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Old-school rules make vintage baseball a blast

By Craig Clary

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McDonogh grad Jeff Turner takes a swing during practice with the Chesapeake and Potomac Base Ball Club.
Vintage Baseball

Fathers have bonded with their sons in a ritual as old as America's pastime - baseball.

"Hey wanna have a catch?" - from "Field of Dreams," was one of the classic movie's most compelling lines.

Just imagine, though, what the first generation of players endured to play the game.

Like playing catch without a glove.

That's exactly what vintage baseball enthusiasts with the Chesapeake and Potomac Base Ball Club were doing at a practice at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County last month.

It's not your father's baseball or even your grandfathers' game they play. It's more like your great, great grandfather's game.

Using rules strictly from the post-Civil War era, the Chesapeake and Potomac squad eschews basket-sized outfielder mitts or triple wall titanium bats.

Bare hands, a pair of dark long pants, long sleeved white shirt and puffy striped hat were the order of the day for the players' attempts to reproduce baseball, circa 1868.

A thick wooden bat was the weapon of choice against the underhand offerings from a teammate.

On the cool, cloudy day on an auxiliary soccer field at UMBC, manager Jeff Turner was one of eight men out - actually seven men and one woman - in preparation for a July 15 tournament in Elkton with three other teams.

Turner's ballists, as they were known during the Grant Administration, included folks of all ages from Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Turner, 35, a McDonogh School graduate and White Marsh resident, is trying to expand the league.

"For us, its just to get out and have fun and see what it's all about," Turner said. "The biggest thing is, once people get on the field and get the opportunity to catch the old ball and swing the bat and play with the old rules, they really kind of get hooked to it."

The old ball is made of India rubber and cork, wound with a lemon peel cover that is cut, pieced together and sewn.

"The ball develops a softness after you hit it a few times and it's not 100 per cent symmetrical, so you kind of get some funny bounces and funny spins on it," said Turner, who grew up in Owings Mills.

Although they currently play 1868 rules, the tournament in Elkton used rules from 1864 that dictates if a fielder caught a ball on one bounce, the batter is out.

When Chesapeake's Mark Kobofcik, of Ellicott City makes a tough catch in the long field (deep outfield) the behind (catcher), Susan Sherwood, yells out "Huzzah!, Huzzah!, (Hurrah!).

Sherwood is having a ball behind the plate, made of real metal, by the way, as is the plate used for the pitcher's mound 45-feet away.

"It's just a lot of fun. It's really friendly and it really highlights the fabulous nature of the game," said Sherwood.

Joe Stanik, 51, shared the day of practice with his son, Mike.

What brought him to the field in his long white shirt and dark pants?

"The history. Back in the day when the game was in its infancy, (it was) developing traditions and customs," Stanik said.

Stanik said the game spread rapidly through the military ranks during the War Between the States.

"In 1868, an umpire could confer with players, a captain or the fans to come to a final decision on a play," Stanik said.

In those days, pitchers were expected to pitch a hittable ball, and a hurler (pitcher) was warned before pitches out of a hitter's reach were counted against the pitcher.

"In the early baseball, the pitcher was basically the facilitator, just to kind of get the ball moving," Turner said. "It wasn't until the late 1860's that they were actually trying to strike people out and change speeds and pitch the ball fast and slow."

In the 1870's, pitchers started to throw sidearm. By the 1880's, the pitching motion was closer to today's modern overhand style.

The bases have always remained 90-feet apart, but for vintage ball, a diamond is not necessary. Any large field of grass is appropriate for use.

In the old days, games were nine innings, bunting was not allowed and fouls were not counted.

Those and other early rules of the game inspired Turner's attempt to combine history and athletics into a happy event.

"I've always had an interest in history, and of course, baseball, and it's a good combination of the two," said Turner, who attended Gettysburg College and was an avid baseball fan even though he ran track in high school. "I used to eat, live, sleep and breathe baseball. But I just got tired of all the business, egos and the attitudes. This has gotten me back into following baseball more, and (I am) getting excited about it."

Turner has 20 players on his roster, but realistically can only count on a squad of around a dozen fellow ballists.

"We're really trying to find more people in Baltimore that are interested in baseball or softball because it's got elements of both," he said.

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