Wahconah Park: Mecca Of Baseball

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PHOTO: Living the dream: a lucky kid watches the Suns play at historic Wahconah Park, Pittsfield, MA  Baseball.   Possibly one of America's greatest inventions. And with all great American innovations, it was soon corrupted. As automobile emissions led to global warming and the personal computer led to Russia installing Donald Trump into the White House, baseball's first sign of rot can be traced back all the way to the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series. From there, baseball's degradation can easily chronicled up into the current steroid infused MLB we have today.  But in Pittsfield Massachusetts, the true spirit of baseball lives on mightily as Babe Ruth's swing at Wahconah Park, home ball-park of the Pittsfield Suns since 2012, a franchise of the minor  Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL).   I met with Suns play-by-play radio broadcaster Billy Madewell at the Luau Hale, an original Tiki-Polynesian/Chinese joint that still serves vintage, over-sized-shareable-tropical-cocktails in kitschy-Hawaiian glasses. 

 Billy walked over to my table amid the Hawaiian murals and bamboo sticks with a spiral notebook under his arm filled with stats about every player he would be talking about on the air. He doesn't once look at the interior around us, politely smiles, shakes my hand, sits down and pops open his notebook, absorbing all he can before tonight's game.  "Do you want a Scorpion Bowl?" I ask, pointing to my bowl of one of the strongest drinks ever made.  Bliiy doesn't even look up.   "No thanks. I don't drink." Bill said while he snatched a rib from one of the round trays in the center of the table.   Billy has been spending the last seven summers grinding in the non-air conditioned Wahconah Park press box on the air at 89.7 WTBR FM . He is extraordinarily talented at play-by-play, a true natural who could easily be calling games on ESPN if he really wanted to. But Billy enjoys his local star status and over the years has fallen in love with the historical park and its alternative mythology that goes completely against the grain of what we have been spoon fed about the origins of American baseball.   Billy looked up from his notebook.  "Have you seen the 1791 bylaw?" Billy asked with a totally straight face.  "The what?" I said in a scorpion-bowl haze. I could barely get the words out and I didn't even put a dent in my drink.  Billy flipped through the tattered pages of his notebook and began to recite a Pittsfield town bylaw that was passed in 1791. No, that year is not typo.  "In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to promote the safety of the exterior of the newly built meeting house, particularly the windows, a by-law is enacted to bar “any game of wicket, cricket, baseball, batball, football, cats, fives, or any other game played with ball,” within eighty yards of the structure. However, the letter of the law did not exclude the city’s lovers of muscular sport from the tempting lawn of “Meeting-House Common.”  In other words, Pittsfiled was the town that the sport of baseball was really invented in, not in 1839, when Cooperstown native and future Civil War hero Abner Doubleday "invented baseball by sketching the rules of the game with a stick in the dirt."   In fact Wahconah Park is one of the oldest ball parks in the country. The first known pitch thrown there dates all the way back to 1892. Berkshire County has cultivated over one hundred major league ball players, including two Berkshire natives in the hall of fame.  And Wahconah Park has seen its fair share of legends walk out into her field, including Carl Fisk, Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmeiro, Joe Girardi, Matt Adams and Sparky Lyle, who yours truly got to see relief pitch in 1977 at the old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx the year they clinched the 74th World Series.  In 2000, Pittsfeild lawmakers wanted to raze the old park.  The Mayor, the majority of the City Council,  the Mayor's hand picked Parks Commissioners and the only daily newspaper in town, the Berkshire Eagle- whom the locals all call the "Berkshire Beagle", for its dim wit and minutiae reporting style- were all in favor of demolition. The Eagle viciously labeled anyone against the Wahconah Park destruction as "naysayers."   The people of Pittsfield and Jim Bouton, former pitcher for the New York YankeesSeattle PilotsHouston Astros, and Atlanta Braves's were against destroying the historic park and an epic battle ensued between Berkshire baseball aficionados and the elitists of the Pittsfield political and media class.   In a rare victory for democracy, Bouton and the people of Pittsfield won, saved the park in the final inning that is Kevin Costner film worthy, complete with a freeze frame ending. A few years after the fight, rock-apostle and hard core baseball fanatic Bob Dylan caught wind of the Wahconah Park battle and agreed to play a show there, setting the concert stage right over pitchers mound.  "You ready to see the park?" Billy asked.  I looked at my scorpion bowl, just about half done. I tossed the straw and downed the rest of it, just to make sure I get my $18 worth.  "I am now." I said  The slow motion walk through the Polynesian Islands to the parking lot felt like I was walking upstream in a knee high river. I could see in the corner of my eye, Billy was intently watching my every step. I was so sauced I could read his mind.   Billy was saying to himself: "Ok. Toby is sloppily drunk. I am sure he is not the first reporter to cover an event inebriated, so who I am to judge how other journalists function?"  I stumbled into Billy's SUV as we sped off to Wahconah Park.   As Billy gave me a tour of the the park I looked at the diamond and said to myself that I had entered the promised land, "the promised land of baseball," I said out loud. It is one thing to see a vintage jersey, but a vintage ball park? I stumbled over the wall between the fans and players and fell flat on my face. Players of both the Suns and Brockton Rox ran over to help me up. Before they could, I stood up and dusted myself off and hobbled over the pitchers mound. The crowd began to cheer.  Now Billy looked concerned.   I stood on the mound and looked out to the crowd pouring in. The smell of sausages and peppers and beer floated from the parking lot, where dozens loyally tailgate all summer long to avoid paying for tickets. People of all races stood in the bleachers, all drinking beer and downing hot dogs. There were families, elderly couples, girls in tube tops and daisy dukes waiting to cheer on their boyfriends and I thought to myself.  'This is it. This is the very place were the innocence of baseball went after 1919.'   There was no Trump. No division. Just the overwhelming spirit of true baseball and the love for it by the people of Pittsfield. This was what baseball is supposed to to be. This was what America is supposed to be!  For fans, this was the summer's high water mark. To be at Wahconah Park, beer in hand, waiting for the game to begin; to root for their local team, without hatred and racial interference and soak up this tincture of baseball Americana. No one is going to desecrate this hollowed ground tonight with the rest of the garbage swirling around the country making "America great again."  I begun to walk off the field when I saw a woman- Suns' owner Tyler Tumminia(named after Ty Cobb), wife of Ben Cherington, GM of the Boston Red Sox between 2011-15 and currently Vice President of the Toronto Blue Jays - start to descend down the steps to talk to Billy. As she whispered in Billy's ear WHAM!! The Suns mascot and I bumped into each other, with him falling on the ground hard.   The crowd roared.   I could not figure out at the time if it was an act or not but the fans sure did and enjoyed the show. He mimicked my every bumbling move behind me as Billy looked in horror.  Billy and the mascot helped me over the wall back into the seating area. I shook Tyler's hand. Even in my stupor I could she was well aware all the moving parts of her park and team. Mrs. Tumminia has done a great job running the Suns and Wahconah Park. Each year, ticket sales go up from the previous one. The hot dogs and burgers are outstanding and reasonably priced and you can see from the smile on her face as fans stream in each game that she loves the people of Pittsfield equally as she does baseball and her team.   Billy helped me up the steps to the back of the bleachers where a rickety ladder stood just behind the DJ who was blasting Black Sabbath. It was the only way to get to the press box above the bleachers.  Miraculously I made to the press box, where Billy's staff and two on-air sidekicks desperately tried to maintain their composer while I tried to sit in my stool without falling over. I took out my note pad and slapped it down on the desk in front of me next to a plate of cheese nachos and hot dogs, causing me to fall over again.  "Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to historic Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the Pittsfield Suns will take on the Brockton Rox," Billy said into his radio microphone.   I don't remember much after that point except when I started to hear the clinking of a banjo echo all over the park. I slid down the ladder to hear better. There " Banjo Joe"- miked in to the Park's PA system-was singing at full volume "Take Me Out The Ball Game," something he has been doing for years at the end of the 7th inning, never missing a home game.  After the game ended, I walked over to Billy, who continued to be gracious to me even though he regretted ever agreeing to allow me to cover him and his beloved Suns.  "Guess its time to split?" I ask.  "Split? Tonight is a double header!" Billy said.  I stared to sober up some by the opening pitch of the next game. I astutely took notes and wrote down stats and names of players. I also got to experience my first ever baseball "sun delay," something that only can witnessed at Wahconah Park and another old ball park in Bakersfield, California. Of course that is where the current team gets it's name.  Even in sobriety, the magic of Wahconah Park could be profoundly felt all around.   And no matter how many history books get it all wrong about Cooperstown, New York. The true Mecca of baseball gallantly lives on where it first originated.  

In Pittsfield, Massachusetts at Wahconah Park.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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