Throwback catching on

In a growing trend, the Elkton Eclipse is the latest team to join the Vintage Base Ball Association, using rules from the 1800s.

July 14, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,SUN REPORTER

ELKTON — Elkton-- --Before foam fingers. Before steroids. Before the Babe, Teddy Ballgame and the Say Hey Kid, there were ballists and muffins and cranks in the stands shouting, "Thunderation!"

Strikers waggling willows sent sockdolagers to the garden. Hurlers were fined for throwing "deceitful" pitches by an arbitrator formally dressed in a black frock coat and bowler. And woe to the gloveless behind trying to corral a jimjam with a runner bearing down on the dish.

That was then and it is now.

For the first time since the 1800s, men are playing the sepia-tone version of the national pastime on grassy fields in Elkton, Easton and Baltimore.

Going back, back, back to the game's roots has been catching on around the country. Eighteen states have active teams belonging to the Vintage Base Ball Association, created 11 years ago.

"It's old-time baseball and old-time fun," says Bruce Leith, founder of the Elkton Eclipse, which came to life this spring after 140 years in retirement.

On a stretch of green between the Elk River and the historic Elk Landing plantation, the men of the Eclipse gathered Saturday for practice as they awaited the arrival of the New York Mutual Base Ball Club.

The waist-high backstop was draped in red, white and blue bunting and down the right-field line was a hand-lettered scoreboard. There were no dirt base paths or outfield fences. The players looked like they just stepped from the nearby cornfield.

The ball, a leather-covered sphere of rubber and yarn, made a dull, booming thud when Leith launched it with a massive club.

"You aren't hitting with a bat called `Wonderboy' are you?" teased Mike "Chopper" Pyle, the Eclipse behind - or catcher.

At first glance, vintage base ball (two words back in those days) might seem to be the ideal activity for Civil War re-enactors looking to unwind. With their woolen uniforms, rudimentary equipment and gentlemen's rules, the players of vintage games step into character. Businessmen, school principals and airline pilots become players of yesteryear with nicknames like "Banker," "Schoolboy" and "Goliath."

To be sure, the lure for some players is the chance to step into history. But for many others, it is a break from fast-pitch and slow-pitch leagues and a chance to see what it's like to snag a line-drive barehanded or leg-out an infield hit without over-running first base.

It is not an easy game. After their first contest, three Eclipse players visited a local hospital for treatment of broken fingers, muscle strains and, in Leith's case, a hyperextended shoulder that limits him to a one-handed swing that earned him the nickname "One-Armed Wonder."

"It's survival," said Tom "Schoolboy" Duffy, the principal of Chesapeake City Elementary School and an Eclipse pitcher. "I'm in it to have fun and not get hurt having it."

On the Eastern Shore, the game has been revived by the Easton Fair Plays as part of community outreach by the Historical Society of Talbot County.

The original team played its first game in 1867, a 85-47 drubbing at the hands of the Choptanks of Trappe. Undaunted, Easton has come back.

"It was my idea," said Glenn Uminowicz, executive director of the historical society. "Vintage base ball is good for historical agencies. It allows us to get a new brand of volunteers, a younger brand.

"In February and March, the embroiderer's guild had a needlework display. Not to take anything away from them, but none of the embroiderers could go deep in the hole, get the ball and make the play at first."

Uminowicz, who was part of vintage teams in Michigan and Massachusetts, liked the idea of a historical display "to take on the road."

The Fair Plays use the rules of 1860, "the most inclusive rules," from a time when base ball was a social event, he says. The pitcher stands 45 feet from the plate; catching a ball on one bounce in fair territory is an out; no balls are called.

"We have no steroids," Uminowicz said. "Any home run you see is organic."

The Eclipse plays by 1864 rules, which differ only slightly. In Baltimore, the 15 members of the Chesapeake and Potomac Base Ball Club are learning to play the game by 1867 rules.

"Each year from 1855 on, teams felt like they could fix something, so the rules change a lot," Leith said. "It may not be a huge change, but it's enough to make you read up."

For example, the distance from the pitching mound to the plate was 45 feet in 1860, 55 1/2 feet in 1887, and finally in 1893 the modern distance of 60 feet, 6 inches. Balls and strikes were rarely called in the early years, but by 1872, a batter got three balls and three strikes, with the first pitch not counting.

As the host last Saturday, the Eclipse agreed to play the 1873-style ball used by the Mutuals.

Duffy had his hands full early on with one of the most experienced teams (overall record, 100-19). After getting the count in his favor - "Strike two. Reachable, sir," abitrator Tom Fesolowich told a Mutual - the New York team scored first.

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