The boys of summer (of 1864)
Mar 31, 2015 02:17PM
● By Steven Hoffman
Abner Doubleday’s important contribution to his country is carved in the granite of history. He was a Major General in the Civil War. He fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter, the opening battle in the war, on April 12, 1861. He also played a pivotal role in the early fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, which is generally regarded as a crucial turning point of the war. Despite these verifiable exploits, these lofty actions that affected the course of an entire nation, Doubleday is best known as the inventor of baseball. The Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown, New York, an idyllic American small town where Doubleday is said to have invented America's game in the 1830s. The field adjacent to the Hall of Fame is called Doubleday Field in the decorated Civil War general’s honor.
Here’s the problem: In most circles, Doubleday’s role in creating the quintessential American game is now considered nothing more than a pervasive myth that was briefly accepted as fact. Doubleday himself never claimed to invent baseball, nor did he write about the game in his extensive diaries. References to baseball games in America date back to the 18th century, long before Doubleday would have had the opportunity to lay down the first set of foul lines. Most baseball historians now believe that baseball evolved over time and no one person can make a claim as an inventor of a game that grew as the country grew.
In the mists of its embryonic years, baseball might have started out as a game for children, but by the 1850s it had evolved into a “gentleman’s game” played by well-heeled men, usually in cities. In the years following the end of the Civil War—thank you again for your service, Major General Doubleday—the popularity of the sport exploded. Amateur teams were organized in communities large and small. It was during this period that the original Diamond State Base Ball Club was organized in Wilmington by a group of local lawyers and businesspeople. The squad debuted on Oct. 7, 1865, and what an impressive beginning it was: The Delaware team defeated the St. Mary’s College squad, 69-26. In the team’s first full season, the Diamond Staters compiled a 15-2 record, losing only to two teams from Pennsylvania. By the end of 1866, with the popularity of the sport growing, new teams formed all over the state, including clubs based in Delaware City, Newark, Milford, New Castle, Middletown, and several more in the Wilmington area.
The Diamond State Base Ball Club’s run was short but impressive: It was recognized as the pre-eminent team in the state during its run before disbanding in the 1870s.
John Medkeff, the founder and president of the modern day Diamond State Base Ball Club, can remember the first time that he and his son saw the vintage brand of base ball. They traveled to Elkton, Md. to see one of the best teams in the Mid Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League in action. It was like stepping back in time.
In vintage ball, the fielders don’t wear gloves. They do wear old-fashioned uniforms and engage the crowd in conversations. The pitcher delivers the ball underhanded from a mound that is just 45 feet away from home plate. A ball caught on one bounce by a fielder is recorded as an out. The balls and bats, while certainly recognizable, are different from the ones used in the modern game. The umpire, called an arbiter, faces the batter as he hits, and keeps the game moving by calling anything even close to the hitting zone a strike.
“We watched the game and it was just perfect,” Medkeff said. “Seeing it out on the field, I knew that we had to do this. There’s something very pure about seeing the game played under a blue sky. You’ll recognize the game right away. It’s amazing how much it hasn’t changed. But it’s really neat to see this kind of baseball for the first time. It’s a lot of fun to watch and it’s important to know where the game came from.”
Medkeff, who lives in Newark, soon found out that Delaware was the only state on the East Coast that didn’t have a vintage base ball team. That led him to do some research on the history of the 19th century teams in Delaware: the rules that they played by, the uniforms that they wore, the equipment that they used, the teams that they played against. After some research, Medkeff began planning the rebirth of the Delaware team.
The Diamond State Base Ball Club of today wears uniforms that replicate those worn by the original base ball club. Medkeff said that he and the other players relied on descriptions of the uniforms because “there are no photos that have survived.”
Medkeff was not familiar with the style of play from the 1860s; like most people, he was more familiar with the modern rules of the game.
“I really didn’t know much about the tradition of vintage base ball,” he said. “Even during the Civil War, the front page of newspapers carried box scores of baseball games. After the war, people were really infatuated with the game. Interest was really high in Delaware.”
Before long, he was working on plans to start a team that would eventually play in the Mid Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League against teams from all over the East Coast, including Elkton, Easton, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C.
The recruiting of players was a slow process at first, Medkeff said, but the first practices were taking place by the fall of 2008. The Delaware team debuted in 2009, playing according to base ball rules and customs of the mid-1860s.
“We’ve all agreed to play by 1864 rules,” Medkeff said, “but sometimes we will switch it up and play by different rules.”
He noted that during that time, the rules were frequently changed to improve the game.
Medkeff is typical of many of the players on the vintage base ball league teams in that he played baseball in high school and then coached when his child took up the sport. Participating in vintage league base ball was a way to continue to play the game.
“The average age of the players is 35 or 40, but this has appeal for anyone of any age who is interested in staying involved in baseball,” Medkeff said. “There is a place for anybody.”
John Cahill, a resident of Newark, was one of those who joined the Diamond State Base Ball Club early on.
“I’m a baseball fan, old and new,” he said. “I came across the Elkton team first and the coach told me that they had a Delaware team starting up. The guys on the team are just like me. We played baseball in the past and we loved it. Then we went on and had families and careers. Now, this is a way to participate in the game again. This harkens back to a simpler, purer age of baseball.”
Cahill’s favorite part of the game, besides the camaraderie with other players is the environment. “You’re out there on a green field on a sunny day in June. It’s a beautiful game,” he explained.
Middletown resident Scott Rawding is the vice president of the organization. He explained what prompted him to join a team. “I wanted to get back into sports again. I used to play a lot of softball. We have guys who are really good and other guys who come out for fun. It’s fundamental baseball. No gloves, no fancy uniforms. We keep it light but we’re competitive. We respect the historical aspect of the game.”
The teams start practicing in March, begin the regular season in April, and finish in October. Diamond State plays between 35 and 40 games per year with most of their home games being played at their field at Ft. DuPont State Park in Delaware City. The team also plays several games each season elsewhere around the state. In 2012, they will be playing at places like Hagley Museum, Twin Lakes Brewery, and at Dover Day. Occasionally, a team will take a longer trip to play a team that has passed along a special invitation.
The field itself is remarkably similar to the modern one—there are 90 feet between the bases. The pitcher’s area is only 45 feet from home plate. The fields, like the uniforms and the style of play, are simple. If there happens to be a tree in the middle of right field, so be it. The rules stipulate that a batted ball that hits a tree or any other irregularity is still in play.
While most of the players have a background in baseball, the vintage style of the game has enough differences so that even the most experienced player needs to make adjustments.
“It’s so distinctive—the fact that you don’t play with a glove,” said Frank Brevoort, III, a second baseman and outfielder on the team. “You feel really alive out there.”
Catching the ball without a glove is undoubtedly the biggest adjustment that players must make as they adjust to the customs of vintage base ball.
“You make your fingers into a web and you learn how to catch the ball without a glove,” Brevoort explained. He recalls only one instance when a player got injured because he wasn’t wearing a glove. A guy lost a pop up in the sun and caught the ball awkwardly, breaking a finger in the process.
“That’s the only time I remember an injury like that, but when that ball hits your hand, it hurts,” he said.
“You adapt,” Cahill said of the challenge. “You figure out how to catch the ball without getting hurt.”
Rawding plays first base, a difficult enough position for a fielder wearing a glove. He said that he adjusted quickly to making plays without a glove.
“I encourage my infielders to throw it as hard as they need to—I’ll catch it,” Rawding said.
The ball itself is slightly softer than the standard hardball used today. And an afternoon of hitting the ball with the tough wooden bats of the era makes a difference, too. The bats are typically longer, fatter, and heavier than the ones used by modern players.
“At the end of the game,” Brevoort pointed out, “the ball is a little softer than when it started.”
Another important difference between the vintage game and the modern one is that a ball that lands in fair territory in the infield and then rolls foul is still considered in play.
Players in the vintage base ball league adhere to the tradition of using nicknames for each other.
Last season, for example, during a particularly torrid hitting streak, some teammates nicknamed Brevoort “Killa B.” The oldest player on the squad, he was on his way to batting a robust .444 in 2011.
“That was my first year and I hope to hit better this year,” he said.
Killa B’s son, Frank Brevoort IV is known as “The Flying Dutchman.” Jake Bockman is nicknamed “Snake.” Teammates call Medkeff “El Jefe.” And every opposing pitcher fears Kenny “Buzzsaw” Bonsall.
The ballplayers say that this style of baseball places an emphasis on putting the ball in play. Strikeouts are rare because pitchers throw underhand and the arbiters will call anything close a strike.
“It’s a fast-paced game,” Rawding said. “The key in this era of baseball is to put the ball in play.”
Brevoort agreed. “Back then, the idea was to get the ball in play. Hitting is easier in one respect because the ball is coming in slower. But it’s harder, too, because you’ll be charged a strike if the pitch is hittable at all. I had one pitch last year that was called a strike when it hit off the plate. I just looked at the umpire. You have to be willing to practice hitting balls that are not in the strike zone.”
The game typically plays smaller than the modern game. “It’s typically not a home run game,” Brevoort said. “There is no fence so if you can get the ball past an outfielder you do have a chance for extra bases.”
The fact that fielders can retire a hitter by “catching” a ball on one bounce helps the pitcher out. The hurlers in vintage base ball need all the help they can get since they don’t have the arsenal of pitches at their disposal that pitchers have today.
Medkeff plays several different positions and is also one of the team’s pitchers. “We try to do different things, put some spin on it or slow it down,” he said.
Back in the 1860s, there were no first or third base coaches. A team captain can yell out to a player as to whether he should attempt to steal a base, but mostly the players are on their own to make those judgments.
“You really do rely on your teammates,” Cahill said. “You listen to the bench and they will remind you when to tag up, when to run.”
Cahill said that the only way to learn to play vintage base ball is to take the field and give it a try.
“Experience definitely counts in this game,” he said. “There are idiosyncrasies to the game but after about three or four games you begin to adjust.”
The games are part sport and part living history exhibition, with the players dressing and acting the part of 19th century players. But are the games competitive?
“Oh, of course,” Brevoort said. “It wouldn’t be baseball otherwise.”
“It’s a gentlemen’s sport,” Cahill added. “We take it very seriously. There is not a lack of will to win. But at the same time, sportsmanship is very important.”
The teams still adhere to the social customs of the day.
Explained Cahill, “You really take on the persona of an 1860s player. You acknowledge the ladies in the crowd, you acknowledge the gentlemen.”
Rawding pointed out that, “Players strike up a conversation and explain the rules of the game to fans. Fans are also called cranks.”
“The teams go out and socialize afterward. The other team’s members are as much friends as they are opponents,” Brevoort explained.
Since the team’s debut in 2009, the Diamond State Base Ball Club has improved steadily with each season, winning 7 games in 2010 and 19 games in 2011. In 2011, the Diamond State Base Ball Club lost in the semifinals of the playoffs to the Brooklyn Atlantics, the team that won the championship.
“This has exceeded my expectations in every regard,” Medkeff said.
The popularity of vintage base ball is unquestionably on the upswing. The league started with 8 teams and now has 17, with new teams now forming. League organizers are working on getting a 19th century team in the West Chester, Pa. area because of the rich history of the local Brandywine Base Ball Club.
The vintage base ball players are not surprised by this success. After all, so many elements of the beloved game are intact. Rawding said that he thinks many baseball fans would enjoy watching a few hours of vintage base ball.
“I’d say come out and check out this game and see how competitive and fun it is,” he said. “It’s real baseball.”
“When you love today’s game of baseball, you can really see how things evolved,” Brevoort said.