Vintage baseball leagues gaining popularity

paul4.jpgHave you ever wondered what it would be like to go back in time to some of the momentous events in baseball, like Hank Aaron’s 715th home run or Don Larsen’s perfect game in the ’56 World Series? How about Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World”?

Can you imagine being there when the original Cincinnati Red Stockings took the field, led by captain Harry Wright? Imagine the sights, smells and atmosphere!

I have to admit, as a lover of baseball history, I think about it often, and I read about it whenever I can. But there are some guys who don’t just daydream about it. They live it.

Vintage baseball leagues — a rendering of the game under rules from either the 1860s or 1880s — is steadily gaining popularity. Players in their 20s-60s are suiting up in meticulously crafted, authentic uniforms and equipment (thereby also creating a new hobby niche) to play the game that once was in fashion. Players scrupulously follow the archaic rules, employ the same field dimensions and even talk 1800s baseball lingo, with “strikers,” “muffins” and “cranks” abounding. There are no bushel basket gloves, double-knits or Oakley shades here. There’s also no steroids, aluminum bats, Gatorade or sausage races between innings.
This is old-fashioned baseball, or should I say Base Ball.

paul5.jpgViewing a Classic
I first became aware of this type of diversion last year when I happened upon a vintage game played at venerable Waconah Park in Pittsfield, Mass., that was televised on ESPN. I sat enraptured as the announcers (including Bill “Spaceman” Lee, a Vintage Base Ball aficionado) explained the nuances of the game while players decked out in old-time duds played a spirited contest officiated by a single umpire. Everything was authentic. The players, some sporting flowing whiskers and barely concealed beer guts, played hard while clearly enjoying the experience. But underneath it all, you could see that some of these guys — no, most of them — were good. They had to be. The gloves were as big as the ones you use for yardwork, the ball was hard and discolored, and those wool uniforms looked hot. No question, these “ballists” were hard-core enthusiasts.

My second wakeup call came when I opened my local newspaper in late March to find an article about a “local 9” that had been formed in the neighboring city of Bridgeport, Conn. The team was named the Orators after hall of famer Jim “Orator” O’Rourke, who played 21 seasons for teams such as the Red Sox and Giants, compiling a lifetime .311 average and winning a batting title in 1884. A resident of Bridgeport, O’Rourke was noted for his clever and robust use of the English language.

So it should have been no surprise when Joe Vigorito, a 28-year-old history buff from Fairfield, Conn., decided to resurrect the Orators from the annals of time, hearkening back to when Bridgeport fielded squads with names like Victors, Mechanics, Brown Derbies and Bolts.

After reading about the Orators, I decided to give Vigorito a call. He was eager to volunteer information and agreed to visit my humble collection with his friend (and creator/manager of the Newtown Sandy Hooks) Ray Shaw to compare the old-time game to today’s version and discuss both the subtle and obvious changes in equipment between the eras his team represents (1860s and 1880s) to my collection of bats, gloves and uniforms (from the early 1900s). It proved to be an enlightening and enjoyable evening, passing around old bats, gloves and uniforms as we spoke.

Sports Collectors Digest (SCD): What made you decide to play the 1800s game?

Joe Vigorito: I love history, always have. I have been both a Revolutionary and Civil War re-enactor for a number of years, and I also love baseball. I wanted to get back into playing, and when I found out about Ray’s Newtown team, it opened up this whole world to me. What a great way to bring baseball and history together. For me, it was a no-brainer.

SCD: What are the parallels between the re-enacting hobby and this one?
JV: Well, as in re-enacting, you try to get into first person as much as possible, down to using the proper vernacular, and not just when there are spectators. Remember that the people who do show up at our games are there to see history, not just a ballgame. The guys on our team will not only be learning how to play the 1800s game, but to act it. It will make it that much more fun.

SCD: I noticed on ESPN that even the umpire played his role, down to the top hat and suit. And you can’t be plugging in your iPod or taking cell phone calls on the bench.

Ray Shaw (RS): We’d prefer if you drink a beer or have a cigar, actually. [It’s] more authentic.

SCD: Was it hard finding guys to play?

RS: For me it was, because although people might be intrigued historically, they are oftentimes set in their ways athletically. Someone who has played softball for many years, for example, is used to the security blanket of that big glove. For the 1860s game, they won’t be using a glove at all. In a small place like Newtown, it’s harder to find enough guys, whereas the Bridgeport/Fairfield area is pretty big.

SCD: Is there a typical profile of a vintage player?

JV: Well, it has to be someone who doesn’t just want to play ball, but [someone] who embraces the whole concept. They must love history as much as baseball and feel a need to reconnect with the game they grew up loving.

SCD: How did you find out about Vintage Base Ball?

JV: I found out about it through some internet searching, especially the Vintage Baseball Association web site (http://wiki.vbba.org), a great resource for anybody who’s new to it. It gives links to many other organizations. Since I lived in Connecticut, I noticed a link to Newtown’s team and contacted Ray, asking if I could play for them, which I did. And then the light went on about starting my own team in this area.

RS: What got my attention was an article in Smithsonian Magazine in 1999 on the vintage game. I was enthralled and ended up attending a tournament in Hartford, Conn., where I saw the game up close and was convinced I should start my own team.

SCD: Your teams play under two different sets of rules, the 1860s and 1880s. What are the major differences?

JV: There are rules differences but also equipment differences. The 1860s game is gloveless, with underhand pitching. The 1880s game uses gloves, the ball is harder and the pitching is overhand. Early 1880s gloves were fingerless and resemble a modern weightlifting glove. Most 1880s players use the (late-decade) full-fingered glove. It resembles a yard work glove, with no webbing, padding or lacing.

In the early 1860s, a ball caught on one bounce was an out. Later that decade, it had to be caught on the fly. In the 1880s game, balls and strikes are called, whereas in the 1860s game, the umpire would let you take pitches within reason and then he’d issue a warning to start swinging. The 1880s game experimented with varying combinations of balls and strikes.
In the 1860s game, the pitcher was a facilitator. He wasn’t there to strike people out. He wanted them to hit the ball, something that would change by the 1880s. Also, he, with the catcher, would call the cutoffs and other baseball plays.

You can’t have too many people chattering away out there, not with the quick adjustments that have to be made under those old rules. You can tell the teams that have been at it awhile. They always throw to the correct base, hit the cut-off man, etc.

SCD: What are the hardest adjustments of your modern players to these 1800s rules?

JV: There’s a lot of apprehension about not wearing gloves, especially by the infielders like first and third base. But they get over that. Then there’s understanding the rules, especially for guys who have been away from the game for awhile. Also, there’s the difference in speed and angle at which the ball comes into the batter. A modern day batting cage is no help — you have to practice against live pitching. You can’t go up there looking to crush the ball, and you can’t reach for balls, either. Remember, you can make outs on ground-ball fouls.

RS: Sometimes we actually require our players to choke up on the bat to avoid wild swings.

SCD: Now that you’ve played this oldtime game, do you enjoy it more than modern baseball?

JV: Vintage ball is such a great experience, even if you’re just watching on the bench. There’s no comparison.

RS: I got to the point where modern baseball was too hard for me and softball, which I played next, became too easy. With vintage ball, even in the overhand (1880s) game, you can play it forever and really enjoy it.

SCD: Let’s talk about equipment, beginning with your typical uniform from the 1860s.

JV: The 1860s uniform would be some type of heavy cloth, baggy with a button fly on the pants. It’s quite similar to the uniform I wore as a Civil War re-enactor, with a shirt that has a bib front and pockets on the pants. The shirt is collared, and you’ll see some teams wear suspenders. The cap can be pillbox style or the “beanie” type with the short visor and low crown.

RS: Many early teams had players who were members of fire companies, and you can see the similarities to the firemen’s uniforms.

JV: Our team wears more of the 1880s style, with collared shirt, knickers just below the knee and small caps. It’s loosely patterned after the Orators uniform of the late 1800s. However, footwear has been a big problem. So far, I’ve just had my guys buy low-topped black cleats and paint over any white areas. High-topped cleats of today look too futuristic to pass as old school. There is a company making vintage reproduction cleats, but they’re like $150 a pair, and our players are laying out a lot of money for their uniforms as it is.

SCD: Where can you find authentic reproduction gloves for the 1880s game?

JV: There’s a guy named Greg Martin who makes them, and a company called Academa that makes both fingerless and fingered gloves. They follow an actual Reach pattern for the full-fingered model.

Despite having the glove, you’ll have to use both hands, and you’ll still jam a lot of fingers. Even the catcher, who can set up as far back from the hitter as he wants, usually cups his free hand around the back of his glove to avoid injury.

SCD: Did you have a hard time finding suppliers for the various pieces of equipment?

JV: No, though the options are limited. You might find two or three people who do balls, gloves, bats or uniforms. The balls are difficult because the quality really varies. For our bats, we found a local guy who turns them on his own lathe, much the same way they did it back then. So our team has a mixture of regular dimension bats, thick-handled clubs you really have to choke up on and even some with mushroom knobs.

As we looked through my uniform collection, it was obvious how quickly the equipment evolved from the late 1880s to the first part of the next century. Gloves became more padded with webbing and, eventually, lacing between the fingers. Uniforms became more standardized, as did the materials employed. Bats would remain long and bulky, gradually slimming down to the toothpicks we are familiar with today.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to find authentic equipment from those days. Should it exist, it is probably residing in a museum case. Therefore, I can’t see many of these current re-enactors pulling a David Wells and wearing actual 1800s uniforms or gloves in the field. They’re too valuable and would probably fall apart under playing conditions today.

It seems logical that those few companies who are turning out replica vintage equipment will be joined by others. But will newcomers to this business pay as close attention to detail? Will they study old books, photos and actual pieces to reproduce them faithfully? Collectors of vintage equipment will be an enormous resource in this area.

Practice with the Orators
In early May, I decided to catch the Orators in one of their last tune-ups before the regular season. It was a crisp, sunny Saturday morning when they straggled in, looking for all the world like the numerous beer league softball teams I played on for 25 or so years. Nobody wore their game stuff, and since this was an “1860s practice,” there were no gloves, either. Guys with sunglasses were instructed to take them off so as to get used to the glare. All the while, Vigorito was reminding them of the basics of the game:

“Back up the play at all times!”
“No arguing with the umpire!”
“Don’t ever pass up an easy out!”
“Never make a risky throw — give up the single!”
“Watch out for the hidden ball trick!”
“Go for base hits!”
“No leading off the base!”
“Outfielders, hit the cutoff!”
“Balls caught on one bounce are an out, and that’s for outfielders, too!”
“Have fun!”

Vigorito put them through their paces with an infield/outfield drill, followed by some batting practice. Then it was time for a little intrasquad scrimmage, which was enthusiastic, with errors abounding. In the last few innings, Vigorito asked if I might want to take a turn in right field. I jogged out to my position. As I threw the ball around with the other fielders, I was thinking, “No sweat, I can do this.” But then, as the first batter approached the plate I realized three things simultaneously:

1. The sun was in my eyes, and I had no way of shielding it, save my non-throwing hand.

2. I had to be acutely aware of the situation on every pitch because I might have to back up first base, second base or the center fielder.

3. When I went to pound my glove (an old habit) between pitches there was no glove. Yikes!

Though I managed to get through my two innings without any mishaps, I never got to hit the semi-fast underhand tosses that were being served up. Oh well.

Game Day
The Orators’ first home game featured the Atlantic Base Ball Club from Smithtown, Long Island, as the opponent. The Atlantics, sporting their bib-front, long-sleeved shirts and long pants, would play the Orators in an 1860s game. After a lengthy discussion of ground rules with the umpire, the game began.

The Atlantics have been together for 11 years, and it showed. Their play was more crisp and certain than the fledgling Orators, and they coasted to an easy victory. However, it was not uncommon for the game to be stopped when the lone umpire (who was allowed to move freely about the playing field and foul territory) asked for help on close calls from the players and even the fans — a common practice back then. There were also pauses for the veteran Atlantic players to explain rules or nuances of the game to their inexperienced opponents.

Play was spirited and fast. There were no hitters (strikers) stepping out of the box to adjust batting gloves, and there was no arguing, posturing or chest thumping. Even without called balls or strikes, the game moved along smartly. And, if your really tried and let your eyes go fuzzy for a moment so you blocked out the modern day buildings, cars, etc. in the background, you’d swear it was the 1860s again.

Get Involved
If you’d like to lean more about Vintage Base Ball, search for “19th century baseball” or “Vintage Baseball Association” online. There you will find links to rules, teams and equipment suppliers. Who knows, maybe there’s a team near you who could use a hand. (I’m already considering a “comeback” with the Orators next season).

If you are a collector of 19th-century memorabilia, perhaps you could become a consultant to your local team. Actual game-used equipment is an invaluable tool to teams who are just starting up or for companies trying to accurately reproduce the equipment.

Finally, two books will get you in the vintage mood. For Civil War era, try Play for a Kingdom by Thomas Dyja. It’s the story of a running game of baseball between Union and Confederate soldiers during the Battle of the Wilderness (with a little espionage thrown in). If you want an equally well-researched novel of historical fiction, read If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock, the story of a modern guy who time-warps to 1869, where he hooks on with baseball’s first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

These books will enlighten you as to the roots of our great game and reflect the passion that today’s re-enactors have captured in this interesting and entertaining hobby.

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