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Early Innings

June 2024
2min read

MODERN ENTHUSIASTS TAKE PART IN OUR NATIONAL PASTIME-1880s STYLE

Vintage, base ball, the playing of baseball today using the rules and customs (and spelling) of the nineteenth century, emerged independently in the early 1980s at two living-history sites, Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Long Island, New York, and Ohio Village in Columbus. It has since spread all over the country and been organized in various leagues, most notably the Vintage Base Ball Association (www.vbba.org). Regional differences have evolved, with Western teams more given to theatrics, Eastern clubs favoring competition on the field, and Midwesterners adhering to the concept of a “gentleman’s game,” according to Drew Frady, who pioneered vintage ball in Colorado, barnstormed in the Midwest, and now captains my own team, the Gotham Base Ball Club in New York.

But they share a core concept: to isolate a year in the second half of the nineteenth century, research the rules and equipment of that era, find players, and then sew uniforms, turn ash bats on a lathe, and make balls—or contract those services out to one of the specialist firms that have sprung up with the revival. Our club, which started last year, made none of its own gear, and the cost to each player was $150. Vintage ballists are spared one expense, because for several decades after the sport began, the fielders wore no gloves, a fact that looms large when someone with a healthy pair of hands considers joining a club. Broken fingers are a hazard of the hobby.

Many teams research a historical club from their region, as we did, and adopt its name and uniform. Some teams even distribute nicknames from the original club among their members. Most teams also chatter, using terms drawn from the nineteenth-century game. At least one of those words —“Huzzah!”—is used throughout vintage ball as the standard cheer.

A typical match is an afternoon doubleheader in which the two teams take turns calling the year of the rulebook that will govern play. Teams can play under rules that range from the “town ball” of 1858 (no foul territory, one out per inning, runners retired by throwing the ball at them) to the recognizably modernish game of 1898. When our team hosts the Providence Grays, for example, we play the first game by our rules, 1864, and the second game by theirs, 1884. This makes for two very different experiences. In 1864 the pitcher tossed the ball underhand, which favored the hitter. The defense had an advantage, however, in the Bound Rule: A ball caught on a bounce was an out. By 1884 the Bound Rule was extinct and hurlers threw overhand, which resulted in the development of the first primitive gloves, worn by catchers.

Two sorts of people are drawn to vintage ball: athletes who seize the chance to play hardball in an amateur league and historians who are delighted to see their research brought to life. Soon enough, these distinctions disappear, as the athletes start reading up on their history while the historians find themselves working on their baseball fundamentals. Relations between vintage teams are very fraternal, and many matches conclude with what feels like a cast party: exhausted ballists from both sides in their dirtied uniforms—university deans, construction workers, lawyers, actors, journalists—draining ales, snacking, and talking about everything under the sun.

—Chris King

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