Men find ‘second childhood ’ in vintage game
By Les O’Dell • Photos by Steve Davis
A Vintage Baseball Lexicon
The vintage game has its own vocabulary, much of it as unique as the game itself. Here are some examples:
"The striker, a muckle, hit a daisy cutter to the center scout. The cranks shouted 'Huzzah' as the ace was tallied."
Translation: The batter, a power hitter, hit a sharply hit ball along the ground to center field. The fans yelled 'Hurrah' as a run was scored.
"After a ginger by the rover, the striker said, 'on the square, the behind tagged me.' "
Translation: "After an enthusiastic play by the shortstop, the batter said, 'to be truthful, the catcher tagged me."
"The apple was caught on the bound by the basetender. 'Two hands!' called the arbitrator."
Translation: "The ball was caught on one bounce by the infielder. 'Two outs!' called the umpire."
For more information go to The Vintage Base Ball Federation website www.vintagebbf.com.
Forget about the multimillion-dollar contracts, the artificial grass, the video replay scoreboards and the designated hitter. Heck, you can even forget the gloves because a growing number of Illinoisans are taking the nation’s pastime back in time.
They call the game vintage base ball, and while the modern compound-word sport is competitive and complex, the two-word version of the game is simple and subdued.
“It’s all about the spirit of the game, not like baseball today,” says Lee Slider, 76, of Decatur’s Rock Springs Ground Squirrels Vintage Base Ball Club. “It is sandlot for adults, but we play by the rules of 1858 and use the language of the day.”
Slider, who many refer to as “The Father of Vintage Base Ball in Illinois,” arranged for the team’s first exhibition as an educational program of the Macon County Conservation District in 1993. From there, more games and more teams followed.
“We’ve seen a number of clubs start,” he says. “The appeal is having a good time with camaraderie and a chance to exercise just like they did in the old days. Sometimes former league players get upset that we’re not more competitive.”
That non-competitive spirit of the game attracts players, called ballists, of all ages.
“It’s a lot slower game and it’s more gentlemanly; it’s not nearly as intense as the majors,” explains Dan “Professor” Graber, 64, of Creston. Graber serves as pitcher – called hurler in 19th century vernacular – for the local club, the Regulators.
“The game appeals to me at my age because I can still play,” he adds.
As a retired history teacher, he says the way the game harkens back to a previous time also is a draw for him.
“We try to use the uniforms from the era. I love the history of it. This is the game as it was started. We only have 14 or 15 rules and as you play by them, you understand why they were changed.”
Ah, the rules. It takes a while for first-time spectators to understand the nuances and terms of the 1858 game. Hurlers must pitch underhanded after the batter (known as the striker) indicates where and how he would like the pitch. Balls and strikes are not called, outfielders must play straight-away for all batters and basemen – called base tenders – cannot play more than two steps away from their bases before the ball is hit. The shortstop is called the rover and can position himself any where he feels is beneficial.
There are no stolen bases, batted balls that land just in front of home plate and spin into foul territory are considered fair and players are not allowed to overrun first base.
Additionally, balls caught on the first bounce are outs. This one-bounce rule is popular with players, since gloves weren’t invented yet.
“Gloves defeat the whole purpose,” says the Ground Squirrels’ Bob “Droopy Drawers” Sampson, 61. “Otherwise, you’re playing modern baseball in funny uniforms.”
The lack of hand protection causes players to approach the game a little differently.
“Being able to catch it on one bounce really helps,” he says. “Sometimes, too, you’re just better off ducking on line drives, especially at my age.”
Broken fingers and jammed digits are common. Most teams boast several players who have had some sort of hand surgery from catching the ball, which is a little bigger and just slightly softer than a modern baseball. Sampson says vintage base ball is every orthopedic surgeon’s favorite sport.
Lance Russell, who serves as first base tender for the Murphysboro Clarkes, says throbbing and painful hands following a game led to his vintage base ball nickname: Thumbs.
It’s an unwritten rule that all players have nicknames.
“The nicknames are something that vintage base ball clubs have latched on to from the early game,” explains Jim “Weed Eater” Knoblauch, 55, of the Vermilion Voles club from Danville. “Many of the players from that era had a nickname, so now you either come self-equipped with a nickname or you earn one out on the field.”
Knoblauch’s alias came from the way he quickly found a ball that had rolled into the weeds. Todd Daniels, 31, of Springfield’s Long Nine team, goes by “Pig,” a moniker his brother gave him at age 4. And what about “Droopy Drawers” Sampson? He says the name comes from an “unfortunate anatomical incident” during batting practice, and he bemoans the fact that players don’t get to choose their own nicknames.
Graber says that it’s common for players to know other teams’ players by nicknames while having no idea of their real identities. The nicknames add to the on-field banter between the teams – “not braggadocious, off-putting or upsetting to the other team,” Slider says – and adds to the entertainment level of the throwback sport. In fact, applause and calls of “Well played, sir. Well played,” come from both teams’ benches after a good play.
Even the umpire gets into the spirit of the game. Called an arbitrator in vintage matches, he is formally dressed (including top hat and cane), stands off to the side of the field instead of behind the catcher, who is referred to as, well, a behind. If necessary, the arbitrator will consult players or spectators before making a call. Most often, the ballists make their own rulings, so the role of the arbitrator is more of a facilitator for
“The arbitrator is sort of a master of ceremonies and helps explain to the audience what is going on,” Knoblauch explains. “”He’s got to be a bit of a showman and entertain the fans between innings.”
Arbitrators have the ability to fine players or fans for ungentlemanly conduct or language. They can even levy fines of up to as much as a quarter for a bad play.
“It’s all in fun like a good-natured family get-together,” Slider adds. “Those who are too serious get frustrated because it’s not the game they’re used to playing. We have, in a sense, recreated the attitude of the 1850s before it became more of a professional game.”
Leaving the professionals to the well-manicured stadiums, vintage games can often be found in city parks, historic districts or any open field.
“No two fields are the same,” Jeffrey “Dawg” Wright, 44, of the Murphysboro Clarkes says. “Every place has its own unique characteristics. It could have a huge tree in left field, a valley in center or just be a horse pasture.”
The vintage base ball family includes both male and female players ranging in age from their teens to their 70s.
“I like the fact that it’s a type of the game that I can still play,” Knoblauch says. “All ages can be involved in the game; our team has had as many as three father-son combinations play, so that’s a neat aspect.”
Vintage base ball teams have been formed by historic districts, area museums or simply by people interested in playing. Often, one team helps another get its start by sharing suggestions and resources. Currently, squads are required to travel several hours for games, sometimes even to neighboring states. In keeping with tradition, home teams treat visitors to a meal following a match.
Many of the ballists say the game reminds them of their own days
“When you get out there and play ball it harkens back to your youth; it’s just fun,” Wright says. “You spend time with great guys and everyone has a good time. During the game, I feel like I’m 24 and then the next morning I feel like I’m 54. Eventually the pain goes away and by the next Saturday, you’re ready to play again.”
Sampson calls playing vintage base ball “a second childhood.”
“I’m still playing this game that I’ve played since I was 6, but now I’m not trying to make some team or having a coach scream at me,” he says. “In some ways it’s like being 10 years old for 20 years. It’s all about having fun playing the game.”
Knoblauch says some players enjoy playing their childhood game; some are drawn to the historical aspects, and others like the gentlemanly nature of the game. Many, like Wright, enjoy everything about vintage base ball.
“It takes the game back to its roots; the way base ball was created in the first place. It’s like going back to the past, grabbing a piece of that, and bringing it to the present day.”