'Base ball' gets a blast from the past with vintage game

FREMONT Even though it was 83 degrees Sunday in Fremont, Earl Bargerstock refused to roll up his sle
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

 

FREMONT

Even though it was 83 degrees Sunday in Fremont, Earl Bargerstock refused to roll up his sleeves to play baseball.

Rolling up the sleeves is an undignified thing to do, he said, and baseball -- or base ball, as it was called back in the 1860s -- was once a gentleman's game.

Not displaying the proper civility used to cost base ball players, Bargerstock said. Players who spit and cursed would have to pay a fine of two bits to the umpire. Failing to wear the uniform properly also was a 25 cent fine. Sportsmanship was everything.

Long before there were shoe and sports-drink endorsements, press conferences and multi-million dollar contracts, base ball was played by community members in any field they could find.

"This was a Sunday afternoon thing, and it was all for fun," Bargerstock said. "Players were not allowed to be paid -- not in the 1860s. ... Also, there were no professional fields so you played in a cow pasture."

In the 1860s, it was not uncommon to have players chase a hit through tall grass or catch a flyball after it bounced off a tree. There were no fences to restrict a ball's movement, so players chased line drives into bushes and gardens.

Tal's Hill, the 30-degree uphill slope at the Houston Astros' Minute Maid Park, is cake compared to the challenges the Spiegel Grove Squires face. The Squires, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center's old-fashioned base ball team, have to play on a field that is liberally studded with tall trees.

Located behind the Hayes' carriage house, the Squires' base ball field is a hitter's dream. What normally would be an easy fly out in a modern baseball diamond is never a sure bet. The ball can ricochet off a tree branch and go just about anywhere.

These scenarios were seen Sunday when the Squires competed against the Wyandotte Ghost Riders in a two-game slugfest.

Balls bounced off tree trunks and would pinball off multiple branches before coming to rest in the tall grass. Players dirtied their shirts diving after balls that bounced in all directions.

"It's like an obstacle course," observed Joe Dolcemaschio, 65, of Sandusky.

Dolcemaschio was one of more than 175 people who gathered to watch the two vintage base ball teams engage in battle. Even though it was fierce competition, the players on each team were quick to congratulate each other.

When Ghost Riders first baseman Brad "Bull" Shane caught a line drive barehanded, the Squires bench let out a hearty "huzzah" -- a roaring show of support.

Players did not use gloves in the 1860s. The balls were not as hard, and the rule was that a hitter was out if the opposing team caught the ball on the first bounce.

The absence of gloves is what impressed Blake Merrill, 13. The Toledo teenager said it gave the game an unpredictable aspect. Anything could happen because catching the ball never was guaranteed.

"It does look harder than normal baseball. When you field the ball, you don't have a glove to catch the ball," he said. "And I like the catch it on one bounce rule, and that it's a hitter's park."

Unlike professional baseball, vintage base ball does not emphasis pitching. There are only underhand pitches, and batters rarely get strikes. Virtually every at-bat involves a hit, so the game tends to have more action than Major League Baseball.

"It's not as much of a pitcher-controlled game. And everything's unexpected -- you don't know what's going to happen," Dolcemaschio said.

The Squires head to Dearborn, Mich., early next month to compete in the World Tournament of Vintage Base Ball. But mark the calendar because the Squires host the Cincinnati Red Stockings at home at 2 p.m. Aug. 17.