Vintage base ball celebrates the soul of the sport.
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The Old Dominions take on the Potomac Nine at Oatlands Plantation.
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Potomac Nine batter Gene Stohlman makes contact as referee Richard “Pastime” D’Ambrosi makes the call during a game against the Old Dominions at Oatlands Plantation.
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Old Dominions hurler Bill “Skipper” Barrick and John “Brooklyn” McCullough.
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The Old Dominions’ Rex “Stoney” Stone and Mike “Roman” Delich.
All eyes are on the striker as he takes the line. The hurler tosses a beauty, the pill right over the dish. The willow connects—a skyscraper—and the cranks offer hearty cheer. I can’t help but be caught up in the chorus of huzzahs. There’s nothing like America’s favorite pastime.
I’ve come with my family to root for the Old Dominions as they take on the Potomac Nine on the grounds of historic Oatlands Plantation in Leesburg. This isn’t any old baseball game, though. This is vintage base ball, and those two words (base ball not baseball) are just the beginning of a new twist—or more accurately, an old twist—on a beloved sport.
The players in today’s doubleheader have stepped back in time, playing ball as it used to be, some say as it should be, before the sport became a multibillion-dollar industry. “Base ball originally began as a gentleman’s sport in social clubs, and it evolved from there,” says Richard “Pastime” D’Ambrisi, club historian for the Capitol Conference of the Mid-Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League. “Base ball was a recreational and social event as much as it was an athletic event. That’s how we interpret it.”
The Old Dominions of Northern Virginia represent the Commonwealth in the Capitol Conference, also known as the Chesapeake and Potomac Base Ball Club. The squad is made up of a mix of Northern Virginians and other D.C. suburbanites from all walks of life—students, professionals, retirees—and they compete against a handful of other squads organized within shouting distance of the nation’s capital: the Chesapeake Nine of Baltimore, the Excelsior Base Ball Club of Arundel and, today’s opponent, the Potomac Nine of Maryland.
Players trickle onto Oatlands’ wide lawn and greet each other as old friends. They’re wearing reproduction 19th-century base ball uniforms, baggy pants and button-front logos bearing simple letters (“P” for the Potomac Nine, “OD” for the Old Dominions), no fancy mascots or embroidery. (Original uniforms were made of flannel and wool, but today’s players use polyester for the relative comfort and durability it provides—one original feature they forswear.)
A large crowd has come to watch, most having brought blankets or camp chairs. Vintage base ball games aren’t played at any sort of formal diamond, not even a local Little League field, so fans must improvise seating. Instead, teams compete as they did long ago—on any patch of land large enough to play. Athletes must negotiate all the irregular terrain features, such as dips and humps, where the game occurs. The lawn at Oatlands Plantation, sweeping with freshly cut grass, presents a stunning view, but makes the game trickier with its decided slope. But that idiosyncrasy is part of the challenge.
“In the beginning, base ball became more popular than cricket because it could be played anywhere,” explains D’Ambrisi, a 50-year-old teacher who has been playing vintage base ball for five years and studying it for 20. “The concept of a manicured field and a stadium just for the game didn’t come along until later.” D’Ambrisi explains that dedicated base ball diamonds didn’t come about until 1871.
As game time approaches, players mosey to one general side of the field. (There are no lines, dugouts or batter’s boxes.) Play begins, and the basic outlines—hits, runs, outs—are recognizable enough. They would be to any red-blooded American. But that familiarity only carries so far. There’s something different, foreign, about this early version of the game.
The men and women who play vintage base ball (leagues are co-ed, and all are welcome) do so according to old guidelines, but a dusty rule book isn’t as cut-and-dry as it might appear. There’s more than one: The game has continually evolved through modern times. There were official rules revised and compiled by contemporary base ball leagues in every decade of the latter part of the 19th century, and the vintage clubs of today don’t all use the same set. The Capitol Conference uses rules from 1864, adopted by a league called the National Association of Base-Ball Players. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum as well as the New York City Public Library maintain archives of all the different rules laid out over the years.
Play is a bit confusing for the untutored observer. The batter gets a warning for not hitting well-placed pitches before his three-strike count begins. Foul balls do not count as strikes, as the first two do in the modern game. A batter is out if an opponent catches his fly ball after it has bounced once, instead of in the air as present-day rules prescribe. Players don’t wear mitts, and the defense’s bare-handedness makes for a lot more fumbling of the ball than one might see from gloved athletes.
These old rules are the contest’s leveler, according to Howard “Ivy” Berkof, 35, a civilian employee of the Navy, general manager of the Chesapeake and Potomac Base Ball Club and sometime Old Dominions player. “As in any amateur league, you have a range of abilities but, with vintage base ball, the gap between them is much less because of things like the one-bounce rule,” says Berkof. Although some players might have grown up playing organized baseball, now they’re literally playing by different rules.
By far the most entertaining elements of vintage base ball are the quirky customs that go along with all the line-drives and double-plays.
“Next up ... Whip It,” shouts one of the players as he looks over the batting order.
I’m tempted to cover my young son’s ears until I gather that “Whip It” isn’t some vulgar reference, but one of the very players I’ve come here to see. Athletes in the Capitol Conference don’t go by their given names. Instead, everyone has a nickname bestowed by their teammates for observed attributes or eccentricities. Filling the roster of the Old Dominions are Torpedo (who works with submarines), Buckeye (an avid Ohio State University fan) and Lightning (fastest guy on the squad and team captain), among others.
And it’s not just names that sound odd. Casual references that seem plucked straight from Ernest Thayer’s classic 1888 poem, “Casey at the Bat,” are tossed about freely and take a little getting used to. The batter is a “striker,” the pitcher, a “hurler.” The ball is a “pill,” and the bat, a “willow.” As a fan or “crank,” I find these and countless other terms a bit confusing at first but eventually get the hang of it and even drop a 19th-century term myself, too.
The vintage game is as much about the camaraderie as the athletic competition. “Every game I’ve been to is a nice, friendly event,” says Rex “Stoney” Stone, 57, a Woodbridge resident who works as a civilian for the Army and is in his second season with the Old Dominions. “Nobody takes the competition too seriously. Even when there’s a questionable play, guys will settle it themselves right there. The arbitrator—that’s what the umpire’s called—rarely has to come in to decide things.”
The beauty of vintage base ball is that players aren’t just reenacting some static past—they’re living it, and there are no guaranteed results. “The fact that the game is full of uncertain outcomes makes it exciting for everybody,” says Berkof. “One of my favorite aspects is the rush, the excitement of stealing second or running to get that extra base.”
Throughout the game, I notice a lot of players willing to risk stealing a base. Perhaps it’s that rush that energizes Berkof, or maybe the runners like their odds against ungloved opponents. Nevertheless, it’s a dramatic play each time. I watch as a runner sprints with all his heart to second. In an age-old choreography, the catcher connects with the second baseman, who arcs his arm downward, but the darting runner goes low and slides to tag the base. Safe.
“Everybody winces at the bad plays and appreciates the good plays, no matter what team makes them,” explains Stone.
As it turns out, there are plenty of both today. The Old Dominions and the Potomac Nine split the doubleheader; the Virginians beat the Marylanders in the first game 12-1 but fall short in the second, 1-5. Nevertheless, there’s back-slapping and good cheer all around—another throwback to the more gentlemanly competitions of the 19th century. “This sport unifies all of us,” says Berkof. “That’s what attracts so many diverse people. We all have a passion for vintage base ball.”
Want to cheer on the Old Dominions? They’re taking on the Potomac Nine in Gaithersburg, Maryland July 27th and are hosting Excelsior in Manassas Aug. 24th. For a complete schedule—there are games almost every weekend through October—visit the Capitol Conference’s website, CapitolConference.org