A whole new ball game

Vintage base ball in the Miami Valley

By Sarah Sidlow

Photo: Tippecanoe Canal Jumper Brett “Quick Step” Hanselman takes the hurl

Baseball is a pastime played out in stadiums and backyards, parks and parking lots in America, Cuba, Japan and beyond. Today’s rules are the result of time and adaptation. Advances in equipment alter the emphasis on technique; sports science informs athletic training and commercial interests mean the stakes keep getting higher.

Yet, there are those who play the game as though time is standing still. They play “base ball,” circa 1860, in parks and fields across America. The Midwest is a particular hotbed for enthusiasts of the vintage feel, a logical extension of the area’s connection to the early days of baseball history.

Ohio’s ties are particularly close. In 1869, the Cincinnati Base Ball Club became the first all-professional base ball nine. During its first year of barnstorming, dressed in red stockings and competing, fittingly, as the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the team boasted a 57-0 record, and introduced the game of baseball to the American public.

Vintage base ball clubs explore the time in-between – from the beginning of the Civil War, and the sport’s rise in popularity, to the year 1869, when the game began to take on the form we recognize today.

Nearly 200 vintage ball clubs exist across the nation, with Ohio claiming close to 30.

The teams compete against one another – remaining largely in their own regions, playing weekend double-headers and occasionally competing nationally.

The Dayton Clodbusters are currently competing in their 25th year. They represent a farm team – a connection to the game’s popularity in rural Midwestern areas. The team now plays at Carillon Historical Park; they wear muslin shirts, brown pants, suspenders and hats – typical of a farm team in 1860, and very unlike the long-sleeve collared shirts of the city teams, which feature shields or placards. 

“We have won many tournaments in our 25 years,” Clodbusters captain John Everett said, “including the Clodbuster Cup, The World Series of Vintage Base Ball, the Frederick F. Douglas Cup, the Heart of Vintage Base Ball Tournament and the Sylvania Cup.”

The Champion City Reapers, based in Springfield, have players from throughout the region. The reapers are in their 11th season, and play in Springfield Township – known affectionately as “Reaper Meadow,” according to captain and original member Ben McLaughlin.

Tipp City boasts a team as well: The Tippecanoe Canal Jumpers were founded in 2009 with an exhibition match against the Clodbusters.

“The base ball club is a project of the Downtown Tipp City Partnership, Inc., with a mission to promote downtown Tipp City through this fine gentleman’s game,” captain Reed Spencer said.

And the emphasis is indeed on the gentlemanly nature of the game. While there is regional nuance regarding the rules of the game, nearly all vintage base ball teams in the Midwest follow the Beadle DIME rules of 1860, established by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club of New York. However, it is also common for teams to honor the rules established in 1869. This means many teams will play the first game of a double-header as if it is 1860, and the second as if it is 1869.

The players don’t use any equipment except a wooden bat and a ball somewhere between the size of a softball ball and a modern-day baseball.

Like today’s game, there are nine fielders and nine innings, with three outs per team. Also like today’s game, the distance between bases is 90 feet.

“Older, fatter, slower guys like me might wish for shorter distances, but no such luck,” McLaughlin joked.

The “hurler” pitches the ball underhanded to the batter, or “striker,” so he can hit it. Balls and strikes are rarely called, and there are no walks – in other words, you have to earn your place on base.

The major difference between the 1860 and 1869 rules is the ability to catch the ball on the “bound,” or bounce, for an out. Beginning in 1869, a ball had to be caught on the fly, unless it was foul. Sliding was also prohibited before 1869.

The umpire – typically dressed in formal attire, including a top hat, and officiating from a good distance away from the catcher – is focused on the players, ensuring their good behavior.

“He is the moral arbitrator of the match,” Spencer explained. “No cursing or spitting is allowed and any player caught will have to apologize to the ladies and receives a 10-cent fine.”

The game is played in the name of camaraderie – it’s where friendly competition combines with a shared interest and respect for tradition.

“The best team, as of right now, in our area is the Norwood Highlanders,” Everett said. “We played them two weekends ago. The match was close and our captain, Nate ‘Frenchie’ Buckner, hit a ball down the right-field line. The umpire could not see it to call it fair or foul. The Highlanders, being gentlemen, informed the umpire the ball was fair, and Mr. Buckner should be safe at first. This was in a tournament, where a loss for them would cause them to be out of the tournament.”

Ohio continues to be a strong advocate for vintage base ball. Each Labor Day weekend, Columbus’ Ohio Village Muffins host The Ohio Cup, which features 30 teams from around the Midwest competing in three games per day across four different fields.

“I think vintage base ball offers great competition that combines with great fellowship and a touch of theater,” McLaughlin said. “I like to say that it is the only historical re-enactment where the outcome is not pre-determined. For example, in Civil War battles, you know who wins. Not so with our base ball matches. After the games, the two teams sit down and eat a meal together, offering a chance to learn more about the history and each other. I cannot think of too many other similar situations, and that is why I keep playing.”

For more information about vintage baseball or the Dayton-area base ball teams, please visit vbba.org, clodbusters.org, tippecanoecanaljumpers.com or The Champion City Reapers’ Facebook page.

Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at Editor@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Sarah Sidlow
Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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