Features

Batsmen and hurlers

National | Dozens of small towns return to the roots of the national pastime

Issue: "Berger can't keep a secret," July 31, 2004

Do you scorn the designated hitter? Do you complain about high salaries, jumbotron screens, and corporate naming rights? Do you wish Wrigley Field had resisted the pressure to put up lights? If so, you must be a baseball purist.

But what about other innovations? For example, what's this with catching the ball with a glove? A real fielder would catch it barehanded.

If you are a true throwback, you would enjoy a game spreading through America's small towns and hinterlands: vintage base ball. Not baseball. Base ball, played according to the rules of the 1860s.

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Going along with the lack of fielding gloves, the "batsman" (hitter) is "dead" (out) if the ball is caught after one bounce. The "hurler" (pitcher) tosses underhand only 45 feet from home plate, though the bases are still 90 feet apart as they are today. Such tactics as bunting and sliding are not yet invented. Stealing bases is frowned upon. The balls are a little bigger and softer than today's equipment. Players dress like they did in the 19th century.

There are now close to 60 vintage base ball clubs in 16 states and one Canadian province. (There were no computers and no internet in 1860, but the Vintage Base Ball Association has a website, www.vbba.org.) Most of the teams are in small towns. Many have the names of teams that played in those communities two centuries ago (the Rochester, Mich., Grangers; the Middletown, Conn., Mansfields; and, though now playing in Dearborn, the Waterford, Mich., Lah-de-dahs). The "ballists" (that is, players) are typically men in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and above. It is safe to say that none of them have agents or apply for free agency.

Besides following the 19th-century rules of the game, vintage base ball also tries to emulate the 19th-century rules of etiquette enshrined in the ideal of "gentlemanly behavior." A ballist who makes a good play is congratulated with a hearty handshake by his opponents. The "cranks" (fans) are instructed to respond in the 19th-century way with a "huzzah!" for a good play on either side. And in the words of the pamphlet distributed to the audience, "Uncivil language, ungentlemanly behavior, spitting, or any actions that would offend a lady are not tolerated on pain of a fine up to a week's wages (25 cents)."

I attended a match in Germantown, Ill., between the St. Louis Unions and the Trenton Mains. It was a hot summer day, so the ballists, honoring the gentlemanly code of Victorian propriety, asked the ladies in the crowd if any of them would object if they rolled up their sleeves. No objections to bare arms being registered, the Unions in their suspenders and Civil War-type caps and the Mains in their baggy red-and-white uniforms gained a little relief, though not much. The single umpire - who stood to one side of the batter rather than behind the "behind" (catcher) - wore a top hat and vest.

During the game, one ballist was so vulgar as to spit, whereupon a lady in the bleachers complained to the umpire, who duly fined the offender.

When a ballist came in to score, right after crossing the plate he had to run over to the scoring table, where he would say, "Tally one, sir," and ring a bell. If he forgot to do that, the "ace" (the run) would not count, something a few players had to be reminded of by cranks in the bleachers.

The game was a good one, with spectacular catches (both on the fly and on the bounce), slick fielding, and formidable hitting. The Mains soundly thrashed the Unions by a score of something like 17-6, though, since there was no scoreboard, this was not completely clear. Hard as it is to believe, no one sang, "We will, we will rock you."

And yet, as the game was being played, it became clear that - despite all of the difference in rules, language, and customs - base ball is the same game as modern baseball. The game has a continuous identity through all of its changes, just as a human being grows and changes while remaining the same person.

And despite all of the differences in America between the 1860s and today, we are the same country. Are we divided and in the throes of culture war? In the 1860s, Americans were killing each other in a civil war. Base ball would have been the game the Yankees and Rebels, sometimes during lulls in the combat and battlefield truces, would reportedly play with each other. Though their ideals often seem forgotten, the essence of the game and the essence of America continues.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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