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.
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.