Baseball fans return to sport’s roots

The Vintage Base Ball Association promotes the history of the game and uses rules that tell players to forgo gloves and use a plate instead of a pitcher's mound, among other changes to modern baseball.

Colleen Harrison/The Saginaw News/AP/File
Players participate in the Michigan State Championship vintage base ball tournament at Carroll Park in Bay City, Mich., in 2012.

Day games, wooden bats, and box scores during the Major League Baseball season help keep the sport connected to its deep history. And this time of year, the playoff march through the World Series summons the echoes of the game’s past: Fall Classic heroes from Babe Ruth and Don Larsen to Willie Mays and Carlton Fisk, among many others, flicker to life in montages paying tribute to the drama of October.

But those historical nods pale in comparison to the Vintage Base Ball Association. Formed in 1996 in Ohio, the nonprofit isn’t a governing body. Instead the organization promotes the history of the game that was then known by two words – base ball – using rules from between the 1850s and 1880s.

What does that look like? None of the players wear gloves. The ball they play with is about an inch larger in circumference, and bats tend to be heavier and longer than in the contemporary game. There is no pitcher’s mound, but instead a plate, conforming to Civil War-era base ball. Perhaps most jarring to the modern fan, pitchers throw underhand.

Flat, open fields – not ballparks or even rec-league set-ups – are converted for vintage games. Nine innings and three outs mirror baseball today. Players are often anywhere in age from their 20s to their 60s, and there are 400 or so vintage teams.

Are these avid hobbyists the diamond’s version of historical reenactors? “We’re not reenactors, we’re re-creators,” says Brad “Brooklyn” Shaw, a former software manager at JPMorgan Chase who plays for a vintage team and serves as president of the Vintage Base Ball Association. “If the Civil War reenactors were doing what we do, they would be using real bullets. We’re playing real games.... It’s a purer form of the game.”

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