
Unless, that is, there’s a game to go to.