May 3, 2009

An Amherst player gets a hit in the vintage game as a teammate on first base looks on.

Neither unseasonably cool May temperatures nor light rain dampened the spirits of an enthusiastic group of baseball-loving (and -playing) members of Amherst’s classes of 1964 to 1994 who dusted off their cleats and took on a team of Williams College alumni on May 3. The 15 good sports—er, ex-baseball players—participated in a 19th century-style game at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Mass., marking the 150th anniversary of first match-up between their alma maters on July 1, 1859, in the very same town it took place.

The contest was one of just several activities celebrating the original game, also the first intercollegiate baseball match in U.S. history. In addition to the “vintage” contest, events included chess matches—a major component of the day’s competition 150 years ago (a headline from a newspaper article back then screamed “Muscle and Mind!”)—the reading of a proclamation by Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, a short recognition of retiring Amherst coach Bill Thurston and the regularly scheduled varsity game between the schools’ current undergraduate squads.

An estimated 300 students, faculty, staff, alumni, families and friends of both colleges showed up to cheer on the alumni and student teams, even though the latter was Webcast to viewing parties around the country and filmed for rebroadcast by ESPNU. (Learn how the varsity team did in an athletics Web site story.) The day’s events also attracted media from around the country, and coverage included accounts in The New York Times, USA Today, Times Union of Albany, N.Y., Chronicle of Higher Education (registration required) and Boston Globe, on Yahoo!Sports and (which was penned by Amherst’s own Charlie Quigg ’09) and during National Public Radio’s Only a Game program.

“Baseball is a great sport, and it clearly has deep roots at Amherst and Williams and in Western Massachusetts,” said contest co-organizer Dan Duquette ’80, adding that the reason the first match was played in Pittsfield and not Amherst or Williamstown was that neither team would agree to travel to the other’s home turf. “We hope this game really solidifies Amherst and Williams’ place in baseball history as the longest college rivalry in the country.”

The day’s events kicked off at 11:05 a.m. with the vintage match, which was played by 1859 rules. The game featured a small rectangular field instead of a diamond, four-foot stakes instead of bases and only one out per side per inning. Players donned period uniforms and played bare-handed, while coaches wore tuxedos and top hats, per 19th century custom. An arbiter in a bowler and formalwear was present to settle disputes like a judge and batters could tell pitchers where they wanted the ball thrown.

As Duquette put it, “The game in those days was not based on deceiving the hitter, but on pitching the ball.” This, combined with the fact that there was no time limit to the game, may have accounted for the score of the 1859 match-up—Amherst 73, Williams 32.

“It was really interesting to watch, that’s for sure,” said Kristen Raverta ’06, a graduate student at the UMass-Amherst, who said she would “definitely” return to catch another milestone competition in the future. “They did a great job of replicating the old way of playing. It’s so far removed from today’s game.”

One major difference, of course, was the outcome: Though they were up halfway through the game 10 to seven, the Lord Jeffs couldn’t hold onto their lead. The Ephs walked away the winners after six innings of play, 19 to 17.

The Amherst chess players didn’t fare quite as well as they had hoped either, losing to Williams three matches to one. The students maintained a positive attitude throughout, however. “We like chess, and it was cool to play it at the collegiate level,” said Ian Nacht ’10, smiling. “We got free food, and it was a nice drive.”

Attorney Richard Thompson ’80, a former pitcher for his alma mater, the Cleveland Indians and Montreal Expos who traveled all the way from West Islip, N.Y., was thrilled to swing a bat again for Amherst, numbers on the scoreboard notwithstanding. Still in his vintage uniform well into the varsity game, he said the day’s activities “were fantastic for everyone involved and a lot of fun…. Plus, I really like the jerseys. They were a great idea.”

To see photos of the vintage match, the chess competitions and the varsity game, check out a gallery by Sam Masinter ’04.

Watch the 150th Anniversary Baseball Game Introduction here.