Culture and code of yesteryear on display in ol' time baseball

Hundreds of 'cranks' watch the 'strikers' and 'ballists'

  • Glyn "Hammer" Richards of the Elkton "Eclipse" blasts a line drive to left frield during the old fashioned baseball game Saturday.
Glyn "Hammer" Richards of the Elkton "Eclipse"… (Photo by Phil Grout, Patuxent…)
July 03, 2011|By Bob Allen

Vintage Civil War era "base ball" exhibition introduced fans to some new terms, but in many ways the game is the same.

In base ball — as in the vintage circa 1865-style, two-word version of the all-American pastime — you not only have the exhilarating crack of the narrow bat hitting a slow, underhand-"hurled" (pitched), straw-filled ball.

You also have the sharp smack — as in "ouch!" — of a sharply hit "stinger" (line drive) rocketing into a "ballist's" (fielder's) bare hands — and quite often back out again.

But that's the way they played the game way back when: no gloves; no helmets; and no over-priced, sweat-proofed Under Armour sportswear.

And that's the way the historically correct ballists of the Elkton Eclipse and Mechanicsburg Nine base ball clubs — both members of the 15-team Mid Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League — played the game Saturday, in Westminster, when they squared off in an exhibition "twi-night" doubleheader as part of the annual Civil War Corbit's Charge Commemoration.

In soft caps, black shoes (some players even paint their Nikes and New Balances black for historic accuracy), baggy black trousers (sometimes held aloft by suspenders), long-sleeved jerseys, and white shirts and soft caps; these ball players looked more like bank clerks on a lunch break.

"Well struck, sir!" was the congratulatory refrain to a sharply smacked base hit.

"You got time on the bounce! …. Well done!" a manager shouts as one of his "ballists" scores a "hand" (out) by catching a "cloud hunter" (fly ball) to "the garden" (center field) on the first bounce.

"That's two hands!" the manager shouts to his teammates in encouragement.

There are other variations, as well. Bunting, for instance, has not yet worked its way into the game, even though a sharp chop by the "striker" (batter)that drives the ball into foul territory on the bounce is still considered fair (as opposed to a "foul tick") if it first strikes the ground in fair territory.

And while a modern-day base runner is automatically out if hit by a batted ball, it wasn't unusual in 1860s-style ball for a runner to intentionally block the ball in order to disrupt the infield defense.

The couple hundred spectators — called "cranks," "bugs" or "rooters" — who watched the June 25 game from a grassy slope bordering an athletic field behind Westminster Middle School, had to get used to such departures from both the rules and nomenclature of contemporary baseball.

Fortunately, players from both teams were more than happy to answer questions.

According to Bruce Leith, founder and president of the five-year-old Eclipse Base Ball Club of Elkton, that's part of what it's all about.

"We not only play; we try to let people know about the history of the game," said Leith, an Elkton resident who by day is manager of concession development for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Leith, whose team plays about 40 games per season against other Mid-Atlantic League teams up and down the East Coast "from Connecticut down to Virginia," says everything about his team — from the uniforms and equipment to the rules and etiquette — is based on scrupulous historical research.

The Eclipse is modeled after Elkton's first base ball club, organized in the summer of 1866.

"Six of the starting nine players were surgeons from the Union Army," added Leith, whose team prevailed 13-6 over Mechanicsburg in the afternoon game. "They had picked up the game in Union Army camps in New York and New Jersey."

According to the Elkton team's website, elktonbbc.com, the objective is "to promote camaraderie and exercise while also showing the public how base ball was played in the 19th century and what a sporting event was like in the 1860s in Cecil County."

Some aspects were, and are, apparently not much different. For instance, when a base runner is caught in a run-down between third base and home plate, things get pretty rough and scrappy.

And tempers momentarily flared when a soaring fly ball to left field with "round tripper" written all over it was curtly called foul.

Then, too, that Civil War era baseball can sometimes take a few odd turns of its own.

By the end of the game when they get through smackin' that ball full of straw, it gets to be "like smacking an egg," one player joked.

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