May 30, 2005

STRIKER TO THE LINE:

Runs, Hits and an Era: Hurlers and batsmen in a Bay Area 'base ball' league play according to 1880s rules and customs. Its vintage feel is a far cry from today's game. (James Ricci, May 30, 2005, LA Times)

Players in the South County Jasper dugout tried to conjure an era-appropriate term as they exhorted batsman Mike "Professor" Ballen to drive home his teammates at first and third base.

"All right, Professor, two horses in the barn!" yelled Jasper captain Gary "Pops" Cooper. "Two roosters in the henhouse!" offered another teammate. "Two fleas on the dog!" cried a third.

The expression "two ducks on the pond," sometimes used by present-day broadcasters, clearly wouldn't do — not for this group of "ballists" intent on re-creating not only the look and play but even the argot of "base ball" as practiced during the presidency of Grover Cleveland.

"Striker to the line," called umpire Jim Saeger, black top hat bobbing and gold pocket-watch chain glinting in the sunlight of a recent Sunday morning. Ballen, with his blousy lace-up shirt, long stockings and trousers that tie below the knee, stepped up to home base, hefting his thick-handled replica bat.

"How would you like your pitches?" the umpire, as required by the old rules, asked.

"Low," Ballen replied.

"Low strikes," the ump informed Steve "Cappy" Gazay, hurler for the San Jose Dukes.

Gazay delivered as instructed, a pitch between the belt and knees. With an "oomph," Ballen lofted a high single to left field, allowing both runners to leg it home for a 12-5 Jasper lead.

When the game was over and the clubs had cheered "huzzah!" for each other, the unbeaten Jaspers had a 13-10 victory, stretching their winning streak to five games.

Which meant the Duke losing streak was now at five.

The two clubs are the only members of Bay Area Vintage Base Ball, which began its inaugural season last month. The organization is the only one in California devoted to playing the game according to the rules and customs of the 19th century.

Its players welcome the old game as an alternative to frequently quarrelsome adult baseball and softball leagues. It also represents a kind of purity that is lost in the din of the modern professional game, with its high-tech equipment, tantrum-prone millionaire players and rock-concert sound systems.

The vintage game, said author and former New York Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton, "is the wave of the future. It has all the things that people love most about baseball, and none of the things they hate."

Vintage baseball — "base ball," as it was called 125 years ago — has been a fixture in the East and upper Midwest for as long as two decades. Members of nearly 200 amateur clubs can be found on weekends running sand-filled bases in knickers and pillbox hats and trying to field hardballs with gloves no thicker than a gardener's — or with no gloves at all.

Some clubs are affiliated with local historical museums. Others were started by Civil War reenactment groups, which emulate Union and Confederate soldiers' recreational activities.

But there is a crucial difference between ballists and soldier-reenactors: On the base ball diamond, the competition isn't scripted, and it's often intense. The equivalent would be Civil War reenactors firing live musket balls at one another's potbellies, with the victory awarded to those left standing.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 30, 2005 8:50 AM
Comments

Base ball represents a kind of purity that is lost in the din of the modern professional game, with its high-tech equipment, tantrum-prone millionaire players and rock-concert sound systems.

If 30,000 fans would regularly turn out to see the games, the antique style of base ball would quickly acquire the trappings of modern baseball.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at May 30, 2005 9:59 AM

If 30,000 fans would regularly turn out to see the games, the antique style of base ball would quickly acquire the trappings of modern baseball.

Maybe that's Jim Bouton's goal -- if it's "the wave of the future" and becomes popular, then he can write a shocking expose of what goes on behind the scenes in base ball and have another No. 1 best-seller.

Posted by: John at May 30, 2005 10:57 AM

It would be great to see someone charge off the bench to snag a foul ball, first yelling "Kelly now catching!", of course.

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 30, 2005 1:24 PM

I've gone to some retro-base-ball games at the Ohio Village museum in Columbus. It's fun, and with historical reenactors in among the fans playing 1880s characters, you can suspend disbelief and play time traveller.

Posted by: Mike Morley at May 30, 2005 8:34 PM

Which, oddly enough, is the plot of a pretty good novel:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0452283728/juddsbookreviews

Posted by: oj at May 30, 2005 8:58 PM

oj:

It's not too late for you. Though the 'gloves' used are primitive, the 'dead' ball more than compensates (particularly if you're an infielder). Ask Santa for a retro uniform and equipment this Christmas, and you'll be ready for spring training '06. Though not quoted in your excerpt, the article did mention that home-plate umpires (consonant with 1880's rules) were allowed to smoke cigars while calling the game. Don't be complaining about that tobacco use, or the umpire will widen the strike zone on you.

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at May 30, 2005 9:35 PM
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