Published August 04, 2013
GOVERNORS ISLAND, NY – The Gothams and the Mutuals are taking the field under a hot July sun. The players are wearing long-sleeved wool jerseys and trousers, and sporting caps, no logos. Pitchers are throwing underhand. Fielders are catching barehanded. Outfielders are grabbing the ball after one hop to register an out. Batters are forbidden from overrunning first base. Foul balls are not strikes. Pine tar is allowed; rosin is not.
No sunglasses, no Phiten necklaces, no autographs. The only juice is Tropicana.
This is 1864 base ball (two words in keeping with the era’s lexicon), and while Major League Baseball stars like Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun do their part to crush the game's good name, the men -- and women -- of the Vintage Base Ball Association are playing by different rules, showcasing America’s pastime in 9-inning contests to educate the public on the early history of the game they love.
This is your great-great-great grandfather's baseball.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” says Rafael “Wickets” Garcia, the shortstop for the Gotham Base Ball Club of New York, the team's official name, who began playing vintage ball eight years ago.
The “this” Garcia refers to are the historic games being played by more than 125 teams throughout the United States who recreate baseball according to the rules used by teams playing in the mid- to late-19th century. The games hark to the early days of America's favorite sport, when Civil War soldiers traded their handguns for bat and ball in brief respites from battle.
Garcia's teammates and rivals -- on this day the New York Mutuals -- forgo their given names on game day, calling each other by their old-time monikers -- Dirt, Big Bat, Flytrap, Pickles and General, to name a few.
The rivalries are real, of course, it’s baseball after all, but the players are all friends off the field. “We help each other out,” says Garcia. And that help often comes in the form of teams loaning out players when another club is short on talent. During this game, on the parade grounds at Governors Island, two gentlemen with the Boston Bean Eaters ball club are teaming up with the New York Mutuals.
There are pre-game strategy sessions and practices happen when players can make time. Player commitment is a challenge, as 21st century lives -- players include technology professionals, publicists and teachers -- can leave little room for the time and travel that comes with a vintage lineup. In addition to regular weekend games, there is an annual Father's Day tournament in Pelham, Westchester County, and teams recently played games at Gettysburg to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle. A General Robert E. Lee lookalike threw out the first ball. The Mutuals have even traveled to Canada.
The ballplayers, called ballists, range in age and skill levels, with rookies (known as muffins) competing on the same field as seasoned vets -- the catcher for one vintage team played professional baseball in Spain.
There is no pitcher's mound, and batters don't swing for the fences, because there aren't any. The bats are wooden, longer and heavier than the modern-day version, with a smaller barrel; the ball, called a "lemon peel," is not as solid as baseballs used today. It is handmade by one of only four American companies making vintage gear.
Fans are "cranks," many made up of players' families, friends and co-workers, and can be heard calling out "unmanly" and other 1864-era barbs when they see a play on the field they don't like. This includes watching an outfielder catch a ball on one bounce, which is an out. The games can be high scoring -- the strike zone is any reachable ball from the top of the head to 6 inches off the ground. On this day, the Gothams beat the Mutuals 15-6.
Women are not content to remain cranks, and have been playing vintage baseball for more than a decade, according to the Vintage Base Ball Association website. The clubs have names like the Ohio Village Diamonds, Lady Clodbusters, the Lady Locks and the Hens.
And vintage base ball is not a game for the faint of heart.
"The game's a little rough," says Garcia, shortly before a player hits the ground, writhing in pain, after the type of catch that often leads to dislocated fingers, a byproduct of the no-mitts rule. The wool uniforms can test a man's -- or women's -- fortitude, and heat is a nemesis. Players have been known to pass out on the field.
"I'm more interested in the baseball side, but it's more interesting from the historical side," says Gothams second baseman Kip Lubliner, whose girlfriend Jess got him interested in playing vintage base ball. Jess helps out at games, recording the frames (innings) and aces (runs) on an easeled chalkboard, donning a hooped petticoat dress, complete with spoon bonnet and parasol.
"We want to show people the history of the game, " adds Garcia. That sentiment, bringing history alive, is the passion that seems to run through many of the vintage players.
"The best part of being out here is talking to people, describing the rules, helping people to see the evolution of the game and educating the public," says Tom "Big Bat" Fesolowich, a pitcher with the New York Mutuals who is also the club's president.
That's also true for teammate Brian "General" Grant. "It's a lot of fun to be authentic to the rules, to be out here with the guys," says Grant, the club's outfielder and third baseman who was recruited by team captain "Dirt," aka Thom Fioriglio, Grant's former high school history teacher.
Many of the vintage teams can trace their history to Major League Baseball clubs. The Gothams can trace its history to the current San Francisco Giants; the visiting Bean Eaters players are forefathers to the Boston Red Sox.
And what sets the vintage teams apart from their modern-day counterparts?
"This is a lot better," says Peg Snedden, watching the game with her 6-year-old son, Adam. "It's free. No overpriced beer, no overpriced players, and these guys are here because they love the game, not because they love the money."