I showed up at this double-header expecting just to watch a few innings, sample some of the 19th-century ballpark snacks (prepared by Sarah Lohman, historical gastronomist and author of the food blog Four Pounds Flour), and head back to the cool comfort of my apartment to watch football all afternoon. Instead, I found myself sweating through 18 innings in a coarse cotton uniform, batting eighth and patrolling right field and second base for Flemington.
Now, if you are like me, everything you know about 1864 rules baseball you learned from a skit Conan O’Brien did on Late Night, when he visited Old Bethpage, Long Island to lampoon the historical reenactors. I was expecting men with facial hair modeled from daguerreotypes and Abraham Lincoln-related jeers. Instead, I got a real baseball game played by slightly different rules in slightly uncomfortable uniforms. These players travel around the east coast to play teams from New England to the Carolinas on the weekends, and they all do it for the love of baseball. As one Neshanock player put it, if the choice is between playing vintage baseball and beer league softball, this is much more fun.
"Brooklyn" sat out the first game and instead worked the crowd, handing out flyers, explaining the rules, and talking to the handful of reporters and bloggers who had come to cover the game. As founder and team captain, he is the club’s spokesman – the other players let him handle the press and field questions on historical baseball arcana from inquiring spectators. He never hesitates to answer a question or accept an interview – he is a true believer in vintage baseball.
Meanwhile, we got down to playing. Anyone who has played baseball in a backyard, sandlot or alleyway knows that before the first pitch is thrown, you need to set the ground rules. Where is the home run marker? Where are balls unplayable? And unlike at a major league ballpark, where smacking the ball as far as you can is celebrated, hitting a ball so far that it’s gone for good incurs penalties in less formal games. Under 1864 rules, the ground rules are made even more complicated because balls caught on one bounce make an out, so rules about ricochets, deflections, and other obstacles in the field of play need to be settled as more balls are playable for outs. After much discussion, these are the ground rules we settled on for the oddly-shaped field at the Old Stone House.
These rules are just one set of many that were adopted throughout baseball’s history. Baseball was not invented in a moment of inspiration by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown in 1839, as the myth goes, but rather slowly evolved over the course of the 19th century from a variety of games with origins in the British Isles, like cricket, and more importantly, rounders. Many versions of the game were played throughout the country, but the rules laid down by the New York Knickerbockers in 1845 became commonplace, eclipsing earlier versions, like the Massachusetts rules, also known as Town Ball (similar to the way in which New England variants of another sport – bowling – were overshadowed by a game born in New York; see more about this story in a previous blog post). The 1860’s was perhaps baseball’s first golden age – before the age of professionals, soldiers passed their idle time playing the game in barracks, bivouacs and prison camps during the Civil War, spreading the game across the vast country. Vintage clubs today help preserve this evolutionary history, and many even play several versions of the game taken from different periods of history.
In the video, you can hear the referee warning the “striker” and the pitcher before he begins calling balls and strikes. These rules are more akin to slow-pitch softball than modern big league baseball, in that they encourage making contact. The pitcher is warned if he does not throw a good pitch to hit, and the striker is warned if he lays off of hittable pitches. The message: runs and outs should be made by contact, not by drawing walks and trying to paint the corners of home plate (which is actually impossible, since home is a disc.)
Despite my poor play, we took the first game 15-11, and after a brief intermission for lunch – generously provided by the Old Stone House, a building that once acted as the Dodgers’ clubhouse before they moved across Prospect Park to Ebbets Field – we took the field again. By the second game, I felt more comfortable in the field and at the plate – my hands got used to the sting of catching, and I focused on driving balls low and hard along the turf to prevent anymore one-bounce outs.
For game 2, I had moved from right field to second base, and after a few gaffes in the field, the Gothams rushed out to a 10-1 lead. Improved fielding in the later innings, and dynamite pitching from Brooklyn – who snapped the ball over the plate with his wrist, while other pitchers mostly delivered soft lobs – helped to stop the bleeding. Tom “Thumbs” Hoepfner socked the only home run of the day, and we cut the lead to 13-6 entering the ninth. I managed a single, and quickly stole my way to third – the slow pitching motion made base stealing extremely easy in the 1864 game – before I was driven home. Another rally reduced the lead to two, but a two-out hit turned into a rundown between third and home, and we fell 13-11, splitting the series.
At the end of the day, I was 3-for-7 with a walk, two runs, four stolen bases, and too many errors to count. Not a bad afternoon, but I'll have to improve my play if I want to shake the nickname "Muffin."
The Flemington Neshanock and New York Gothams play regularly on the weekends throughout the warmer months – visit their respective websites for schedules. For more on where to see vintage baseball, visit the Mid Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League or the Vintage Base Ball Association. Special thanks go out to Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw and all the Neshanock players for letting me play with them and teaching me the ropes – I hope to take the field with them again in the future. Thanks as well to the Gothams for the spirited competition, and to all the staff at the Old Stone House for putting together this great event (check their calendar for other upcoming events). Finally, thank you to Emma Angevine and Alex Narvaez for cheering me on and taking photos of the game.
For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson (firstname.lastname@example.org). All photos are by Andrew Gustafson unless otherwise noted.