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The Surprising Massachusetts Origins of Nearly Every American Sport

A 100-mile stretch of the state claims to have come up with baseball, basketball, candlepin bowling, and more.

An early 20th century Smith College netball team.

An early 20th century Smith College netball team. (Photo: WikiCommons/Public Domain)

In 2004, a historian named John Thorn sent the librarians of Pittsfield, Massachusetts on a strange quest. Deep in the archives, they flipped through reams of 18th century bylaws, newsletters, and meeting transcripts. They were looking for any mention of baseball—decades before it was thought to have existed, in a state far from where it was supposedly born.

After 10 days, the chasers caught their wild goose. On a yellowing piece of paper from 1791, in the middle of a host of council minutes, they found this admonition: “for the Preservation of the Windows in the New Meeting House, no Person or Inhabitant… shall be permitted to play at any Game called Wicket, Cricket, [or] Baseball.”

For generations, the honor of being “Baseball’s Hometown” had hopped around between New York and New Jersey—from Cooperstown, New York, the scene of the sport’s most famous, if likely mythical, origin story, to Hoboken, New Jersey, site of the first organized matchup, and then to New York City’s Greenwich Village, where “the manly and athletic game” was played in 1823.

Pittsfield welcomed its new title with glee. But this steal wasn’t just a feather in the town’s ball cap. It was yet another score for Western Massachusetts—a humble region that, improbably or not, has managed to come up with a disproportionate chunk of America’s favorite sports.

Let’s go to the tape: Basketball was invented in Springfield, Massachusetts, while nearby Northampton sprouted its offshoot, netball. Volleyball sprung up in Holyoke. A Worcester entrepreneur came up with candlepin bowling. Newer sports aren’t immune: some experts believe Ultimate Frisbee has deep roots in Amherst and Northfield. When you add in Pittsfield’s claim to baseball, that means that at least six beloved sports were developed within about 100 miles of each other. What makes this swath so special?

“There are a number of reasons why Massachusetts was a hub of sporting inventiveness,” says John Nauright, a Professor at the University of North Texas and an international sports history expert, before elaborating on three of them. 

First, Massachusetts benefited from its ties to other innovative areas—particularly Britain, which has a long roster of sports inventions, and Canada, still part of the British Empire at that time. “Canadians such as James Naismith, inventor of basketball, taught in the state,” says Nauright.

Indeed, Naismith played an outsized role in Western Massachusetts’ destiny as a sports empire—netball was largely inspired by his creation of basketball, and volleyball was invented by a protege of his who stayed close by.

A Worcester, MA ballpark in 1910.

A Worcester, MA ballpark in 1910. (Photo: Library of Congress)

More recent international ties have kept Massachusetts recreationally creative, too. “Through the migration of English and Portuguese workers to the many mills in the state, places like Fall River became a hub for soccer in the USA,” Nauright points out.

Second, Massachusetts has long been a center of higher education. This means a couple of things: energetic young men and women looking for interesting ways to stay healthy, and a propensity for the kind of scrupulousness that turns a pastime into a sport. As Steven A. Reiss recounts in The New Sports History, modern sports tend to share a few characteristics, including “bureaucratization,” “quantification,” and “record-keeping.”

In fact, candlepin was invented so that recreational bowlers could finally compete with one another. Even if people were tossing balls into peach baskets for fun long before Naismith, if they didn’t keep score or write down hard rules, we may never find out.

The Fall River Rovers, an early American soccer club.

The Fall River Rovers, an early American soccer club. (Photo: WikiCommons/Public Domain)

Third, there’s the weather. Many of the sports in question, from basketball to bowling, can be played easily even on the snowiest, coldest days. “These new indoor games enabled men and women to compete in sports without the need to be outdoors through the winter months,” Nauright says.

Of course, attempting to pinpoint the origin of particular sports involves a certain amount of playfulness. It’s a rare game that was invented out of whole cloth, as basketball seems to have been—most evolved slowly, moving around without regard for borders or arising spontaneously in a number of places.

As Thorn himself wrote after his Pittsfield discovery, “we can only suppose that if baseball was banned in Pittsfield in 1791, it was not a nuisance devised in that year.... [rather], baseball appears to have sprung up everywhere, like dandelions.”

Arguing over where those first seeds came from feels like a sport in itself—in which case, this Massachusetts resident just made her first play. To the rest of the country, I say: your move.