Vintage baseball honors sportsmanship
Players try to replicate and recreate baseball of old days
By William S. Hupp / MLB.com
The Cincinnati Red Stockings are a vintage baseball team in Ohio.
INDIANAPOLIS -- A pitcher is serenaded with, "fine hurl, sir." A solid hit gets a chorus of "well struck, sir." All to which the appropriate response is, "thank you, sir."
For all the funky rules in vintage baseball, concepts that would seem so foreign in the modern game, one code of conduct governs above all.
Always act as a gentleman.
"Something that's really meaningful about vintage baseball is the sportsmanship," said John Tottle, a baseball historian from Columbus and proud member of the Muffins vintage baseball team. "It's a gentleman's game, not winning at all costs. Their honor was more important. There's a message. [It's] not just a quaint recreation of an old pastime."
Today, that message is being spread across the U.S. by nearly 100 vintage baseball clubs, including over 20 in the state of Ohio alone. Most of the clubs are affiliated with a historical society or museum.
The two vintage teams in Cincinnati are the Red Stockings and the Buckeyes. Both the Buckeyes and the Red Stockings are original teams from the early 1860s. In 1869, the first year where players were paid to play the game they loved, the Red Stockings went 57-0. The modern day vintage clubs are affiliated with Heritage Village museum and play their home games at Sharon Woods.
In a vintage baseball season, teams begin playing games on weekends in late April. After a few tournaments and games with the myriad of teams from Ohio and the Midwest, their season concludes after about 30 contests in early October. To expose more fans to their style of game, the Red Stockings and Buckeyes also played a three-inning exhibition game at Great American Ball Park following the Reds' July 2 game against the Indians.
Though neither team is directly affiliated with the Reds Hall of Fame, both maintain good friendships with Greg Rhodes, executive director for the Reds Hall Of Fame. Rhodes has been responsible for organizing the postgame exhibitions at Great American Ball Park the past few years.
No matter where the team is from, however, their goal is simple: Try to replicate and recreate vintage baseball as closely as possible, while providing a fun, festive and free atmosphere of entertainment for any and all fans that care to watch a game between teams with names like Clodbusters and Swamp Frogs.
That means dressing, speaking, and acting the part. From inventing period nicknames, to playing with the same equipment that their great-great-grandfathers might have used.
The age of the players ranges from in their early 20s to their late 50s and early 60s. The men come in all shapes and sizes: from tall and slender to short and stocky, and everywhere in between.
To fully understand vintage baseball, however, one must first be well-versed in its terminology. As such, below is an 1864 style explanation of the game, followed by its modern translation.
The "hurler" throws to the "behind," who is catching the ball behind the plate. Each time a "striker" hits a "sky-scraper foul tick," and the ball is caught, that striker is "dead." Three "hands down" gets you out of an inning, and if you get 27 of those without allowing an "ace," you've recorded a "whitewash." But, with enough good "ginger," the "tally" should turn out in your favor.
In other words: The pitcher throws to the catcher behind the plate. Each time a batter hits a high pop fly or a foul ball, and the ball is caught, the batter is out. Three outs gets you out of an inning, and if you record 27 without allowing a run, you've pitched a shutout. But, with enough good determination and hustle, the final score should turn out in your favor.
An example of a typical vintage baseball tournament came on Sunday, June 25, at the inaugural Bluesfest, a festival hosted by the Indianapolis Blues vintage club. It consisted of four teams playing a round-robin tournament of three games each.
Vintage baseball fields can be found just about anywhere there is an open space of grass -- in this case -- it was enacted at Woodman's Park in Greenwood, a town just southeast of Indy.
The wool uniforms that the Cincinnati Red Stockings sport didn't lend themselves to the scorching heat that enveloped central Indiana that Sunday.
Usually, the host of the tournament determines whether the games are played by 1864 or 1869 rules, the latter being closer to the modern regulations. The Blues decided that all teams would be playing by 1864 rules. That meant that all balls, whether fair or foul, could be caught on one-bounce.
Some of the other rules include: The pitcher lobs the ball underhand from 45 feet away, the ball is slightly larger and softer than a modern baseball, bats are wooden, and may be any length and weight, and there is no overrunning of first base, even on a close play.
Foul "ticks" are not considered strikes. You must swing and miss to earn a strike, a foul ball is "dead," until it comes back to the pitcher. If runners have not returned to their bases, they may be thrown out.
And as always in vintage baseball, there are no gloves.
The key to batting was to shoot hard ground balls -- worm-burners or grass-cutters -- through the infield.
Even a well-hit line drive that would normally fall in for a hit would be caught on one bounce for an out.
If that rule had not been in effect, scores during the nine-inning games might have reached into the 20s, rather than the average 12-8 final score.
Conditions became dangerous during the final round of the day, when an enormous storm passed over and blasted the fields with torrential downpours. If catching a hard-hit ball barehanded is difficult, imagine the challenge when that ball suddenly becomes water-logged and slick?
"It goes back to recreation and exercise," Tottle said of his motivation to play despite any and all health risks. "And since I love baseball, I'd rather get [exercise] on the ballfield."
Regardless of the outcome, everyone enjoys a hearty meal after the tournament. On this occasion, it was a fried chicken dinner provided by the hosts.
So, why play vintage baseball? Why do these men risk life and limb -- well, maybe just limb -- to catch a pop fly on one bounce?
"It's a chance to play baseball," said Dave "Big Dog" Brooks, captain of the Cincinnati Red Stockings. "[Plus], it's a demonstration of history and something that's fun."
Here's the Cincinnati Buckeyes (Chip - back row 4th from left - plays on this team)