Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Of Knickers and Men: Cincinnati-Area Vintage Base Ball at Sharon Woods Park

My baseball career lasted one whopping season in the summer of 1987, the only time in my life when I ever came close to eating, sleeping, and breathing baseball.  I was seven years old, and I played for the Milford Blue Jays, a team sponsored by the now-defunct Purple Mushroom Pizza.  My contributions to the Blue Jays were minimal.  I played right field (badly), never hit the ball (except in practice), and only got on base when the pitcher walked me (accidentally).  Basically, my skills were three steps below my team’s worst player.

Which is to say I was worse than my team’s worst player.  What I did on the field did not count as “playing.”  It was more like clueless improvisation. 

My best memory from that summer is the look on my chain-smoking coach’s face as he gripped my scrawny shoulders and screamed at me for getting tagged out at second base.  The out ended the inning and possibly my coach’s one hope for a one-win season.  I don’t know.  I never paid enough attention to know what was going on.

Since then, my relationship with baseball, like my relationship with most other team sports, has been casual.  It’s not like I don’t like them, it’s just that I can get bored with them—especially when I’m watching them on TV, where the real drama of the game is muted by loud, clich├ęd commentary; unintelligible interviews with the athletes; a DaVinci code of stats; banal commercials for sport drinks and beer; and flashy CG animations that try like a jock strap to hold it all together.

Live games are infinitely better, especially when your seats are close to the action.  Almost gone is the noise of commercialized sports—the talk of money and merchandise and ego.   Replacing it is the visceral clamor of the fans—the cheering, the booing, the mass gasping and groaning—that is as much a part of the live experience as the game itself.  And it doesn’t hurt that live announcers, like accountants, only talk when they need to.

Still, even at live games, you can’t escape the beast that sports have become in America.  This is particularly true at the professional level, where admissions and concessions costs are enough to make your wallet wish it had stayed a cow. College sports at big universities aren’t much better.  When you pay a lot of money to see something, you want it to be something worth seeing.  That doesn’t always happen with live sports unless your favorite team is predictably good.  More often, your favorite team sucks and you pay good dough for the chance to be a part of the collective humiliation.  

No wonder sports fans have a reputation for being rude and grouchy.

Of course, not all sports experiences have to be like this.  Some devotees of athleticism have learned to see past this blubber and get at the real nerve and sinew of sports.  Such enthusiasts are the longsuffering sort, the kind who forgives player strikes, doping scandals, and unrestrained egotism in athletes because of an unwavering belief in the essential goodness of the game.  Like loyal Star Wars fans in a post-Jar Jar age, they choose to take the good with the bad.

But what about those who don’t deal well with the blubber?

This past Saturday I came across a solution.  Every year, practically every woman in my family—my wife, my mom, my grandma, my sister, etc.—attends a big craft convention.  None of us men knows what they do there—and, to be honest, we don’t really want to—we just know that for the entire day we’ve got to entertain the kids.  In years past we have gone to a local model airplane show or a museum.  This year, though, neither of those was an option, so I took a look around the internet and found what looked to be a promising sustitute:

As a connoisseur of all thing nineteenth century, I had heard of this sort of thing before:  teams of baseball amateurs meeting together every week or so in the summer, dressing up in period-style uniforms, and resurrecting a way of life long since consigned to the history books.  When I told my wife about it, she said it sounded like Civil War reenacting with bats. 

She wasn’t too far off the mark. According to the website for the Vintage Base Ball Association, vintage base ball teams, like regiments of Civil War reenactors, try to be as true to their source material as possible. That’s why they call their game “base ball” rather than “baseball.”  It’s also why you’re likely to hear “batters” referred to as “strikers” and “pitchers” as “hurlers” or “throwers.”  These players (or “ballists”) abide by nineteenth century rules and only use nineteenth century terminology and equipment.  So you’re not likely to see anyone using a glove either—unless he’s wimped out and gone mid-1880s on you.

Cincinnati has two vintage base ball teams—the Cincinnati Red Stockings and the Cincinnati Buckeyes—that face off regularly against other nearby teams in a field beside the Heritage Village in Sharon Woods Park in Sharonville, Ohio.  Both teams are named for actual teams from Cincinnati history, one of which—the Red Stockings—became famous in 1869 as the first professional baseball team in America.

On the day we headed out to the base ball field at Sharon Woods, the Buckeyes were playing the Norwood Highlanders, a team from a large suburb just north of Cincinnati. The Highlanders were a lean looking crew with bright red shirts, white caps, white knickers, and knee-high socks.  The Buckeyes, on the other hand, were a stockier lot.  They wore long navy blue pants, white caps, and baggy cream-colored shirts.  Both teams also had cloth shields pinned to the front of their shirts, which prominently displayed their team initial in near-illegible Gothic lettering.

The field they played on was nothing fancy.  In fact, it was pretty much just a field.  The bases were arranged in a neat diamond, without a dirt path or chalk line between them, and the pitcher’s mound—or hurler’s mound?—was an unassuming spot more or less in the middle.  The outfield was spacious, uneven, and bordered by a steady tree-covered hill that presented real problems whenever the ball was struck that far.  On both sides of the field, small stakes with white flags marked the bounds between fair and foul.

The Highlanders were the first team to strike, and before their half of the inning was up, they had tallied up some ten runs.  Striker after striker stepped up to the plate—or whatever it was they called it—and smacked the ball into the outfield, where the Buckeye’s hapless ballists did their best to catch it with their bare hands.  Of course, by today’s standards the hurlers made it easy for the strikers to do this; rather than pitching deceptive overhand pitches, they threw easy-going underhanded throws that floated nicely into the strike zone.   No wonder there was hardly a single strike-out in the whole game. 

While the Highlanders performed respectably during their first time at bat, real excitement came when a stout Buckeye stepped up to the plate and hit the game’s first home run with two men already on base.  There wasn’t much of a crowd at this match—maybe three dozen fans at most—but it went wild all the same. 

Of course, the real drama of vintage base ball happens not when the ball is struck into the outfield, but when it’s blasted into the infield.  About halfway through the match, a Highlander striker hit a hard line drive to the Buckeye third basetender, whose hand got smacked hard when he tried to catch it.  You could probably hear the sound of ball colliding with flesh all the way across the park.  A collective full-body cringe was felt by ballists and spectators alike.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the space here to go over all the nuances that make vintage base ball different from the modern game.  The truth is, for average spectators like me, most of the differences are subtle and almost imperceptible.  Aside from obvious exceptions like the strange uniforms and terminology, most differences—like the way the umpire rules on a strike or a foul ball—go unnoticed.  If you’re not looking for them, you’re not going to see them.

But things can get confusing.  It took us a few innings, for example, to figure that when the umpire called out “One hand!” or “Two hands!” he wasn’t referring to the number hands the ballists used to make a play, but rather the number of outs.     

What wasn’t confusing, though, was the camaraderie between the two teams.  At the end of the match—the Highlanders beat the Buckeyes 25 to 21—both teams lined up side-by-side while the team captains made good-natured speeches about the efforts of the other team.  I don’t know if that was how games ended back in the day, but I thought it wrapped things up nicely.  No obnoxious smack-talk.  No egotistical posturing.  No ad hominem attacks or Yo’ Mama-isms.  I had never seen anything like it at a sporting event.  And in a weird way it seemed natural.  It made me wonder if my experience with baseball as a kid would have been better if my coach had focused more on camaraderie and less on screaming at a clueless seven-year-old.

I didn’t have a chance to talk to any of the ballists, each of whom went by a clever personalized nickname.  If I had, I would’ve asked them why they’ve chosen to play the vintage game rather than the modern one.  I mean, it’s not like amateur baseball and softball teams are rare in these parts: both Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have quality amateur leagues for adult players.  And, really, how many men out there—barring Civil War reenactors—really want to dress-up in funny clothes and go out in public on the weekend?  

Not many, I imagine.

My guess is they do it for the purity of the match—the opportunity to step up to the plate, look out across an uneven grassy field, and not see a single advertisement or JumboTron or overrated eight-figure salary superstars.  Maybe they also do it for the period rush, or the thrill of acting or thinking or moving in a way lost to time.  I can’t say.  I imagine it’s a little of both—and then some.  A thing you can only “get” by doing it yourself.

Which will probably not happen for me.  As much as I’d like to put on vintage duds and strike a ball like a true amateur, my baseball skills—let alone my base ball skills—are still benched in the little leagues.  So, I’ll settle for being a spectator. 

I’d probably just break my hand, anyway, trying to catch a line drive without a glove.


  1. Huzzah! Fine article, sir. You asked why we play this version of the grand old game, and for the most part your assumption is correct. There is a genuine comradery to this game. Most of us have played modern baseball and beer league softball for years where you beat the tar out of each other, kick, bleed and fight to gain a run or change a call. The vintage game is a gentleman's game. If we are out, we call ourself out. We congratulate each other on a well struck ball. On a fine play in the field, both benches will rise with "Huzzahs". We invite each other to our practices and events and fill in for each other when teams are short on ballists. Sure, we want to win, and try to win, but as you stated, this is about the game in it's purest form. Vintage base ball is played for love of the game, not love of the win. That's why I play, and I'm certain many of the guys share that view.

    There are good guys throughout the vintage game, but I guarantee you'll find none better that the gentlemen who play in the Cincinnati area. Glad you enjoyed the match. We hope to see you in the future.

    Jim "The Colonel" Mattingly
    Captain, Norwood Highlanders

  2. .

    Every year on the 4th of July there's a vintage baseball game and every year I forget about it until we pass by it in a terrible rush to get to our inlaws.

    As you may be able to tell, I'm making a serious effort to keep it in mind all year this time around.