Exploring Athletics and Sports History Through Community-Based Resources
Western Massachusetts is known for a great many things, but sports aren’t generally one of them. Nevertheless, the region is filled with opportunities to learn about (and participate in!) sports of all kinds. Western Massachusetts can claim itself as the birthplace of at least two sports played worldwide, is home to a handful of semi-professional teams, and offers opportunities for youth to explore athletics of all kinds. Local families can even find ways to explore sports and sports history through the arts! From spectator opportunities and museum visits to full-on participation, sports-related learning opportunities exist locally all year round.
In terms of sports fame, the area is probably best known as the official birthplace of both volleyball and basketball. Springfield’s Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is a landmark in the city, and honors the city’s claim to fame as home of basketball and its inventor, James Naismith. Created in 1891 in order to offer athletes an exciting and physically challenging indoor sport, basketball is now internationally known and loved. The Basketball Hall of Fame itself includes thousands of square feet of basketball history exhibits, as well as a 300+ member hall of fame commemorating the contributions and achievements of notable players, coaches, and others who’ve been a part of the sport.
A few years after basketball’s invention, volleyball was created in Holyoke – pitched then as a sport offering excitement similar to that of basketball but slightly less physical intensity. The International Volleyball Hall of Fame in Holyoke spotlights the sport’s history and local roots, as well as exceptional players from the nearly century and a quarter that the sport has existed. Visitors can learn about the 125 people from 21 countries whose accomplishments have been significant within volleyball history, and can also view exhibits that offer a glimpse at the evolution and international growth of the sport.
While volleyball and baseball are the most well known and commemorated sports to have been created in western Massachusetts, Pittsfield also stands as a significant city within sports history. Though the true home of baseball has been long disputed, Pittsfield city records include the earliest documentation of the sport – suggesting that the city (or somewhere nearby) could be baseball’s true home. In 1791, the city (then a town) passed a bylaw stating that no person could play any ball-related game (including baseball) within 80 yards of the community meetinghouse – a 5-schilling fine was collected from anyone who later broke this law. While no museum stands to commemorate baseball history in Pittsfield (you’ll have to drive to Cooperstown, New York), there are lots of ways to explore baseball through community-based resources.
A short road trip away, The Sports Museum in Boston showcases the state of Massachusetts’ many sports-related triumphs, as well as its contributions to modern athletics (like basketball and volleyball). Since the museum is located at TD Garden, many exhibits spotlight the Celtics and Bruins who play there; however, other exhibits include Red Sox history, Massachusetts-native Olympians, and other important and interesting sports history related to the state.
In addition to sports history, western Massachusetts is rich with opportunities to see semi-professional athletes perform in amazing feats of athletic skill and strategy. In Springfield, a new minor professional men’s hockey team, the Thunderbirds, are poised to begin their first season this coming fall. The Western Mass Pioneers, a minor league men’s soccer team, play a full schedule from May through July. Three minor league baseball teams call the are home: the North Adams Steeple Cats, the Pittsfield Suns, and the Valley Blue Sox. During the academic year, local college students participate in traditional sports like field hockey, track, and football and lesser known ones like squash, crew, and diving. 13 local campuses offer opportunities to see college sports events, and the plethora of women’s colleges in the area makes for lots of opportunities to explore the world of women’s sports.
Most communities in western Massachusetts offer youth leagues for seasonal sports, offering young athletes the chance to learn and practice the skill sets specific to a variety of games. In addition to games like soccer, basketball, and softball, some local organizations offer opportunities for youth to participate in lesser-known sports. The Northampton Cycling Club offers a Youth Cycling Series during the summer months, introducing kids as young as 3 to bike racing. Northampton Community Rowing and Berkshire Rowing and Sculling Society offer youth rowing opportunities on local rivers. Sugarloaf Mountain Athletic Club offers an annual Youth Track League in late spring, and welcomes runners under 18 to join in the weekly 5k race in Northampton free of charge.