By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer
It was only the top of the first. There was already a man on third. And with the noonday sun an unforgiving spectator above, Tom “The Squid” Jordan had just knocked a single across the field at Fairmount Park.
“There you go, lad!” shouted his captain.
The cheer from Tom Fesolowich was not the only quirky aspect of the game between the New York Mutualsand the Elizabeth Resolutes, probably the first game of base ball played in Philadelphia in several decades.
Yes, that’s base ball – two words. And, as it was played in the 1860s, without gloves.
Did you say “ouch”? Watch your expletives. If your tongue wags any saucier, it will cost you anywhere from a quarter to $1 in fines.
Cursing is against the rules in vintage baseball, a reenacted sport that, with about 100 teams across the country, is a growing pastime for a subculture of history buffs who blithely don period uniforms made of wool, shrug off the occasional broken finger, and play ball – with an underhand pitch.
As the two teams squared off, the umpire stood removed from the hurly-burly of Saturday’s game, as much a picture of gentility with his marble-inlaid walking cane and black top hat as a New Yorker cartoon figure.
The ump – Brad Shaw of Flemington, who also coaches one of New Jersey’s two vintage baseball teams – provided a snapshot of a time when local pols judged fouls and outs for a crew of mostly white-collar workers who played for pleasure with few onlookers.
“It was a gentleman’s game back then,” said Mutuals player Steve “Even Steven” Sullivan. “If the umpire asked if you were out or you were in, you’d honestly say, ‘I was out.’ Everybody treated each other fair.”
By the end of the decade, paying spectators would arrive, as would immigrant players hoping to actually make a living at the game; the gentlemen would bow out, and the umps would, well, sometimes fear for their lives in a much more rough-and-tumble arena.
The Mutuals – made up of teachers, a tool-and-die maker, a sportswriter, a marketing manager, and others who also volunteer as actors at a Civil War-era village on Long Island – mimic an actual team that played during the brief life of the National Association of Base Ball Players, from 1857 to 1870.
Over the weekend they kicked off a tour of the eight cities where the association held its first games. Philadelphia, where a team called the Athletics reigned, was the first stop.
By the bottom of the sixth, with the Mutuals leading, 16-4, rookie Kip Yates was feeling pretty high about the tour.
He said playing in a regular – that is, circa 2002 – league wouldn’t do as well to satisfy his love of the game.
“Here, you’ve got history on your side,” said the 32-year-old Web publisher from Brooklyn. “Sometimes you feel like there’s a ghost breathing down at the back of your neck, making sure you’re doing it right.
“That, and I can’t hit a curveball.”
The Mutuals and other vintage baseball teams are almost like 19th-century actors who use the props of the past, such as handmade balls stitched in such a way that curveballs are nearly impossible to throw.
They keep modern trappings out of their game.
The catchers (called “hurlers”) don’t wear protective gear. The batters (called “strikers”) swing an old-fashioned mallet with iron at the end, rather than weights, to warm up. The flag they hang has 48 stars. And they wear only black shoes without logos or brand names.
“They didn’t have Nike back then,” said Tom “Kid Speed” Heinlein.
To some onlookers at the game, the flashback was fascinating.
“I’ve never seen nothing like this before,” said Bill Miller of Philadelphia, who had wrapped up his own game of ball, played by modern rules, earlier in the day. “It’s like 100 years of history rolled right back from you. I’m upset there’s no team from Philadelphia.”
Dan Gutman of Haddonfield went to Saturday’s game to research the next installment in his series of children’s books chronicling the adventures of a boy who travels through time using baseball cards.
He said the surge in vintage baseball in the last decade suggests fans, disillusioned by the baseball strike in 1994, might prefer to go back in time, too.
“People probably enjoy looking back to the good ol’ days before baseball players took steroids, earned million-dollar salaries, and charged little kids $50 for their autographs,” he said.
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