With the 2014 Base-ball Exhibition and Fair taking place at the Naval Yard this weekend, I thought I’d chat with the President of the Athletic Club of Philadelphia (4701 South Broad Street) Scott Alberts. For the uninitiated, the Athletic Club is a group of local guys who get together to play old-fashioned baseball. And these dudes take it seriously. They have uniforms that match the ones the Philadelphia team wore when they played in the 1860s and 70s and they play by the exact rules laid down in 1864. It bears a close relation to the game we’ve come to know and love, but with some very interesting variations.
JGT: How was baseball different in 1864 than it is today?
SCOTT: Baseball has evolved in many ways in the past 150 years, but the most significant differences are that, in 1864, players did not wear gloves while playing in the field, pitches were required to be delivered in an underhand fashion, and a batter can be put out when a fielder catches a struck ball in the air OR after a single bounce. There are a number of other minor rule differences as well.
JGT: Why are grown men such as yourself deciding to dress up in wool jerseys to play baseball by rules that were in place 150 years ago? Why not just join a softball league instead and wear shorts and gloves on your hands?
SCOTT: Any jagaloon can drink beer and play softball in modern clothes with a leather pad to protect their handsy-wandsies – and plenty of our guys do that as well. We choose to do this because it’s fun to play dress-up, the different rules make it an interesting game to play, we get to go on road trips to beautiful historic venues, and it provides us with opportunities for sharing and discovering knowledge about the history of baseball as well as the history of that era generally.
JGT: How did you first get involved in old style base-ball?
SCOTT: I got involved as soon as I learned that it existed and that Philadelphia didn’t yet have a team, in the summer of 2009. I contacted nearby teams in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York to learn what I could and then founded the team with a mix of friends and the help of club co-founder Ryan Berley, whose historically-themed business, The Franklin Fountain, provided a platform for reaching out to other history geeks. There’s a real camaraderie between the various teams and they were more than willing to help us get on our feet in terms of sourcing equipment and interpreting the rules and playing styles of the era.
JGT: Do you have any favorite 19th century players?
SCOTT: For sheer ornery attitude, it’s awfully hard to top Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn. Groundbreaking catcher Fergy Malone is a great one, and I’m also drawn to the sport’s first Jewish star, Lip Pike.
JGT: Tell me a bit more about what’s going down this weekend. Why should people come check it out?
SCOTT: This weekend will showcase our game at its best and will hopefully be something of a time traveling experience for the attendees. Eleven teams representing every division in the the Mid-Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League will be facing off on three adjacent fields. On Sunday, we’ll also be demonstrating Philadelphia-rules “Town Ball,” which is a related game that was played locally before NY-style baseball was introduced to the area in the late 1850s. The location, at the Navy Yard, is a real Philadelphia treasure that more people should learn about and visit. The fields are set up on the old Marine Parade Grounds, in front of a gorgeous 19th Century brick barracks building. Food will be available from a rotating cast of fine local vendors, including Oink & Moo on Saturday, and Phoebe’s BBQ on Sunday. Franklin Fountain will be serving ice cream on both days. We’ll also have equipment vendors and other historical groups providing educational experiences and will be conducting a raffle with some really great prizes. We try really hard to make it a fun event for the spectators as well as for players on the field.