Saturday was a beautiful day for baseball. The sun was beaming, and the birds were chirping at 9:00am at The Navy Yard in South Philadelphia. You couldn’t ask for a better day to play baseball.
I had the opportunity to take in the game of baseball from a different era. When I mean a different era, I’m talking 1860s different. Have you ever wondered what the game was like in the 1860s and how it has evolved into what it is today?
You’re never too old to learn something new. For many of us, as big of baseball fans as we are, have no idea how the game was played back in the 1860s – myself included. We take for granted the ballparks, gloves, built-in bases, the pitching mound, and guys like Aroldis Chapman who can throw a baseball over 100 mph. We may not always appreciate those who came before us.
Notice that the game is called “base ball.” Base ball, started by the British, was brought over to the New England colonies in forms of cricket and rounder games. Different variations of those games were played, and then the game of “base ball” was created.
For starters, players in the 1860s did not wear gloves. Everyone in the field was barehanded. A lined shot into the gap usually yielded extra bases, but not in the 1860 days. With a leather and heavier ball, if the outfielder was able to corral the ball off ONE bounce, the batter was out. A one-hopper caught clean in the infield also resulted in an out – a throw to first base was unnecessary. If a player foul tipped a ball behind the plate, but the catcher caught it on one bounce, an out was recorded. I saw many catchers sprawl out to get their old school, wool uniforms dirty, all to contribute to their teams.
There were no flamethrowers back in the 1860s. All of the pitching had to be of the under-hand variety. It wasn’t until the 1880s when pitchers started throwing overhand. From what I learned from different people at the festival, the average pitcher threw around 50 mph from about 45 feet.
Those were the major rule differences from those times. I spoke with Athletic Baseball Club of Philadelphia (festival host) captain Scott Couch regarding the rules of the game. “We choose to represent, as best as we can, the most accurate representation of what baseball was like in the 1860s. We don’t make choices that are designed to make it more entertaining or more showy. We play, as close of possible, to the style of play, and certainly by the rules how it was played at the time.”
Scott certainly knows the way the game of baseball is played now. I asked the team captain what the biggest adjustment he had to make, playing 1860 rules. Scott explained, “the first thing to get used to, is the fact that you’re not wearing a glove and the way you field fundamentally changes, not just the way you’re catching a ball, but when you’re throwing a ball to someone who doesn’t have a glove, you have to be conscientious of the fact can this player field a rope, or do I have to bounce it in front of him? Those are the kinds of things you have to anticipate.”
There were fifteen teams that took part in Saturday’s festival, coming from all over the Mid-Atlantic. The bounds have stretched for this festival however, as teams from Colorado, Maine, and Virginia also made the trip to Philly for the weekend. It was not a tournament per say, but the bitting rivalries were in full effect, as each game still counts towards the overall record of the teams. Though no champion was crowned, all of the games matter. The Athletic Baseball Club tries to hook up teams that have never played each other to keep things fresh and interesting. For example, The Athletic Club played the team from Maine, instead of their usual schedule of local teams. This is how new rivalries form.
Athletic Baseball Club of Philadelphia
The Athletic Baseball Club of Philadelphia was founded in August of 2009 and currently competes in the Mid-Atlantic Vintage Baseball League, with Scott Couch managing the team. The Athletic Baseball Club travels up-and-down the east coast – traveling as far north to Providence, Rhode Island and as far south as Richmond, Virginia. The Athletics try to play two “matches”, as they call it, per month – one at home and another on the road. There are twenty teams in the league and that number is growing. There are between 400-500 vintage teams nationwide.
Dirigo Vintage Baseball Club
The Dirigo Vintage Baseball Club, one of teams participating in the festival from Maine, made their first trip to Philadelphia this weekend. The team was founded eleven years ago out of a Civil War reenactment group from Augusta, Maine. I was able to track down the President of the Dirigo Vintage Baseball Club, Jake Newcomb, and ask him how he got started in all of this. He explained, “I’ve been a baseball player my whole life and I was going to college with a guy from that Civil War reenacting group, and he said ‘hey, we’re going to start a baseball team’ and he knew I was a history guy and a baseball player, so it’s the perfect marriage of both.” I asked Jake what I asked Scott about the biggest adjustment he had to make. Jake concurred with Scott as he went on to say, “I’ll tell you what, playing with no gloves is a huge adjustment I think for a brand new player.”
The Dirigo Club plays about 20-25 games a year as opposed to most teams playing between 40-50 games. Playing in Maine, however, shortens their season due to weather. Their schedule spans from late May to early October.
Jake doesn’t compare this kind of baseball to a neighborhood softball league. “I think that your average baseball player sees this as an outlet to get out and play baseball in a way you couldn’t before. Yeah, I can go out and join a local adult softball league, but that’s not baseball. This is baseball.”
One of the players, Eric Miclich, gave a history lesson on pitchers from the 1860s. Here are some interesting tidbits:
Will White threw the most innings in one season in baseball history at 680 innings. He went 43-18. The next year, White tossed 517.1 innings and went 18-43.
Charles Radbourne tallied 59, possibly 60 games in 1884 with 23 losses. The discrepancy: when a pitcher came out of a game, the score didn’t matter in determining who got the win. The writers decided who deserved it.
Al Spalding is the first pitcher ever to win back-to-back 50 game seasons. He had a record of 253-76 when he retired.
You can read much more about certain players and the origin of baseball rules from Eric’s website.