Of Strikers and Hands, A Bunch of Cranks, and a Good Bit of Hearty Hollering…
By Carolyn Battista
At Fort Trumbull State Park in New London, the Thames team faced the Wethersfield Red Onion team on one warm Saturday; the Lyme Taverners on the next. Just before the Thames-Onion match, both teams posed for a group shot with everyone looking steadily, seriously at the camera. “We’re told not to smile,” Jim Wyman, the Thames manager explained, “because this was a game of 1860’s ‘base ball.'” Everyone aimed to look the way 1860’s players did when posing for slow-shuttered 1860’s cameras.
The Thames Base Ball Club, the Red Onion, and the Taverners are among several area club and hundreds nationwide that regularly play vintage base ball—that is, baseball as it was played back when it was two words. They follow early rules, wear period uniforms, call the batter the “striker,”and call outs, “hands.” Of assorted abilities, ages, and occupations (including, at the recent Fort Trumull games, accountant, landscaper, student, fire inspector, teacher, and dentist), they all love the action and atmosphere of old-time base ball. So do the spectators who cheer them on.
In the 1860’s, base ball was being played and figured out around the country. “Rules were evolving rapidly at that time,” Wyman noted. Equipment was also evolving. The Thames Club plays by 1861 rules by which a runner may not overrun first base, and a ball caught after one bounce is an out. Pitching is underhand or sidearm, and nobody wears a glove. Vintage base ball is usually pre-1890, because by that year the game had become more like modern baseball with overhand pitching and no “one-bounce” rule. Baseball gloves—which had evolved from modified work gloves—were in use then, as was the newfangled catcher’s mask.
For Pete Reynolds, the Taverners’ manager, old-time base ball is “a little bit of a passion. It’s camaraderie, and it’s a lot of fun for young and old.” It’s non-commercial baseball, a “gentlemen’s game,” with rules against spitting and swearing. “It’s good for kids to see how baseball should be played,” he said. His sons, ages 11 and 16 play on his team, which was facing the Thames club’s age 70-something pitcher.
The Thames club, sponsored by the New London Historical Society, was launched by Edward Baker when he was the society’s director. “History is not just dates and wars,” he said. “It’s part of everything we do. It’s how we developed.” In the mid-19th century, base ball came along as America industrialized. Leisure time appeared, as did recreational pursuits. People who worked in offices had time after work, unlike dawn-to-dark farmers. They didn’t get physical exercise the way farmers did, but they began to see exercise as “invigorating.”
Civil War soldiers played base ball “when they weren’t marching or fighting,” Baker said. When those soldiers came home, they seemed to seek bonding. There was a growth in men’s clubs, including base ball clubs. Crowds came to games. “It was good to see boys running around base ball diamonds, instead of running off to war,” Baker said.
He dug through old newspapers and learned that in 1866, “New London County caught base ball fever.” So did many cities and towns. In an article for the historical society, Baker described the lively base ball scene of 1866 and listed such area teams as the Double-Headed Muffins, Grisly Bears, Thames, Pequots, and Oceanics. One newspaper account described a game between the New London Pequots and the Mystic Oceanics, where clubs met at a wharf in New London, the Mystic Brass Band played, and then a procession set off for Williams Park, the game site. Another account noted the Pequots’ new uniforms, “very handsome and well made.”
In the 2015 sunshine the teams at Fort Trumbull all wore handsome uniforms, including knickers and old-fashioned base ball caps. The Taverners, sponsored by the Lyme Tavern in Niantic, wore shirts that laced up. The Thames club sported big red “T’s” on the shields of their shirts. The Red Onion team, sponsored by the Wethersfield Historical Society, is named for the item that Wethersfield farmers once shipped far and wide. “Isn’t the Onion great?” said Jeff Kornhaas, the Red Onion manager, as he eyed the fine red vegetable on his team’s shirt-shields. Kornhaas, who has organized another vintage team, the Liberty, also displayed his special Liberty bat, hand-painted with an eagle, stars, and stripes.
For vintage play, there’s a vintage “lemon peel” ball. It’s made of one piece of leather with four slits sewn up with “lemon peel” stitching. (That design wasted a lot of leather, so manufacturers soon developed the now familiar figure eight arrangement of cut leather pieces).
The umpire of vintage games is often called the “adjudicator.” The action on the field includes smash hits, some fast running, dogged fielding, and hearty hollering. At the Thames-Onion game that last included loud reminders to the “adjudicator” that in 1861 he wouldn’t be calling fair balls, only foul ones.
Vintage teams often play exhibition games at fairs and festivals. Dawn and Dave Tessmer have regularly attended Thames games ever since seeing the team play before the start of a Connecticut Tigers game at Dodd Stadium in Norwich. Ann Marie Hansen, watching the Thames-Taverners game said, “We’re ‘the cranks.’That’s what they used to call the fans.” Another spectator at that game, Rebecca Donohue, was properly attired for 1861 in a hoop-skirted dress and feathered hat.
At work, Donohue wears a more modern outfit—an 1876-style dress with a bustle. She is the foreman of role players at Mystic Seaport, and 1876 is what they do. Several years ago Donohue watched friends play vintage base ball, got interested, and soon learned that between 1866 and 1876 some young ladies were catching base ball fever, especially at women’s colleges and girls’ schools. When she spotted an 1876 photo of a Vassar College base ball club, the Resolutes, she was hooked. “These Victorian girls, wanted to go off and play base ball!” she said. She and her cohorts made outfits resembling those of the Vassar photo, bought blue stockings, and took to the field as the Greenmanville Blue Stockings. The Blue Stockings have played off and on ever since. A photo shows them in their flannel caps and workaday dresses, their belts embroidered with the club name. Greenmanville was the 19th-century name of the area where the Mystic Seaport is located, and these days when Donohue’s 1876 character chats with Seaport visitors, she sometimes tells of how she chaperoned a base ball club at Miss Porter’s school in Farmington, Conn. (There was indeed such activity at Miss Porter’s in the 1870’s, but it came to a halt when parents learned of plans for a game between their young ladies and fellows from Trinity College).
Now there are a number of women’s vintage teams around the country (some proclaiming “Dirt in the Skirt!”), and a few women join the men on local teams. At Fort Trumbull Andrea Browne played her last game with the Onion before moving to Ohio where she’d already found a vintage team to join.
Vintage players like to get people interested and involved in base ball. They often chat with spectators, explain what’s going on, and answer questions. Pete Reynolds said, “Between innings, we ask youngsters to come out and try. We’ve often invited fans to play a couple of innings. Every year we’re looking for new players.”
At the end of the Taverners-Thames competition, Taverners lined up together and shouted “Huzzah! Huzzah!” Vintage teams welcome everybody to come, shout, and maybe even play.
For more information:
Vintage Base Ball Association, vbba.org; Vintage Base-Ball Factory (events, uniforms and equipment), vbbf.com; New London Historical Society (including Baker’s article), nlhistory.org; Thames Base Ball Club, thamesbbc.org; Lyme Taverners, lymetavernersbaseball.org; Wethersfield Red Onion and Liberty, firstname.lastname@example.org. Other vintage teams in the area include the Hartford Dark Blues, Newtown Sandy Hooks, Simsbury Taverneers, and Woodstock Hilltoppers in Connecticut; the Providence Greys and Bristol Blues in Rhode Island.