By Larry Moore
We are really excited to have our exhibit “Sliding Baseball Across Williamstown” at the Williamstown Historical Museum, in a town where there is so much baseball history. The history of baseball in the Berkshires goes back to 1791 in Pittsfield when the town wrote a by-law banning the playing of ball games within 80 yards of the newly built town hall. One of the games mentioned was baseball. This turned out to be the first mention of baseball in the United States in a government document. Being a game that has evolved over the centuries, baseball even has some ties to the early Egyptians, so determining exactly where it was invented is not possible.
Here in Williamstown we find some very strong roots with Frank Grant, whose family moved to Spring Street in 1871 from Pittsfield, where he was born. He developed into one of the premier players of the 19th century. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006. But Williamstown does not hang its hat only on Grant, because Williams College played in the first intercollegiate baseball game six years before Mr. Grant was born. The game of “Brain and Muscle” was part of a dual match of chess and baseball played in Pittsfield in 1859. Just about 30 years later town resident Bob Pettit, a player of some note, was invited to go on Albert Spalding’s baseball goodwill trip around the world, quite a feat in 1889. Pettit was a member of Spalding’s Chicago White Stockings prior to the trip, thus the invitation.
Williamstown native and former Minor Leaguer Ryan Cameron, when asked why there were so many baseball players from Berkshire County stated, “It’s because of the coaching we had.” That brings us to a couple of Williams College coaches — Coach Jim “Briggsey” Briggs from the family of Detroit Tiger fame — brought fame to the college not only after graduating but later as baseball coach. More recently Bob Coakley coached his two sons at Williams. Next up are high school coaches, and I would be remiss not to mention longtime Williamstown High School Coach Ted Sylvester, who coached quite a few players who took their baseball skills to at least the next level. Recently retired Steve Messina is next up for us and he also has quite a few players who took the laurels they won in high school to another level. I am sure with all the years of baseball at Williamstown High School/Mount Greylock Regional High School I have missed many others.
Let’s look more closely at those players who took their gift, hard work, and determination to the Major League level. Besides Grant and Pettit in the major leagues, there is also Jonah Bayliss who laid down his hockey stick and picked up a baseball glove, striking out the likes of Frank Thomas during his career. Next up is Jack Mills, who was born here but later went to Pittsfield High School and Williams College. He had a “cup of coffee” with the Major League Cleveland Naps in 1911. Josh Whitesell had a baseball career that lasted over 12 years, spending 2008-2009 with the Arizona Diamondbacks as a first baseman. Sheldon Jones was a Major League pitcher 1946-1953, marrying an Adams young lady in 1950 and moving to Williamstown that same year.
Our next group of players had the same combination of determination, hard work and a gift, but didn’t quite make it to the majors. Whether not given the right break or injured at the wrong time, they were still professional players. Billy Hart was an outstanding athlete – football, basketball, baseball – you name the game, he could play it. Probably one of the best athletes Berkshire County has seen, Billy was signed by the Chicago Cubs and played a year in the minors. Ryan Cameron was once a Red Sox farmhand and spent 10 years in the minors hoping to get his golden ticket. Tim Flaherty was another and, drafted by the San Francisco Giants, spent the next seven years fighting his way through the minors. Pat Keefe wasn’t born here but was a Williams College grad who eventually settled here. He spent five years in the minors and many years playing for town and semi-pro teams in the area. Hank Bunoski was a graduate of St. Bonaventure College, a catcher by trade, and spent 4 years in the minors. Clarence “Bink” Wells, played one year in the minors but might be best known as a member of the Williamstown Independents semi-pro team, which pulled off the “Potato Caper” against the North Adams Incarnation team in the ‘30’s. (The full story is in the exhibit.) We included Joe Larson, who is actually from Lanesborough, but he graduated from Mount Greylock. Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1992 as a pitcher, he spent two years in the Minor Leagues.
One more person included was Chris Conroy, who was born in North Adams but raised in Williamstown and is a Major League Umpire. He started his umpiring career in 2000 – working his way up the ranks to finally become a full-time Major League Umpire in 2013. You can see him today working games including All-Star and play-off contests.
The Clark Museum also has a connection to baseball: founder Sterling Clark was the brother of Stephen Clark, who started the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. The rest of that story is also in our exhibit.
As you can see, Williamstown is a BIG part of the rich history of baseball in the Berkshires. With Williamstown being incorporated in 1765 – who knows? – There may be undiscovered documents indicating baseball was played here before 1791. Come visit your historical museum!
Larry Moore is one of the founding members of “Baseball in the Berkshires: A County’s Common Bond,” an organization that seeks to tell the story of baseball in our region through exhibits and educational programming. An offshoot of it, “Sliding Baseball Across Williamstown,” has been installed as a temporary exhibit at the WHM and will be there through the summer. Stop by to learn more about local baseball history and these prominent figures!