There were no victory dances when the Berkeley Clarions beat the Oakland Colonels on a recent Sunday at Albany Memorial Park. There were no high-fives, no fist-bumps, and no expletives from the losers. Such unruliness is not permitted in the gentleman’s game of vintage base ball — and high-fives won’t become standard practice until about 100 years in the future.
The Clarions, and the five other teams that comprise the Bay Area Vintage Base Ball (BAVBB) league aim to reenact the game of 1886, adopting the retro rules and rituals. Players of base ball — two words until the 20th century — want to harken back to an era predating $200 million contracts and performance-enhancing drugs. It’s baseball stripped down to the basics.
“People don’t realize the game has changed so much,” said Matt “Ranger” Petty, president of the league. “When they see modern baseball, everybody has bulky equipment and super salaries. There was a time when it was sort of a grittier game.”
In base ball, there are seven balls to a walk, compared to the contemporary four, and foul balls are not counted as strikes. The batsman (batter) specifies whether he’d like a high or low strike zone, and the hurler (pitcher) must comply — or face the wrath of the sir, the lone umpire.
The rules and dialect are easy to pick up, said the Clarions’ Mike “Bearcat” Lewis, but the equipment takes some getting used to. Lewis said players have to “bulk up” a bit to handle the 45-ounce wooden bats, which are more than 10 ounces heavier than those used in the modern game. And the gloves, lacking webbing and barely more substantial than garden gloves, have produced plenty of broken fingers.
“It takes a couple practices just to learn how to catch the ball,” said Lewis, whose self-described “old-timey facial hair” is a tribute to the game. “You can’t backhand the ball in this league. You can’t catch it over your shoulder. You have to get to the ball, wait under it, and have it fall into your glove.”
The league has made one concession regarding equipment, allowing the catcher to wear a bit of protective gear. In 1886 his uniform was the same as a fielder’s.
“Notoriously the craziest people played catcher,” Petty said. “And that’s still kind of true in this league. You’re still going to get banged up.”
Despite the grit and gore, the players of vintage base ball are required to behave civilly.
“The reason I was drawn to vintage ball was the balance of competition and sportsmanship,” said Brad “Frenchy” Gallien, the Clarions’ manager. “The value of the retro rules is that it forces decorum back into the game. No sassing the sir, no cussing. It is just a lot more fun to play like that.”
The flimsy gloves are “great equalizers,” Gallien said. “Even the best players in the league make plenty of errors so it keeps everyone humble and when a guy makes a great play, both sides rejoice. I guess being out there in vintage mode lowers the machismo without lowering the competitiveness.”
And the old-fashioned nicknames, bestowed upon a player after his third game, help bolster the camaraderie.
Most of the Bay Area’s “ballists” — who range in age from early 20s to 50s — played baseball as kids, and a couple were even on their college teams. Many join the league with the simple intention of playing ball with a good group of guys, but quickly get wrapped up in the reenactment. Players cheer on their teammates by shouting, “Stay in there, kid!,” “Keep fightin’!,” and “Home it in!” The player handbook includes a glossary of these terms as well as admonishments for those who “berate the opposing club” or disrespect the “sir” — a top-hat-clad gentleman who “may smoke a cigar.”
“I think it brings out the history buff in you,” Petty said.
If a player can find written evidence that a particular rule or piece of equipment existed in 1886, the BAVBB board votes on its authenticity. A few years ago a team left the league after a heated dispute over the use of eye black to reflect the sun. The team’s players believed it was worn in 1886 but were denied permission to use it because they couldn’t find proof.
In a few cases, it’s clear why an 1886 standard was retired. Petty said the league is receptive to female players or teams, and a few interested women have approached them. Of course, the league also neglects to practice the racial discrimination that was common in major league baseball until the 1950s.
BAVBB’s Berkeley team — recently rechristened the Clarions in honor of the city’s first documented baseball team in 1911 — was formed three years ago, and has undergone several major changes since. The current roster includes 12 players, whose 2014 personas range from Google programmer to classical music composer.
Despite the rookie status of many of the ballists, the Clarions handily defeated their Oakland rivals 9-3 in the last game.
The “huzzahs” could be heard around the block.
Want to catch a vintage base ball game? The Clarions play the Pelicans on Sunday April 13 at 3:00 p.m at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Check the full BAVBB schedule.
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