Sunday, June 13, 2004

In Search of a Pastime

Friday’s trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame left be disappointed in the state of baseball. I found the remedy in attending two baseball games: Hartford Senators vs. Providence Grays, and Elizabeth Resolutes vs. Melrose Pondfielders. All the teams played vintage baseball.

Foul ball that came at my head

The games were held in Northampton at Look Park (part of the city’s celebration of its three hundred-fiftieth anniversary. The teams play with different sets of rules and equipment from the last third of the nineteenth century. While these overtly differ from the modern game, how they affect the play of the game is what makes it all interesting: who would care if a bunch of guys dressed up in old uniforms to play the game? If you want to get a deeper comparison between the rules and practices of nineteenth century baseball, you can look at the website of the Vintage Base Ball Association.

Of course, the players dressed the parts: old uniforms with soft hats that more resembled a French railroad conductor than a baseball cap; white or simply colored uniforms with the name in clear letters or, in the case of the Resolutes, an “E” in gothic type; high cuffs on the pants and colored high socks.

Mandatory underhanded pitching

Three of the four teams played without gloves; the other, Hartford, played with gloves that offered little protection–they simply covered the fingers and the palm of the hand and had nominal padding. Materially, this had the greatest impact on play. Fly balls were difficult to catch, and the goal of infielding was to stop the ball and pick it up as much as trying to catch it. Hard hit balls were approached with hesitation and were often dropped. At least one advantage that fielders had is that they played in high grass (they would not play on one of the established baseball diamonds in the park because they were not in use during the era). Hard hit balls slowed quickly once they hit the ground. Between slow balls and bobbles, the infielders had to have some range and, most importantly, throw hard. There were lots of great throws from third base, some of which sailed right by the first baseman and into the crowd. Hartford had an advantage in its game because it used gloves: they were able to handle fly balls better. (The owner of the Hartford Senators also manufactures equipment: Vintage Base Ball Factory.)

The bats were more stick like. The likely result was that balls were hit with less power. Considering the number of hits there were, few were extended to extra bases. Gappers did not get far past in the infield, and doubles resulted from the positioning of the outfields rather than the power of the hit. I should say that there was one home run, hit really well, in the Elisabeth-Melrose game, and one Hartford player broke his bat on the perpendicular to the axis.

One interesting rule that was not used (although it could have been) was one bounce: an out could be called if the ball were caught on a bounce (including third strikes). This might have made playing gloveless more tolerable, but I saw few opportunities for this–the grass slowed down the ball too much in situations in which waiting for a bounce might have been useful. How did players back in the day deal with the pain: apparently by having addictions to morphine.

RBI Single

Because of these peculiarities, the first baseman was a strong infielder rather than a strong batter. The Gray’s first baseman had an excellent throw from his knees to second base, barely missing throwing out a runner.

The rules had their affect on play as well. Most strikingly, runners were required to tag up on ground balls if the batter did not reach first base safely. It was not obvious that runners could advance on ground balls, and often had to turn around to tag up.

While the area in which batted balls were “fair” remained the same, the area of being in play was different. The field of play was as large as space itself–throws and passed balls that went into the crowd had to be retrieved. Considering people were sitting very close the diamond, a bad throw that sailed at the audience could also be followed by a charging catcher. I was sitting to the right and slightly behind home plate; at one point I dodged left to avoid a passed ball, but as I came up I had to dodge right to avoid the catcher who was jumping over me. They even had to retrieve the balls from fans who caught them–fan interference did not stop play. Foul balls were pursued with equal gusto–they were considered dead balls, but the teams were not allowed to replaced them in the course of play, nor could they allow the pace of the game to slow down.

In the game played by 1871 rules, the pitcher could not throw the ball in any way other than underhand. This rule produced controversy among many people in the crowd: weren’t they really playing softball? Certainly the pitching more resembled fast pitch softball, but what the teams played was baseball as it evolved. Side-arm would not be allowed until 1876, and overhand until the 1880s. In this way, it was easier for the catchers to play without protection. They also stood further back from the plate, acting more like a fielder, standing up so that they were always ready to run after a ball. (The 1886 players used chest protection and to gloves).

Rounding third

In both games, the batters could choose their strike zone: a high zone from the belt to shoulders, or a low zone from knees to belt. In the early game the first pitch was counted as neither a ball nor a strike, although the batter could choose to swing at it. Foul balls were not strikes, but they could be caught for outs.

The teams themselves preferred to play with different sets of rules, meaning that the rules were under constant negotiation and revision. Rules changed from year to year. Even if a rule came into play, not all games were governed by that rule. There were professional games in 1871 that were played with the one-bounce rule even as the professionals tried to eliminate it. Before the game the managers-players met with the umps to discuss rules. During the game the players on the bench called out to fielders and runners to remind them how to make plays. The most contested moment came in the early game when a tag at home forced the ball out of the catchers hand. It was ruled that it was only sufficient that the catcher had possession of the ball and that losing control of the ball because of the collision was not sufficient to make the runner safe. The runner was out.

Style was important. The umps dressed in business suits and top hats. They stood to the side of the batter rather than behind, smoking cigars as they called the play. They made no motions, only observed what happened. Some batters imitated old stances, others played with more modern influence. The 1871 game was very exciting–running and fielding were so much more important, there was more to see after the ball was hit. There was more stealing, some of it very obvious. The pitching was also faster–the pitcher did not wait for the hitter to be ready, and usually threw the next pitch as soon as possible. There were lots of “huzzahs” for great plays.

All of the players were very nice. They were aware that onlookers could be confused by what they were seeing. The players and the umps answered questions at almost any time, even between half innings. The games generated lots of interest as people talked about how the game unfolded–it turned into more than just curiosity over antiquity. Since much of the crowd was just people who came to the park for the day, the games generated tremendous excitement.

July 2-4 the Vintage Base Ball Association is holding a tournament with a dozen or more teams in Hartford. I will probably attend to see some more of the teams.


At 7:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very cool - I really enjoyed your summary.
I heard a great report on Only A Game a while ago about vintage baseball. They mentioned the one bounce rule and how the umps would confer with the players.


At 7:10 PM, Blogger Jim Naka said...

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here, keep up the good work :-)


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