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Baseball … with the gloves off
Vintage players rediscover the national pastime
LEESBURG, Va. — The fingers tell the story, some crooked, others purple, a few unable to bend at all. Vintage baseball is many things — an alternative to recreational league softball, the athletic equivalent of a Civil War re-enactment, a chance to experience the national pastime as it was played in its formative era.
Mostly, though, it’s murder on the hands.
“Anybody can go out with a glove, but it takes tremendous skill to field a ball without one,” said Glen Richards, a member of the Eclipse, a vintage team from Elkton, Md.“You have to concentrate on every play.”
Mr. Richards, a 26-year-old resident of Mount Ephraim, N.J., made a fist with his left hand. His ring finger remained extended, as straight as an ash bat.
“Worst part is, I injured it in practice,” he said.
No gloves allowed. No helmets, either. Such are the time-capsule charms of vintage baseball, on display on Sunday during a three-team event hosted by the Loudoun Preservation Society at Oatlands Historic House and Gardens.
On a sloping grass pasture adjacent to a long, wood-beam farm fence, clubs from Elkton, Baltimore and the District played according to 1860s rules and customs. Players wore baggy, long-sleeve jerseys and pillbox caps. They spoke in period slang, calling hitters “strikers” and fans “cranks.” The umpire sported a bowtie and a straw hat, asking cranks to help him make calls. Pitchers threw underhanded, tossing a single, lemon peel-stitched ball that became spongier over the course of a sweltering afternoon, bats connecting with a dull thud.
And the fielders? They were able to record outs by snagging fly balls that had bounced once on the ground — a 19th century quirk that allowed participants to spare their bruised hands, if not their egos.
“Historically, you were supposed to catch the ball in the air,” said Bruce Leith, president of both the Eclipse and the Mid-Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League. “If you had a chance to catch it and let it bounce, opponents would yell at you for being unmanly.”
Born in New York and Ohio museums in the 1980s, the vintage movement recreates baseball from the Civil War era, a transition period between the game’s 1840s origins and sleek, modern iteration. Over the last decade, dozens of clubs have sprung up across the country, including the 16 teams of the Mid-Atlantic league, which encompasses six states and D.C.
Like many vintage teams, the Eclipse partner with a local historical society. They are named for a long-forgotten, antecedent club that began play in 1866 and was made up primarily of war veterans, including six Union army surgeons.
According to local historian Richard D'Ambrisi, the original Washington Nationals date back to 1859, while Baltimore was home to at least three clubs — the Excelsiors, Waverly and the Pastimes — in the 1860s.
“The connection with history is tremendous,” said Joe Stanik, an Annapolis resident and captain of the Chesapeake Nine vintage team. “It’s the era when baseball became the national game. Civil War soldiers played during their off time. Then they went home, and it caught on like wildfire.”
For Potomac Nine captain Howard Berkof, the game itself is the draw. A 33-year-old program manager for the Navy, he found himself bored by laissez-faire beer league softball — a common refrain among his teammates yet not quite skilled enough to enjoy competitive adult hardball.
Enter the vintage game. As Mr. D'Ambrisi notes, the idea behind 1860s baseball wasn’t to see if pitchers could strike batters out; it was for hitters to put the ball in play, the better for fielders to showcase their athletic prowess. Hence underhanded pitching, and a high-scoring contest in which the one-bounce rules makes brute force, softball-style power hitting less important than directional hitting and hustle.
Elkton’s roster includes 67-year-old Bill Freeland, a retired physical education teacher who joined the club in 2008.
“I never thought I would be playing baseball again, 46 years after my last game,” said Mr. Freeland, who receives periodic injections for stiff, achy knees. “But this game, I think I can play for a while.”
For a baseball fan, some aspects of the vintage sport are instantly recognizable. Three outs constitute a side. Games last nine innings. The bases are 90 feet apart. Other rules seem tinged in sepia: Three balls is a walk, fouls are not strikes, players can’t overrun first base, and runners can take bases with them on slide attempts (the last scenario is admittedly rare).
“In fast-pitch baseball with a good pitcher, it’s just very hard to hit,” Mr. Berkof said. “But in the old style game, you see players from all kinds of ages and backgrounds and skill sets be successful. Just put the ball in play in a strategic location and run. The great thing is, you’re still playing baseball.”
He couldn’t be happier.
The vintage game’s throwback ethos goes beyond the rules. Players wear custom-made uniforms that can cost hundreds of dollars apiece. They pay 25-cent fines for using “foul language” — that is, saying words like “shoot.” They give each other hokey nicknames: Mr. Berkof, a Harvard grad, is known as “Ivy”; Tom Duffy, a 50-something fireplug of a retired teacher, is called “Schoolboy” by his Elkton teammates, despite looking neither boyish nor particularly academic.
While waiting to bat, Eclipse players swung an actual sledgehammer to warm up.
“It’s our version of a batting donut,” said one.
“It doesn’t really help,” said another
“But it looks cool,” said the first.
It’s tempting to invest vintage baseball with larger social meaning — a romantic yearning for a sport of rough ‘n tumble, manly gentlemen, playing a gritty, agrarian game, motivated purely by love of the game, unspoiled and uncoddled by the modern athletic poxes of fame and money. But the truth is that Mr. Berkof and others participate largely for sheer fun.
Historical accuracy is sometimes sacrificed. Recently, for example, the Potomac Nine abandoned their dark, heat-absorbing wool uniforms with a lighter, cooler polyester blend. The Mid-Atlantic league has banned metal spikes - a concession to appall Old Hoss Radbourn - swapping old school cool for the comfort and safety of contemporary footwear.
Similarly, the Eclipse once posed for a genuine, 19th century-style tintype team photo. Big mistake
“We had just finished playing a game,” Mr. Leith said. “We were sweaty. We had to stand for 15 minutes in the same pose. Now we know why people are never smiling in old pictures.”
Between innings, Mr. Leith chugged a bright yellow sports drink. Reminded that both the electrolyte-laden liquid and its plastic bottle were as true to the vintage game as finger-protecting leather baseball gloves, he smiled.
“I don’t care,” he said. “It’s hot out here.”
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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