In 1859, enthusiastic members of the newly created Amherst Ball Club challenged Williams to a game. Little did they know they would be making history. It wasn’t that the game lasted 26 innings, or that a rumor surfaced that Amherst’s pitcher was really a local blacksmith, or even that Amherst won 73–32; it was that they’d played the first known intercollegiate baseball game in history.
After that spectacular start, baseball remained one of Amherst’s primary sports, despite the fact that there was no field to play on—students played on the town common or at the local fairgrounds. Not until the creation of Pratt Field in 1891 did Amherst baseball have a lasting home. In 1911, the team moved to Hitchcock Field, and in 1947, to Memorial Field, where they play today.
Even as the team excelled, though, the field began to fail. Eventually, with no significant improvements in more than 50 years, its infrastructure no longer met the standards of Amherst’s NESCAC peers. The situation would have gone on longer but for a generous 2015 lead gift commitment from the Szulik Family Foundation, which, along with additional support from other donors, made a recent renovation of Memorial Field possible.
The Szulik family’s connection to Amherst baseball is strong: Right-handed pitcher Keenan Szulik ’16 played all four years, captaining the team his senior year. When he’d first visited Amherst, he was startled to find that he was being recruited to play at a school that had “no fence around the field and no dugouts.” The renovation both remedied that and offered his family “the opportunity to help build up the baseball facility in line with all of the other facilities at the College.” They also appreciated the chance “to enhance the view from Memorial Hill, which benefits everyone who visits the College.”
Remarkably, in more than 80 years, there have been only three head baseball coaches at Amherst. Paul Eckley, whom The Amherst Student dubbed the “Dean of Baseball Coaches,” served from 1936 to 1965, when Bill Thurston became head coach. Thurston’s teams won 811 games, and he was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, as Eckley had been before him. In 2009, Brian Hamm took over the job, and the team has continued to flourish.
Hamm is thrilled with the changes to the field. Renovations include a newly resurfaced infield, new dugouts, a new backstop, press box and batting practice facility. “Amherst did a good job of renovating the facility while keeping its character,” he says. “The field has always been designed for baseball instruction—it’s been a place where players could improve at the game as well as a place for the game to be played. For example, when we renovated the batting cages, we installed turf to serve additional purposes: we can hit ground balls and throw pitchers’ pens there too.” The new field also has two new locations for players to use for groundball work.
“Memorial Field,” Hamm says, “continues to be one of the College’s most beautiful classrooms, where our student-athletes can learn and play at the same time.”
For Hamm, it’s vital that the new facilities are meaningful to alumni and current players alike—the entire Amherst baseball family. That Memorial Field was not replaced but restored is crucial: “There’s continuity that exists from generation to generation of baseball players,” he says, “and Memorial Field is a symbol of that.”