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Daniel Wilco | | July 1, 2020

The story of the first-ever college baseball game, in 1859

Library of Congress Williams and Amherst played in the first intercollegiate baseball game in 1859 A July 1859 edition of the Amherst Express reports on the first intercollegiate baseball game (and accompanying chess match), played between Williams and Amherst.

Any fan of baseball knows there’s plenty of controversy surrounding the origin of the game. 

The sport’s hall of fame resides in Cooperstown, New York, where legend has it that Abner Doubleday invented America’s pastime in 1839. But there is very little evidence for that story. The game likely dates back to the 18th century, though the modern format set forth by the Knickerbocker rules didn’t arrive until 1845.

So naturally, there’s some debate as to how college baseball got started as well.

Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, there’s no questioning that the first ever college baseball game took place in 1859 — 44 years before the first World Series.

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On July 1 of that year, Amherst College and Williams College met in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for the first-ever game of baseball between to colleges. 

But the game was played under Massachusetts rules, which look wildly different than the baseball we know today.

Under Massachusetts rules, the playing field was a square with no foul territory, with the “striker” setting up on a line halfway between first base and home base. The bases were wooden stakes, projecting four feet from the ground, 60 feet apart from each other.

There were no balls in pitching. If a striker swung at a pitch and missed, he received a strike. But if he repeatedly decided not to swing at good pitches in an attempt to delay the game, the referee would give a warning, and then start awarding strikes if he continues.

One of the most significant differences under Massachusetts rules was the ability to get a runner out by throwing the ball at him and hitting him. Seems just slightly dangerous.

Williams and Amherst agreed that the game would be played to 65 “tallies” (or runs), and that each team would consist of 13 players. And since each inning lasted for only one out, the game went for 25 innings before the 65-run mark was met.

Williams took an early 9-2 lead in the game, but Amherst was the first to 65. Yet they didn’t stop there. Due to a lack of a mercy rule, they piled on eight more runs before the final out, going on to win 73-32.

And for good measure, the two teams played a chess match afterwards, which Amherst also won.

Here are a couple fun excerpts from the Amherst Express' article about the game:

"At the commencement of this term, it was privately proposed among the Amherst students to challenge Williams College to a game of Ball.

"The challenge was readily accepted, and in turn Williams challenged to a game at Chess, that there might be 'a trial of mind as well as muscle.'

"26th (inning): Gridley ticked out, caught by Anderson, (W) out by player unknown. The last inning. The Amherst boys ran around, entirely regardless of danger or appearances. They made their bases as if they were thinking of 75 tallies, which was the number proposed by them for the game. However they only reached 73 in the inning, which was 8 more than the limit of the score. The game closed at 2 1/2; o'clock, having lasted 3 1/2; hours."

Amherst Express' account of Amherst beating Williams in 1859

Now, there's little doubt that the Williams vs. Amherst game was the first intercollegiate baseball game. But there was another game in 1859 that can make an argument for the first true college baseball game.

On November 3, 1859, the St. John’s College Fordham Rose Hill Baseball Club (now known as Fordham University) played against St. Francis Xavier College.

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This was the first college game played under more modern rules, with only nine players to a side, foul territory, three outs per inning, and just six innings. Oh, and no throwing at a runner to get him out.

Fordham would win the game 33-11, starting a tradition for the Rams, who would go on to become the winningest program in college baseball history, sitting at more than 4,400 in their history

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