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Vintage Baseball League Evokes the 19th-Century Game

Suspenders, nicknames and barehanded fielders are all part of the experience

A man swings a bat at a baseball game

John Ewing/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The Dirigo baseball club from Augusta, Maine, played the Essex baseball club from Newburyport, Massachusetts, using the baseball rules and customs of the 1860s.

In the weeks leading up to his first 19th-century baseball reenactment game years ago, Blaise Lamphier squeezed a hard rubber ball hundreds of times a day.

"We were going to interpret baseball in an era before fielders wore gloves,'’ says Lamphier, 57, of Portland, Oregon. “So, I wanted to make sure my hands were ready because I knew they were going to take a beating."

Despite these preparations, Lamphier wound up with bruised and battered fingers and palms. But he considered those injuries a small price to pay as he and fellow players transported themselves and spectators more than 100 years back in time.

A man holds his hand up at a baseball game

Courtesy Blaise Lamphier

Blaise Lamphier flashes the victory sign after tallying an ace for the Portland Base Ball Club.

19th-Century Base Ball Slang

Baseball has always had a language all its own. Here's a look at its 19th-century lingo versus its present-day equivalent.

Aces — Runs

Basetender — Infielder

Scout — Outfielder

Behind — Catcher

Provider, Hurler — Pitcher

Cranks — Fans

Dew drop — High-arcing, slow pitch

Dish — Home plate

Match — Game

Muff — Error

Muffin — Player of lesser talent

Leg it — Run hard

Show a little ginger — Play harder or smarter

Sky ball — High pop-up

Striker — Batter

Whitewash — Holding a team scoreless

Willow — Bat

Vintage baseball, as it's known, has been growing in popularity in recent years, with an estimated 300 organized clubs playing in tournaments and leagues throughout North America. In many respects, the players are like those who research and interpret Civil War skirmishes, with a few exceptions, of course. Instead of rifles with bayonets, wooden bats are used. Reenactments occur on ball fields rather than battlefields.

“People love coming out and seeing the roots of the game,” Lamphier says.

Tossing the “onion"

Barehanded fielders and strange uniforms are among the first things novices notice. The garb bears some resemblance to modern uniforms, but the long sleeves, bibs with Old English lettering, bow ties and suspenders conjure memories of a bygone era.

The ball is different, too — much paler, with stitches that intersect, dividing it into four sections. It looks like something you could peel. Pitchers throw this “onion,” “apple” or “horsehide” underhand with a locked elbow from a flour-lined box rather than a mound 45 feet away. An inverted, dug-into-the-ground metal bucket serves as home plate. Off to the side stands the umpire, clad in long coattails and a stovepipe top hat reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln.

There are nine players in the field — just like modern baseball. Catchers don't wear masks or any other protective gear.

Staying true to old times, diamonds can be laid out anywhere — in parks and meadows or on current professional, college and high school fields.

Nicknames abound

Going back in time is a regular event at Silver Base Ball Park, believed to be the nation's only permanent, replica 19th-century baseball diamond, located at the Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, New York.

This summer, for the 20th year, baseball games from the year 1868 were being “interpreted” — played by old-school rules — by five men's and two women's teams. Each player had a nickname, which was the case in the late 1800s.

At a recent Silver Park game, the Flower City Base Ball Club fielded a real-life physician known as “Doc,” a retired cop called “Constable,” a teacher nicknamed “Old School” and an outfielder with the moniker “All Day."

Players speak the lingo of yore. Batters are known as “strikers,” who swing their “willows” (bats) in attempts to hit “daisy cutters” (hard grounders) so they can tally “aces” (runs) to excite the hometown “cranks” (fans).

Fouls don't count as strikes, but if a fielder catches one either in the air or on one bounce, the striker is out. Depending what year is being interpreted, the one-bounce rule can be in effect for fair balls, too. You can draw a walk on three, rather than four balls. Stealing is allowed. Sliding usually is not.

Teams are named after local clubs that once existed. For example, the Pioneer Base Ball Club of Portland is a re-creation of the first team in the Northwest. The modern incarnation was founded by Lamphier, a labor relations manager by day who goes by the nickname “Freight Train” when it comes to vintage baseball. A history buff, Lamphier enjoys the camaraderie and the opportunity “to bring the unique experience of wood bats, lemon-peel balls and no gloves to those who've never experienced it."
 

A baseball team photo

Courtesy Scott Pitoniak

The Excelsiors Base Ball Club of Rochester, N.Y., poses in front of the Mayors Cup, presented annually to the championship team of the Silver Base Ball Park League.

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