- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 31, 2005

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Long before Kenny Rogers shoved two cameramen, an angry outburst of “Blame my buttons!” could cost a base ball player a half-dime fine.

And had Rogers played back in the 1860s, he would have been called a hurler. Opposing batters, called strikers, would have let him know which pitch they preferred.

Every year, base ball — the precursor to modern baseball — is re-created at the Vancouver National Historic Reserve in southern Washington state near the Columbia River.

Similar vintage games, and even entire leagues, are cropping up around the country, harkening back to a day when the game was charmingly innocent — albeit scrappier. One reason? Gloves hadn’t been invented yet.

The game was played in the 1860s by troops stationed at the U.S. Army’s Fort Vancouver, later renamed the Vancouver Barracks, according to documents at the historic reserve, part of the National Park Service. The idea was to give the soldiers a break from tedious garrison duty.

“Knowledge of base ball was spread by soldiers during the Civil War,” ranger Doug Halsey said. “When the soldiers came home, they brought base ball with them.”

On a recent balmy evening, a group of Fort Vancouver rangers and volunteers re-enacted the game for cranks — as fans were known back then. Ladies in hoop skirts sipped tea as the 1st Oregon Volunteer Infantry took the field against the Vancouver Occidentals.

Bill “Fair Call” DeBerry served as umpire, proclaiming “One man dead!” after the first out. A brass band played between innings.

Because the players didn’t wear gloves, a fly ball could be caught on the first bounce and still be an out. Hurlers politely asked each striker, “Where would you like it, sir?” and then delivered an underhand pitch.

A strike was called only after a swing and miss. There were no balls and consequently no walks. After one striker was thrown out “legging it” to first, he politely shook hands with the first base tender in a show of good sportsmanship.

Despite a late rally by the Volunteers, the Occidentals won 10-8. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Occidentals’ behind (that’s a catcher in today’s terminology) ran up the first-base line imploring the cranks to cheer.

Nick Peck, who works for the Bonneville Power Administration, served as the scoreboard keeper, dressed in a dapper suit and hat from the period. He has been involved with the vintage re-enactment since it started five years ago.

“We just love being a part of living local history,” he said. “It’s a way of bringing history to life and to share it. And it’s just fun.”

Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard also came out for the game.

“Every year I throw out the first ball. For some reason they have yet to ask me to play,” joked Pollard, a commander at the barracks when he was in the Army.

There are an estimated 150 vintage teams scattered around the country. A 12-team league plays in New England, while the Bay Area Vintage Base Ball League in Northern California is looking to expand.

Different teams play by different rules, based on the year being re-created. The generally accepted guidelines come from the National Association of Base-Ball Players.

Steve Gazay is president of the startup Bay Area Vintage Base Ball league, which plays by 1880s rules — players pitch overhanded and wear gloves. The league has two teams and is in the process of adding a third.

“No sunglasses. No earrings. No watches. We try to block out any logos on the shoes,” Gazay said. “We want to make it as authentic as possible.”

The game is appealing to many because of its purity. This was, after all, the national pastime before million-dollar contracts, the steroid scandal, and, most recently, Rogers’ run-in with the cameramen that led to criminal charges and a 20-day suspension for the Texas Rangers hurler.

In fact, the rules prohibited cursing, spitting and arguing with the umpire. It was customary to applaud for the opposing team for good plays. “Blame my buttons!” was the equivalent of “fiddlesticks!” and could garner a fine depending on the emotion with which it was said.

“It was very much a gentlemen’s game — it was a genteel game,” Halsey said. “It was played just because you loved to play the game.”

The most interesting aspect of vintage base ball? Something that would never fly in modern times, Halsey said.

“One of the rules was that you can absolutely never, never accept money to play the game,” he said with a laugh.

Fort Vancouver will host another vintage base ball exhibition on Aug. 20.

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