For Texas Rangers and Houston Astros fans, April brings the sweetest of sounds—the first crack of the bat at the season opener. For a group of history-loving fans, a new season for 1860-vintage “base ball”—as the game’s name was spelled during its 19th-Century origins—sounds just as sweet... something like this:
“Base ball” is the 1860s spelling of America’s national pastime. Accordingly, several Texas teams play by 19th-Century rules at games and tournaments throughout the year. Dates for 2008 listed. Contact the following community teams for times and places. For more information, check out the Texas Vintage Base Ball League.
The Buffalo Gap Chips and Abilene 407s of the Buffalo Gap Historic Village (325/572-3365) play on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of the month. Call for locations and times. The teams also play a game at the living history museum (14 mi. south of Abilene on Texas 89) on the Fourth of July. The annual Texas Forts Trail Vintage Base Ball Tournament is planned for Apr. 26 at the village. Call for details.
The ad hoc Cedar Hill Cartwrights host a tournament Apr. 5 at the Cedar Hill Expo, Cedar Hill State Park (1570 W. FM 1382, 972/291-3900). The park will also feature vintage base ball Oct. 11, during its Days of Old Celebration.
The Montgomery College Saw Dogs (936/273-7290) host the annual President’s Cup Vintage Base Ball Festival at the college on Sep. 13, featuring a Civil War theme. Check the Web site or call for additional details.
The Boerne White Sox of the Agricultural Heritage Museum (102 City Park Rd., 210/445-1080) hosts the Veterans Cup tournament on Nov. 8. The museum is just off Texas 46 next to Herff Park and the Kendall County Fairgrounds.
The Farmers Branch Mustangs of the Farmers Branch Historical Park (2540 Farmers Branch Ln., 972/919-8731) practice on the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of the month and play Apr. 19, during the park’s Texas History Alive! event, as well as during the park’s vintage base ball tournament Oct. 11. Call for times and locations.
The Richmond Giants of George Ranch Historical Park (10215 FM 762, 281/343-0218) host a game during the living history center’s annual Fourth of July celebration.
The Fort Concho/San Angelo Vintage Base Ball Club of the Fort Concho National Historic Landmark (630 S. Oakes St., 325/481-2646) plays a game on June 14, during the fort’s annual Frontier Day celebration, a popular family event.
“Striker to the line!” (Batter up!) yells the Blind Tom (umpire) to begin the match (game). The first striker (batter) picks his favorite willow (bat) and saunters up to the dish (home plate). Rather than in the modern squatting position, the behind (catcher), stands a few feet back, wearing no glove, face mask, or chest protector. The striker outstretches his willow showing where he wants the apple (base ball) delivered (customary in the mid 1860s-1880s) by the bare-handed hurler (pitcher). Several encouraging cranks (fans) yell to the players, “Show some ginger!” (Play it smart!)
The hurler’s underhanded pitch arches toward the striker, then—SMACK!—a sky ball (high fly) drifts over the outstretched bare hands of the rover (shortstop) and the midfielder (center fielder).
Ballists (players) from the striker’s nine (team) scream “Nicely struck!” (Good hit!) and “Leg it!” (Run it out!).
The apple bounds to the edge of the grounds (ball field) and the striker, in a baggy shirt and knickers, takes first, second, and third, then steps on the dish, to complete a four baser (home run).
“Permission to tally an ace (run)?” the breathless ballist asks the talleykeeper (scorekeeper), then rings the tally bell, scoring the ace.
“Huzzah!” roars the crowd.
America’s national pastime had a different ring to it 150 years ago, yet today’s vintage base ball aficionados find that the archaic jargon echoes the origins of the game—a more courteous amateur sport played by farmers, merchants, and soldiers for recreation and community pride. Across Texas and the nation, a growing cadre of enthusiasts now preserves the ancestral game’s spirit, rules, and earliest terminology by playing on low-key, high-fun vintage base ball nines (teams).
Last year, several nines created the fledgling Texas Vintage Base Ball League, which coordinates games and tournaments played by 1860 rules. (Some clubs also play by 1880s rules. By the 1890s, the rules were essentially the same as today.) Although women ballists would have been taboo in 1860, both men and women now play this very “old school” game.
The new league’s commissioner is base ball guru Wendel Dickason, who studies the sport (and has formed an ad hoc team, the Cartwrights) in Cedar Hill, near Dallas. I caught up with Dickason last season at George Ranch Historical Park in Richmond, where he served as the Blind Tom for the annual President’s Cup Vintage Base Ball Festival. (Montgomery College in Conroe hosts the 2008 festival. See Essentials, page 62.)
At George Ranch, two historic homes—the 1899 George Ranch House and the Victorian 1880s JHP Davis Mansion—serve as perfect backdrops for the vintage game. Chalked foul lines meet at a round, flat metal dish, and hay-filled canvas bags served as bases. Eager to play, ballists dressed in replica period uniforms from five nines fidget on hard wooden benches. Some toss an 1860-style apple (somewhat larger and softer than today’s ball) or take swings with heavier, thicker replica bats.
Dressed in a dapper red cravat and black vest with a gold watch fob, Dickason photographs each team with an antique view camera. Then he clues me in on base ball history and vintage rules.
Even though legend holds that Civil War hero Abner Doubleday invented base ball, Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr. wrote rules in 1845 for his New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club. These rules established the game’s basic format—including the diamond-shaped field, three strikes and three outs, and fair and foul territory. “Soaking,” a practice of zinging the runner with the ball to make an out, became illegal. With the addition of the 90-foot base path and nine-inning game, the newly formed National Association of Base Ball Players adopted Cartwright’s rules in 1860.
Texas’ first team—the Houston Base Ball Club—organized in 1861. During the Civil War, Union troops played the game in prisoner-of-war camps like Camp Ford near Tyler.
Texas’ first team—the Houston Base Ball Club—organized in 1861. During the Civil War, Union troops played the game in prisoner-of-war camps like Camp Ford near Tyler. Campaigning Confederate soldiers from Texas brought the game home after the war.
Here’s how the 1860s game differs from the modern game:
You can make an out by catching the apple on the fly or after one bounce—a pain-saver for ballists who play 1860s style, without gloves. Hurlers pitch underhanded from 45 feet away, and the Blind Tom calls no balls or strikes (though he may do so if the striker delays the game). The rules of vintage base ball keep the ball in play, creating a more lively game.
No sliding into base—too undignified for 1860. No over-running first base. And because there’s only one umpire, the Blind Tom may call a play after seeking advice from ballists or cranks—old-fashioned honesty is expected.
Dickason explained these rules to the President’s Cup spectators. Then each of the four clubs played two action-packed games—the Richmond Giants (the George Ranch home club), the Conroe-area Montgomery College Saw Dogs, the Farmers Branch Mustangs, and the Boerne White Sox. A fifth club, a pickup group called the Houston Revolvers, joined in the action, as well.
The Saw Dogs cinched the championship game in a 13-12 win over the Farmers Branch Mustangs on a thrilling four baser by Saw Dogs slugger “Joltin’ Joe” Garza of The Woodlands.
The Saw Dogs grew out of a Montgomery College baseball history class taught by Michael “Molasses” Hickey. In 2004, Michael and fellow ballists organized the President’s Cup to bring the historic game to life.
The host team, the Richmond Giants, embodies local history from the 1890s. That’s when Bud Davis, a third-generation member of the George Ranch family, who played base ball at St. Edward’s in Austin, joined the Richmond community team. The Giants uniform bears the Richmond “R.”
Two West Texas historic sites play out their own local base ball history with authentic competition.
Each year, Fort Concho National Historic Landmark in San Angelo suits up cavalry and infantry re-enactors to play an 1880s-rules game typical of the fort’s heyday. Garbed in replica period military clothing, the soldier-ballists play on one of the state’s most historic ball fields—a military parade ground dating to the 19th-Century frontier.
Buffalo Gap Historic Village, near Abilene, fields two teams formed by Bob “Bonecrusher” Wettemann, former director of McMurry University’s Public History program. The Buffalo Gap Chips personify rural players, and the Abilene 407s role-play a city team. Their rivalry re-enacts an 1880s political battle in which Abilene took the Taylor County seat from the community of Buffalo Gap. “Vintage base ball is about recreation,” says Wettemann, “but also about having fun and exercising a love of history.”
That double play (fun and history) proved a game winner at the Farmers Branch Historical Park. “It’s been a great living history outlet for us,” explains education director Barbara “Salty” Judkins. “Our uniforms are replicas of those worn by a Farmers Branch team in 1908.”
For Kristy Watson, director of the Agricultural Heritage Museum in Boerne, vintage base ball became a “Field of Dreams.” After discovering the sport at a living history conference, she ran an ad in the Boerne Star newspaper on the notion “form a team, and they will come.” Come they did, suiting up in Boerne White Sox uniforms, based on a 1914 local team. (Watson even sewed the pants herself.)
One local recruit was Jay “Beans” Avers, who, like many vintage ballists, played ball as a young man, and now wants to revisit the sport decades later. “My kids had never seen me play, so this is a good way to do that in a low-stress sort of way,” Avers told me at the end of the President’s Cup. “To see the looks on their faces when I score an ace is the greatest feeling in the world.”
Huzzah for Avers! And huzzah for all the ballists of Texas... who play for the love of the game... and who proudly show some ginger!
Randy Mallory of Tyler liked vintage base ball so much that he shot and produced a short video of his experience at the President’s Cup.