The striker motions to the exact spot where he wishes the ball to be thrown. The right-handed hurler, without pivoting, crosses his left leg in front of his right before releasing an underhand throw. The behind awaits the toss. With a full cut the ball is struck, landing in a large pine tree right in the middle of center field, lodging there. Players out in the field gather to shake the tree and, inevitably, the ball falls out. A player catches it after the first bounce. “One man dead,” roars the umpire. The cranks roar their approval.
Sound like any game you’re familiar with? Welcome to our national pastime, the game of baseball, as it was played in the 1860s.
Terms like striker (batter), hurler (pitcher), behind (catcher), and cranks (fans) constituted the baseball lexicon of the day, and a myriad of rules differing sharply from today’s game were in force then. For instance, because a fly ball could be caught on one hop for an out, as in the true example above, the hitter was out or “dead.” Other notable differences included playing barehanded without gloves and a more “gentlemanly” approach to the game.
“You get fined a quarter for spitting, cursing, leaving your feet, or sliding,” says Rob Williams, 49, playing manager of the Ludington (Mich.) Mariners Old Time Base Ball Team. “Back in 1863, which are the rules we play under, a quarter was approximately a month’s wage. It comes to significance when you think about how much that fine would be today for doing something that you see every day out on the professional fields.”
The Mariners are part of a growing nationwide resurrection of baseball’s hallowed roots. Currently, 56 teams in 15 states and one Canadian province are playing the old game, according to the Vintage Base Ball Association.
“It seems like the epicenter is in the Ohio-Michigan area,” notes Williams, a nuclear medicine technologist. “But it’s growing in popularity in California also. Everybody can learn about it if they go on the Internet and type in vintage baseball. They can then read about it in their own area.”
Baseball in Ludington didn’t start with these Mariners though. It began with a professional Class D minor league team by the same name in 1912 that played a total of seven seasons through 1926, taking a five-year hiatus during World War I. Those Mariners had their moments.
“In 1921, Ludington won the Class B Central League championship with a team batting average of .303,” says historian and Mariners vintage team co-founder Dr. William M. Anderson. “Ultimately five Mariners went on to play big league ball.”
Half re-enactment, half competition
But major league aspirations are not at the head of the list for participants in the vintage game played today. The presentation is billed as 50 percent historical re-enactment, 50 percent genuine athletic competition.
“It’s the interpretation, the theatrical part of it, that we want to convey to the cranks,” explains Ron Wood, director of the Mason County (Mich.) Historical Society and co-founder and general manager of the Mariners Old Time Base Ball Club. “We all have to work at it. There’s a fine line because of the competitiveness. Rob has done a fine job since he took over as manager of keeping that in front of everybody.” Williams adds, “In essence we’re a community play.”
The game accommodates players of all ages, an attractive magnet for the baseballer perhaps lacking in physical prowess but who still harbors desire. Ludington’s roster lists 58-year-old hurler Cliff Reed, a charter member since 1993, and second baseman Adam Wolfe, 16, at opposite ends of the age spectrum. The game’s historical aspect isn’t lost on the youngster.
“I’ve learned a lot, how it all started,” says Wolfe, a junior at Ludington High School. “It’s so different (than today’s game). It’s weird, like not having a glove. I like the origin of it and how they first thought of it.”
Though gloves are absent, that doesn’t mean they throw looping tosses to each other. Balls hit to third base and shortstop are routinely gunned to Ludington first baseman Barry Pleiness, because that’s often the difference between a hit and an out. Shaking hands with Pleiness, whose son, Chad, plays in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, is like attempting to grip a couple of whole hams with tweezers—an effect from the raw conditioning of catching a baseball barehanded.
The vintage game lacks nothing in proficient athleticism and stirring excitement. Against a visiting Kent team from Grand Rapids, Mich., earlier this summer, the game’s opening play featured an outstanding fielding gem by Pleiness on a sharply hit ball down the first base line. Moving to his left, Pleiness stuck his foot out to stop the ball, which then bounced 8 feet into foul territory. The big first baseman raced to pick it up, then beat the striker to the bag by a stride.
The game at times looks like a seamless blend of baseball and bumper pool, the ball always in play after it caroms off trees, buildings, players, ruts, rocks, and the like. The third striker, Kent’s pitcher, an African-American with strong athletic skills, hammers a shot to center field that rockets high into some pine trees, but no more than a single is gained from it before the ball falls to the ground, where it’s quickly retrieved and thrown to second base. Later, the same striker would sail a towering blast over a storage barn in deep right field, within which Ludington radio station WKLA was broadcasting the game live. The shot was ruled barely foul but turned heads, gaining a respectful “well struck” commendation even from the Ludington players.
The gentlemen’s code
A good play is always saluted, part of the gentlemanly code. Players on both benches, as well as those in the field, salute admirable play with, “well played.” If a good pitch is made, it’s “well hurled.” A good hit is “well struck,” sometimes followed by the person’s last name preceded by the formal title of Mister, as in “Well played, Mr. Williams!”
Another of the game’s spectacular plays involves a most unusual penalty as a reward for brilliance. Unlike modern baseball, the behind (catcher) can make a putout by catching a foul tip on one bounce. In the third inning, Ludington behind Mike Slimmen, 45, a salesman, makes a fully-extended, flat-out dive to his right, catching a foul tip with lots of topspin on one bounce to record a magnificent out for the Mariners. His reward?
“One man dead,” umpire Chuck Rueger imperially intones, “and a fine of 25 cents for leaving his feet. A gentleman does not leave his feet, sir.”
The incongruity of a remarkable defensive play accompanied by a monetary fine is one of the charming quirks of the vintage game.
“I think they once fined a player for thinking something he was about to say,” quips Ron Johnson, 58, an attorney and the team’s honorary manager. “To my knowledge, there’s not a single quarter in the fines jar.”
No one argues the call, another byproduct of the gentlemen’s game. “The nice thing is the camaraderie,” comments John Cooney, 36, a family practitioner, in his second year with the Mariners. “It’s competitive, but it’s friendly and honest. Everybody plays, but there’s no arguing over whether a ball was foul or fair. If it’s foul, it’s foul; if you’re out, you’re out. You compliment everybody. It’s just a nice way to play.”
The entire scene is one agreeable comfort zone. The playing surface, with a rutted dirt road running from left of home plate right through the pitcher’s box straight on out to center field and beyond, is no field of dreams. Rather it’s a time warp to the heart of baseball’s illustrious past—the game of innocence in rough-cut form—its simplicities and eccentricities on the table for all to enjoy.
This particular morning, the Kent Base Ball Club bests Ludington, 9 aces (runs) to 6. Kent manager, Gordon Olson, who played a vital hand in getting the vintage game instituted in Ludington, pauses to assemble a gratifying thought.
“At some of the places we play, if you position yourself, you can’t see a 20th or 21st-century intrusion any place,” he says. “You look out on a nice sunny day, and these guys are out there in 1860s uniforms, and you can just stand there for a minute, take a deep breath, and almost feel it as it once was. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
World Series Hits 100
Nine years before the Ludington Mariners Class D minor league team took the field for the first time, major league baseball was celebrating an end to the two-year war between the American and National leagues, staging in 1903 the first-ever postseason championship series between the regular-season winners from each league—the first modern World Series.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of baseball’s premier event, begun as a challenge initiated by the owner of the National League champion Pittsburgh Pirates to the Boston Pilgrims, titlists of the American League, for the “championship of the United States.”
Playing a best-of-nine series, Pittsburgh took three of the first four games behind the outstanding pitching of Deacon Phillippe, who won all three games, sometimes pitching on just a day’s rest. Game 1 featured the first-ever World Series home run, walloped by the Pirates’ Jimmy Sebring, as Pittsburgh dominated future Hall of Fame hurler Cy Young, 7–3.
The tide began to turn in Boston’s favor in Game 5, as the Pilgrims, forerunners of today’s Red Sox, logged five ground-rule triples from balls that traveled into the overflow crowds at the extremities of the outfield in an 11–2 victory. The Pilgrims then ran out the string, taking the next three games in a row to claim the first modern World Series crown.