Past Time

Vintage ballplayers know their history, and they're repeating it

The hitter whacks the ball, sending a line drive down the third-base line. The ball drops in fair territory before the fielder catches it on a bounce. The runner at third will score easily. "Three hands dead!" declares the umpire. The inning is over. Wait, what the heck just happened? What kind of softball game is this? Well, it isn't softball -- or even baseball. It's vintage base ball (yeah, two words): the really, really old ball game.

According to the Vintage Base Ball Association, there are more than 200 clubs across the country, from the East Coast to as far west as Colorado and Canada, that play baseball according the rules and customs of the 1860s to 1880s, before the sport became the national pastime and was just an excuse for grown men to act like schoolboys.

Played mostly by die-hard baseball nuts and littérateurs of American history, the vintage game, while very similar to modern baseball, contains small yet important differences in ritual, rules and terminology that, if you ask the players, make this primitive version more nuanced.

The Unions play the field while the Perfectos bat.
David Torrence
The Unions play the field while the Perfectos bat.

"It's the most fun I've had playing a sport," says Matt "Five Finger" Philip, the man who resurrected base ball in St. Louis. A member of the local chapter of SABR (Society for American Baseball Researchers) and a history lover, Philip read about the anachronistic variation of the sport in Smithsonian magazine and wanted to get involved.

"I thought it would be a good combination of my two baseball loves, which are playing baseball and the statistical/historical side of it. It was the perfect combination for me," he explains.

After playing a partial season with the Washington (Missouri) Eagles, Philip took his nickname and vintage ball know-how back to St. Louis and founded the Perfectos.

Brian "Ricochet" Robison read the Smithsonian article but let vintage base ball find him. Robison signed up for the Perfectos after reading about them in the Riverfront Times last summer but eventually fused his reverence for Civil War history and passion for baseball into the creation of a new vintage team, the St. Louis Unions. According to the mythology Robison invented for his club, the Unions are a squad of Yankee soldiers assigned to protect the village of Florissant from Confederate marauders. Sticking with the Civil War theme, the Unions play ball in navy-blue trousers, a white shirt, suspenders and a Union kepi. The simple uniforms enabled Robison not only to finance the team on the cheap but put a unique twist on the burgeoning sport of vintage base ball.

Robison can also expect to save money on protective gear. In vintage base ball chest protectors, helmets and gloves are verboten -- but not really needed. The handmade ball is softer than today's hardballs and gets softer after being smacked and thrown around during the course of a game.

Vintage base ball uses a lexicon different from that of today's game. Instead of a batter trying to score a run, a "striker" tries to "tally an ace." If the ballist (player) is successful in striking (hitting), he or she is congratulated with a chorus of "Well struck!" and "Huzzah!" from teammates, from cranks (fans) and even from the opposing club. If the striker is unsuccessful, however, he is ruled dead. "Three hands dead" is equal to "three outs" in modern parlance.

The ball is pitched underhanded, but strikers get four strikes before the umpire declares them dead, and strikeouts are rare. A striker is also dead if a scout, or outfielder, catches a hit ball on the bound (one bounce).

"It takes a little time to get used to subtle differences, like not being able to overrun first base. It makes you feel like you're relearning the game," says Eric "Home Run" Slover, who's studying to become a history teacher and plays on the Perfectos with his wife, Britany "Cowgirl" Slover (one of two ladies on the team along with Lauren "Licorice Whip" O'Donnell).

Frank "Peg Leg" Frederick, a 53-year-old rookie with the Perfectos, admires the game's relationship to history. "I love history, American history," Frederick says. "My family and I would go vacation and visit forts, battlefields and other [places]. One vacation in Michigan, my sons said, 'No more forts, Dad!' We would read every historic sign in every town we would visit."

Every dyed-in-the-wool baseball fan knows that the first organized game took place on Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1845. But baseball didn't find its way to what would eventually become the best baseball town in America until several years later when Jere Frain, a contractor and ballplayer from New York, taught the game to a gaggle of boys in Lafayette Park in the early 1850s. Among the youth was a Missouri Supreme Court Justice-to-be, Shepard Barclay. He recalled: "[Frain] was a stranger who had come from somewhere in the East, and on our field he laid out a diamond and showed us how to play the game. That was really the introduction of the game to St. Louis."

By 1864 several amateur baseball teams had formed in St. Louis, including the Empires, Reds, Atlantics and Unions. After a decade of spankings -- many at the hands of the Chicago White Stockings -- St. Louis baseball lovers bought the city its first professional baseball team, the Brown Stockings. Ownership of the National League Browns would change hands a couple more times before the turn of the century, as would the team's nickname. Beer magnate Chris Von Der Ahe bought the team in 1881, then sold it to brothers Frank and Stanley Robison, who changed the name of the team to the Perfectos, in 1899. A year later the team officially changed its name to the Cardinals when a reporter overheard a woman in the crowd comment on the "lovely shade of cardinal" of the Perfectos' uniforms.

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