Putting the “past” in America’s pastime.
Photos by: Matthew Muise
Vintage base ball players are a special breed of reenactors. They’re athletic, skilled at running, throwing, and hitting, and they boast a healthy level of nostalgia for the days when base ball (spelled as two words prior to the 1880s) was a gentleman’s sport played in open fields. They find it more educationally effective to hit balls than books, so they don striped knee socks and newsboy caps on summer afternoons to demonstrate how base ball was played in the good old days.
To see vintage base ball firsthand, Bostonians need venture no further than Newbury,
home of the Essex Base Ball Organization. The nonprofit group has resurrected five extinct base ball teams of 19th century New England—the Lynn Live Oaks, Lowell Base Ball Club, Portsmouth Rockinghams, Newburyport Clamdiggers, and the Essex Base Ball Club. Each is named for an actual team of yesteryear, and they play with more educational than competitive agendas.
Brian Sheehy, the organization’s president, is enthusiastic about the value of physically recreating the game, pointing out that,
“you can read a history book about base ball, but this is really seeing it in action.”
Sheehy has been playing vintage base ball for 12 years, and he enjoys the family-friendly atmosphere. After games, kids (and brave young-at-heart adults) run the bases, heft wooden bats on their shoulders, and toss balls around with the players.
The rules of 19th century base ball set the game apart from its modern counterpart. To get an out, fielders can catch a ball on the fly or let it bounce once. The bounce rule is particularly handy in the absence of gloves, which none of the players wear. The pitcher throws underhand, and the batter can take his time picking the perfect pitch to swing at. The umpire doesn’t have to call every pitch as a ball or a strike; instead, he arbitrarily decides when the batter has let too many good pitches go to waste, then gives the batter a warning and starts calling strikes. It takes three strikes for an out, and a whopping seven for a walk.
For the past few years, the Essex Base Ball Organization has partnered with Historic New England to schedule summer games at the historical Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury. Games take place in an open hayfield, and spectators sit along the shaded sidelines in camping chairs or on blankets, munching on hot dogs and drinking beer from the Ipswich Ale truck parked just beyond the field’s wooden fence
(unfortunately, the beer prices are not vintage).
Whether or not you enjoy historical reenacting or base ball, everyone should try them together. I can think of few things more American than sprawling on a picnic blanket, drinking a beer, and watching a base ball game with a rooster cock-a-doodle-do-ing in the background (it is at a farm, after all). See the schedule for upcoming games, but before you go, brush up on ye olde base ball terms.
VINTAGE BASE BALL TERMS
Ballist: a player
Hurler: the pitcher
Striker: the batter
Behind: the catcher
Cranks: the spectators
The Garden: the outfield
Muffin: a player of lesser talent
Cloud Hunter: a fly ball
SAT 6.15.13. FATHER’S DAY TOURNAMENT. ESSEX VS. MELROSE. SPENCER-PEIRCE-LITTLE FARM, NEWBURY
SUN 6.23.13. CLAMDIGGERS VS. ROCKINGHAMS. SPENCER-PEIRCE-LITTLE FARM, NEWBURY
MON 6.24.13. HISTORY, HOT DOGS, AND HITS MIXED NINE VS. DANVERS HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL TEAM. ENDICOTT PARK, DANVERS
SUN 6.30.13. LOWELL NINE VS. LIVE OAKS. SPENCER-PEIRCE-LITTLE FARM, NEWBURY