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The Old Ball Game: More rec clubs playing by 19th century rules  (Released Sunday, May 29, 2006)

By KRISTEN WYATT

Associated Press Writer

EASTON, Md. (AP) - The Easton Fair Plays are a lot like any coed recreational baseball team - except the players don cream-colored blouses and floppy red bow ties when they play, and the umpire wears a white suit, a black top hat and carries a cane.

The Fair Plays are among a growing number of baseball enthusiasts who play the game by its earliest rules, dating to the mid-19th century. Part sport, part history lesson, part improvisational role-playing, vintage baseball has grown from a handful of Midwestern clubs in the early 1990s to more than 100 nationwide today, with Maryland's first three clubs starting up this summer.

"I knew they played baseball many, many years ago, but I didn't know the rules," said Warren Kilmer, a retiree from Baltimore who played minor-league baseball for the Milwaukee Braves in the 1950s. Now the former second baseman is playing the game again, and learning its history. "I love it," he said.

The game resembles modern baseball, but there are some big differences. The Fair Plays don't use gloves, the pitching is underhanded and the ball is bigger and lighter than a modern baseball. This club plays by 1867 rules, the earliest recorded date of an actual baseball club named the Fair Plays in Talbot County.

On this day the Fair Plays are playing a practice match - they weren't called "games" until later. Club members toss the brown leather balls for a warmup. Then the "bowler," or pitcher, puts one hand behind his back and throws it underhand to a "striker," or hitter. The umpire stands to the side - there's not really a strike zone here - and the strikers take off any time they hit a ball that's not foul.

The Fair Plays haven't won a game yet, losing their first match to the Eclipse Base Ball Club of Cecil County. Which is only appropriate considering the original Fair Plays dropped their first match, too, an 85-47 loss to the Choptanks of Trappe.

Scores were higher then, probably because everyone was just figuring out the game and fancy defensive schemes were a thing of the future. Players couldn't strike out unless they swung and missed three times. Plus there was a one-bounce rule: If a ball landed on the ground but was caught on its first bounce, the player was out (surely the fantasy of many a modern outfielder).

And there's another aspect of early baseball that vintage teams today try to copy: inclusiveness. News accounts from the era indicate that early baseball was played for fun and exercise, and some clubs used both men and women and people decades apart in age. Such is the case in Easton, where the Fair Plays include theater workers and a history teacher, the former minor leaguer and some who have never tried the game.

Baseball historians say the game didn't become competitive until the advent of overhanded pitching. That led to faster pitches, which led to catchers needing gloves, then everyone needing gloves and the game becoming more athletic.

"After the Civil War it becomes less and less inclusive. It started becoming a young man's game," said Glenn Uminowicz, who started the Fair Plays and is executive director of the Historical Society of Talbot County.

Now that baseball is highly competitive, and big-leaguers make more money in a year than average folks see in a lifetime, it's little wonder that baseball lovers are looking for a more laidback version of the game.

Jeff Turner, who started the Chesapeake and Potomac Baseball Club this year, said he read about vintage baseball on the Internet, then posted a query on the online classified ad site Craigslist to see who else wanted to play. Responses poured in.

"I think it's getting more popular. Part of it is some disdain or distaste with all the struggles in baseball, with the steroids and the players overpaid. Players are viewed as not being about the essence of baseball or the love of the game," said Turner, 35. "People are looking for a purity in baseball, just to get out and play. It's not as much of an emphasis on the competitiveness."

Not that rivalries didn't exist back then. Baltimore Orioles fans may be surprised to find their rivalry with New York dates back nearly 150 years, when the Brooklyn Excelsiors came down in 1860 to play the Baltimore Excelsiors in Baltimore's first recorded baseball game. Sadly, Baltimore lost.

When fans or a "ballist" (player) got out of hand or cursed, they could be fined by the umpire. Ballists who scored a run wouldn't have it recorded until they ran to a scorekeeper, held up their right hand as if taking an oath and called, "Tally me, sir!"

"It's an oddity, but it's also something people like to watch," said Bruce Leith, 37, who recreated the Eclipse Base Ball Club this year in Elkton.

"Before steroids, before million-dollar contracts - before gloves - there was this game. It's pure," said Leith, who works in concession development for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Some vintage players say they've come to love the old-timey game so much that watching modern baseball is hard.

"It's really weird now when I watch ESPN. Everything's bright and neon and the players are all juiced up," said Tim Weigand, 40, who joined the Fair Plays.

But there's one modern change Weigand likes - the glove. Catching hit balls bare-handed is harder than he thought, and there's a reason why a hard-hit ball was called a "stinger."

"You can really understand why they went to gloves," Weigand joked, shaking his hands.

In many ways, though, the essence of the game is the same, said Suzy Moore, a theater manager who joined the Fair Plays.

"The history part of it - the rules, the terminology - it's interesting. But you still have a ball and a bat, and we're still out here to have a good time," she said.

 

On the Net:

Fair Plays Base Ball Club http://www.hstc.org/baseball.htm

Eclipse Base Ball Club: http://elktoneclipse.tripod.com

Chesapeake and Potomac Base Ball Club: http://chesapeakepotomacbbc.tripod.com

Vintage Base Ball Association:

http://www.vbba.org

 

Playing base ball the way that it was meant to be played