Base Ball Like It Ought to Be, and Like It Was
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The former major league pitcher Jim Bouton announced yesterday the start of an organization that will play by 19th century rules: The Vintage Base Ball Federation.
It will be six balls for a walk, and a foul ball will not count as a strike unless it is caught, in which case the batter will be out. A foul ball caught on a bounce counts for an out, and a hit batter is only a ball, with no base awarded.
Gloves will be tiny, bat handles will be thick, and the ball — one ball will be used a game unless it falls apart or is lost — will be dead. There are no pitcher’s mounds, and there is no such thing as a balk on pickoff attempts.
In a mixture of sport and theater, umpires must be addressed as sir. Fans, called cranks, will be encouraged to wear period costumes, so ladies get out those flowered hats and gentlemen doff your straw boaters.
Amateur baseball and softball teams are invited to join the federation.
Chris Moran, who plays for the Hartford Senators, who use old-time rules, said fans look at these games the same way as the spectators viewed old-time ballplayers in the movie “Field of Dreams.”
“Where did these guys come from?” he said was the reaction.
Teams will play about a dozen games during the season. A six-team, double-elimination Vintage World Series is planned for Aug. 15-19 next summer at a site that has not been determined.
“The game the way it was meant to be played,” Bouton said during a news conference in Manhattan at Delmonico’s, a restaurant that opened in 1836. “No batting gloves, helmets, wristbands, elbow pads, shin guards, sunglasses. No arguing with the umpire. No stepping out of the batter’s box. No charging the pitcher or posing at home plate. No curtain-calling, chest-thumping or high-fiving. Just baseball.”
There will be some allowances for modern times, such as protective gear inside uniforms for catchers and lining under the short-billed caps when players bat. There will be relief pitchers, and uniforms will have polyester, because flannel is not durable enough.
“A night game is not forbidden, even though it’s pushing the envelope,” said Greg Martin, the federation’s vice president and owner of a company that produces vintage gear.
While the Hartford Senators have a team spittoon, gambling will be prohibited — 19th century baseball was marked by purportedly fixed games.
“The 1880’s and 90’s were characterized by very rough play and ill-mannered conduct toward umpires and opponents and spectators,” said John Thorn, a board member who serves on the 19th century research committee of the Society for American Baseball Research.
Wearing a brown derby and a vest, Bouton said Vintage Base Ball already was played by 225 teams in 32 states. In 2004, ESPN Classic televised a game between the Hartford Senators and the Pittsfield Hillies at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Mass.
The rules will be a mixture of those in use from 1860 to 1890, with an emphasis on the 1880’s. The ball will have seams in the lemon-peel style, which was replaced by the current seam pattern designed by Albert Spalding, adopted by the major leagues in 1877. Pitching will be overhand, and games will average about 2 hours 15 minutes.
Before each plate appearance, a batter will declare his “desired strike zone preference” — belt to knee or belt to armpits. If the umpire misses a call because his view is blocked, a team captain can ask for a gentleman’s ruling, in which players involved in the play are to truthfully say what occurred. If a dispute remains, the umpire may ask the cranks for their opinion.
“I’m intrigued by the concept of people playing baseball for fun,” said the former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, a member of the federation’s board. “Someone said this will be an effort where the strike will be something that goes over the plate and doesn’t involve a labor dispute.”
Because catcher’s gloves are tiny and do not have much padding, most pitchers throw about 70 miles and hour to avoid passed balls.
“The pitching game is less a power game and it’s more a skill game: changing speeds, moving the ball around, deception,” Bouton said.
It is certainly different from 21st century baseball.
“What irks me about the modern game is the enlarging ballplayers and shrinking ball parks,” Thorn said. “A home run at one point in baseball’s history actually involved a run — running around the bases. There weren’t very many home runs hit out of the park where you could stand at home plate, watch the thing soaring over the fence, cast a menacing glance at the opposing dugout and then take your time around the bases.”