Baseball celebrates 149th year of rivalry with Jeffs

When members of the Williams baseball team left Pittsfield’s playing grounds after losing 73-32 to Amherst in 1859, they probably weren’t thinking about celebrating. But, this Saturday, their modern counterparts are returning to Pittsfield in celebration of the historic matchup, which was the first intercollegiate baseball game ever played in America.

Technically, Amherst invited Williams to play a “friendly game of ball,” and because the two teams couldn’t agree on a neutral site, the game was played in Pittsfield, at the Pittsfield Base Ball Club’s playing grounds. The 25-inning outing that ensued saw the ancient Ephs blow a 9-1 lead and suffer an absolute defeat.

The Ephs’ 289th meeting, in their 149th year, with Amherst will commemorate the beginning of college baseball, and Head Coach Bill Barrale will be sure to impress the significance of the event on his players this weekend. “I’m going to talk to them about how the game shows that we’ve been playing the game a long time before our game on Saturday, and we’ll keep playing long after,” Barrale said. “I feel fortunate and blessed to be the coach when the rivalry is being celebrated.”

“As a team, we are going to approach the game as we would any other league game, but it is exciting to be part of such a storied rivalry,” said co-captain James DiCosmo ’08, about the team’s preparations for the weekend’s game.

The plan to hold a celebratory game started developing over a year ago, this time from Williams’ side. Former Williams baseball player Mike Barbera ’89 spearheaded the effort to honor Williams’ – and Amherst’s – baseball tradition. Barbera works as a lobbyist with the American Continental Group in Washington, D.C., which represents the National Football Foundation that runs the College Football Hall of Fame. “That was one of the things I started thinking about – is there a college baseball hall of fame? And if so, where is it?” Barbera said.

After a quick Google search, Barbera discovered the College Baseball Hall of Fame to be located in Lubbock, Tex. He sent the directors an e-mail mentioning the upcoming anniversary of the game that began intercollegiate baseball. “I thought it would be a great thing if the College Baseball Hall of Fame would bring the Williams-Amherst rivalry back to Pittsfield,” Barbera said.

The College Baseball Hall of Fame did express interest in the event and Barbera proceeded to contact people at Williams. In June, Barbera met with Barrale and Dick Quinn, director of Sports Information. “I laid out the idea, and we talked about doing something this year in preparation for celebrating 150 years in ’09.”

Barbera also reached out to Dan Duquette, an Amherst alumnus who owns the Pittsfield Dukes, a team that plays in the New England College Baseball League (NECBL) and whose home field is Wahconah Park. “I figured Dan would be a good guy to talk with,” said Barbera. “Being an Amherst guy, I thought he would know [about] the rivalry and want to help out.” Duquette responded with enthusiasm, as he agreed to be the middle man with his alma-mater, and was also heavily involved in the planning of the event. Duquette, who grew up in nearby Dalton, Mass., also owns the Dan Duquette Sports Academy, which will be hosting a clinic this Saturday before the game.

With the schools on board, Barbera next needed a venue. The field where the original game took place had been demolished, but Pittsfield Mayor James Ruberto gave permission for the schools to use Wahconah Park, which was built in 1892 and has its own rich history. “Many great players played there,” said Barrel, referring to baseball legend Jim Thorpe, who played at Wahconah in 1922, and Baseball Hall-of-Famers Ed “Big Red” Walsh, Lou Gehrig, Carl Hubbel, Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt.

In order for the game to take place in Pittsfield, both teams had to give up what is considered a home game. Williams will give up its home game this year, and Amherst has agreed to do the same next year, for the anniversary of intercollegiate baseball’s 150th year. “It is tough giving up our only Amherst home game to play in Pittsfield, but it should be a fun day,” said DiCosmo. “The College Baseball Hall of Fame will be there and hopefully we can get as many fans out there as possible.”

Saturday’s event is the result of a shared passion for the game, and shows that two rival schools and a centuries-old baseball town all share commitment to the game’s history. “I’m just thankful that Pittsfield decided to make a big deal about [the game],” Barrale said. “I’m sure they have other things that they can brag about.” And indeed, the town does: the first mention of the word “baseball” on public record, dated to 1791.

This may not be the first thing on either team’s mind during the game, but the immediacy of the game’s history – and Williams’ role in it – will surely resonate. “It’s a league game, too, so it’s an important game regardless,” said Barrale. The team plays 11 league games this season, and Saturday’s result will carry weight in Williams’ bid to play in the league tournament. “But there’s a history to it, and I think the players will look back on it afterwards and feel fortunate to have been a part of it.”

Barbera, a history major, was aware of the school’s impact on intercollegiate baseball history as a player, but feels it is undervalued. “The fact that the first intercollegiate baseball game was between Williams and Amherst is an under-appreciated part of Williams history,” Barbera said. “Having the College Hall of Fame embrace this game, and the Williams-Amherst rivalry as the oldest rivalry in the nation, will give Williams baseball a real national focus.” Barbera is looking forward to attending the game with his son, Austin, who is a junior in high school. “He’ll get to experience the Williams-Amherst rivalry himself.” After all, he said, “It was the rivalry that started it all.”

On Saturday, a College Baseball Hall of Fame representative will, according to Barbera “name Pittsfield the first place of college baseball and the Williams-Amherst rivalry the oldest rivalry in college baseball.”

“It’s a big game, first of all, because it’s against Amherst, our biggest rivals,” said Barrale. “We talk about setting goals and beating Amherst is always on team’s mind.” In a game where rivalries can last lifetimes, Saturday’s celebration will surely show that team members can easily come together to honor them.