Vintage base ball players — sort of like Civil War re-enactors who wield wooden bats instead of muskets — move among us. They glory in the past times of America's pastime.
Think: When Johnny comes sliding home.
Dressed in old uniforms, teams play each other using 19th century rules. Sometimes they don't wear gloves. Sometimes they pitch underhand. They spell "base ball" as two words. They call each other "ballists."
For a scouting report on the throwback movement, we caught up with first baseman John "Lefty" Coray, 54, of the Dirigo, Maine, Vintage Base Ball Club. Off-field, Coray is a retired Navy commander who works at a data center in Brunswick, Maine. We peppered him with questions. Here is the box score, the whole nine innings:
1st. What is vintage base ball? Vintage base ball, Coray says, "represents the origins of the sport I love and still play competitively today. As a lifelong player and avid baseball fan, discovering vintage base ball offered me the opportunity not only to research the origins of the sport but also play the game and actually immerse myself into the experience."
2nd. What is the Vintage Base Ball Association? Turns out the Vintage Base Ball Association was born in 1996. Representatives from 13 clubs in five states gathered in Columbus, Ohio, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first recorded organized baseball game. The association — now with dozens of member teams on its national roster — will be 20 years old next year. Coray's Dirigo team is a member of the VBBA.
3rd. What are some vintage base ball rules that are distinctively different from contemporary baseball rules? Coray points out three that his club plays by:
- If a player catches a hit ball on the first bounce, the hitter is out. This rule "really illustrates the evolution of the game," Coray says. "You can imagine how hard it was for adults who had never thrown or caught a ball to now do it barehanded and throw out a runner." But "after a few years the skills of the players must have improved dramatically. It actually became boring in the late 1860s to watch skilled ballplayers continue to let fly balls bounce and catch it for an out. The term 'muffin' was shouted when an outfielder did this — with the connotation of him being a wimp."
- Fair/foul rule. In 1861, if you hit a ball off the bat and it started fair but went foul ... it was still a good hit, Coray says. "When you have a gentleman umpire standing way behind the plate ... it is very hard to make a call so it ends up being a very good hit and hard to field."
- No overrunning first base ... runner is live at all times. "You can understand why it was changed," Coray says, "to allow the runner to overrun first base and turn out and return to first base."
4th. How is vintage base ball equipment different from present-day baseball equipment? "Vintage base ball equipment is pretty simple," Coray says. "One simple ball slightly softer then a modern baseball. One baseball bat ... lathed with a thinner bat head. The bases are just square sacks with sand or even flour in them. That is all it took to play a nine-inning game. No pine tar, batting gloves, catcher's equipment or fielding gloves. You can see why this style of baseball spread so quickly through the country after the Civil War. All you needed was a relatively flat field and the very simple equipment above to play."5th. What is the origin of the Dirigo Vintage Base Ball Club? It all began, Coray says, when a guy who was an avid Maine Civil War re-enactor invited a vintage team to come play members of the 3rd Maine Regiment. Research revealed that there had been a Dirigo baseball team in the 1860s. Coray says today's team is loosely based on that 19th century squad. In 2006, the contemporary Dirigo team began playing demonstration games around New England.
6th. Who were some of the great players in the 1860s? Most ballists of notoriety played for professional teams in Philadelphia and New York, Coray says. So we looked up a couple of names: In 1865, lefthanded second-baseman Al Reach signed a contract with the Philadelphia Athletics, becoming one of the game's earliest professional players, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. And one of the stalwarts of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club, Baseball Chronology reports, was Daniel "Doc" Adams — who claimed to have created the position of shortstop and to have established 90-foot base paths.
7th. For most participants, is vintage base ball more about playing baseball or about learning history? Playing vintage base ball, Coray says, "is one part learning or discovering history, one part living history and one part completing a personal journey for a true baseball player."
"Many older players like myself embrace the living history of the game and become a student of the sport's early emergence."
8th. What makes vintage base ball special? "It boggles my mind — every time I play," Coray says, "how millworkers, blacksmiths and Civil War soldiers with no modern baseball skills could embrace this challenging game ... but they did it in a very big way."
9th. Why are you drawn to vintage base ball? "For me," Coray says, "every vintage game is an opportunity to go back in time. And simply play the game as it was originally conceived."