Deadball, Not Dead Yet

07/12/2007 12:00 AM |

“Regarding the game as a healthful exercise, and a manly and exciting recreation, he plays it solely for the pleasure it affords him, and if victory crowns his efforts in a contest, well and good, but should defeat ensue he is equally ready to applaud the success obtained by his opponents; and by such action he robs defeat of half its sting, and greatly adds to the pleasure the game has afforded both himself and his adversaries.”
    –Henry Chadwick, from Haney’s Base Ball           
      Book of Reference, 1867

The global sweep of human history is, in a word, revolting. Our contemporary world is hideous beyond description. But it’s still probably the best iteration of human existence on the planet to date.

But how then to explain my lifelong flirtation with historical recreation societies? What lies at the beating heart of this dark preoccupation? Am I a shadow sadist, a malevolent voyeur or just some manner of period dress fetishist? I wonder: is the impulse to physically embody the past a way of learning from its failings or is it a full-scale reactionary embrace of them?

Bearing these questions in mind I decided recently to enter into a cautious surveillance of the world of creative anachronism. I chose a little organization known as the Vintage Base Ball Association.

My quest began with a modest, delicate exploration of the Vintage Base Ball Factory website, a clearinghouse for those who wish to obtain authentic period dress and gear if they were, let’s just say, inclined to play a game in the style of the 1840s. Yes, there is evidence of severe madness here. But also there is little disputing the craftsmanship and rigorous expertise on display at the VBBF, where for $12 you may expect to be hand-fashioned a genuine deadball-era playing sphere  that none but the most hulking or gifted could ever expect to hit more than a few yards. Something in this very notion helps cast a light upon the quixotic mysteries of the vintage baseball world. The sport’s modern architects have striven at endless length to create a ball that would actually travel the greatest distance possible when struck. Here we have an equivalent (or greater) amount of exertion devoted by vintage baseball enthusiasts to supply the precise opposite: a ball that could be shot out of a cannon and not leave the infield.

This point seemed somehow important to me — why would you want to hit the ball nowhere? I brought it up during my expansive discussions with current President of the Vintage Base Ball Association Glenn Drinkwater. Speaking with him, it becomes clear that personal glory of the sort brought about by towering home runs and diving circus catches is not amongst the central priorities of this pastime.

“In the 1840s and 1850s,” Drinkwater explains, “baseball was a social event in which one traveling ‘club’ was ‘hosted’ by another. Accounts of games from that period tend to make only passing mention of the actual results. Mostly they talk about what sort of food was served by the ‘host’ team.” To Drinkwater’s way of thinking, the foremost mission of the VBBA is to represent and restore this sort of collegial and semi-competitive feeling to the game. “People don’t argue about calls in a vintage baseball game. We argue minutiae — was a pitcher was really called a ‘hurler’ after 1857?”

1857 was a red-letter year for vintage baseball enthusiasts, as the New York Knickerbockers codified the first standardized set of national baseball rules. From this point forward, something anarchic and devil-may-care in the game’s previous incarnation was set aside. Previous to that time, baseball’s variants had tended toward a hodge-podge of rules decided upon on the spot. Often games were played with strikes but no balls, and batters would hold out for a perfect pitch over tireless stretches. While waiting for some kind of action to occur, baserunners would chat for long periods with opposing team members about the issues of the day, creating a veritable sewing circle atmosphere on the diamond. Games ambled leisurely for hours at a time and were frequently called on account of darkness. After the codified rules were established, the refined game turned into a spectator favorite and exploded in popularity. By 1869, the first fully professional team was formed. Quality of play was hugely improved, but something interpersonal amongst the players was lost.

Filling that social vacuum appears the essential motivating factor at play while in a vintage baseball contest. On an idyllic weekend afternoon, a subway and ferry ride brings one to bucolic Bridgeport, Connecticut, for a noontime tilt between the hometown Orators and their familiar rivals the Newton Sandy Hooks — two of several such clubs within the Tri-State area; closer to home are the New York Gothams and Brooklyn Atlantics.

The crowd is sparse and the field unkempt — perhaps even a touch treacherous. A ground ball hit onto the stone-filled infield might easily take a malevolent hop, resulting in a punishing concussion for some unsuspecting shortstop. The participants are valiant competitors, though few seem near their athletic prime. Gray hair and prominent stomachs are the norm. Nevertheless, each moment is approached with effusive energy and a laudable seriousness of intent. Technique and strategy are applied not so much in attempt to gain competitive advantage but rather towards

“People don’t argue calls   in a vintage baseball game.   We argue minutiae — was a pitcher really called a          ‘hurler’ after 1857?”

keeping faith with the spirit of the enterprise. The avoidance of anachronism is far more important than the scoring of runs.

Some of the argot is easily comprehensible — batters are known as “strikers” and a run scored is a “tally.” Other instances make no particular sense and are vaguely disturbing: fans are known as “cranks” and a crass or unsportsmanlike gesture is called a “boodler.” Pitching is underhanded, and outs may be recorded by catching a ball after one bounce, but the essential iconic nature of the diamond and the employ of its position players is unmistakable. The extent to which the sport as it was played 150 years ago remains on first glance
an entirely recognizable entity is notable and surprising.

The Orators are in total control of this contest. Not so much by dint of runs scored, but rather owing to their immaculate and matching navy stockings, caps and belts, and striking gray jerseys and knickers. In their flaming red collars and shambling whites, the Sandy Hooks cannot help but look a little overmatched, if not out and out silly. At no point do I have any idea what the score of this game is, but it is only too plain who is winning.

In the aftermath of the event, amidst the glad-handing riot of congratulations, fan greeting and general quality sportsmanship, I did request and was allowed to inspect the cap of one middle-aged participant in the match. Something about the handling of it proved transporting, and, in the manner of recovered memory syndrome, a deeply suppressed recollection was brought back to me in a swooning headlong rush.

As an adolescent, I recalled that I had one time woken up very early in the morning in the autumn of 1988 to travel to a Renaissance Fair in rural Virginia. There I believed — for some reason — that I might meet a girl. There were in fact women present, and a good portion of them attired in suggestively low-cut dresses with frilly lace necklines. Further, whatever the reason, these women responded effusively and in a servile fashion to the term “wench.” “Wench,” some costumed knight would shout aloud, “bring me my smithing tools!” And dutifully off would scamper some college-age girl in a corset. My mind went off the rails. My head almost exploded.

But of course these women wanted not a thing to do with me — fat, ill mannered, besotted with junk food and lust — and soon I found myself alone at the grog shop, attempting to ascertain the 16th-century equivalent of Mr. Pibb. The line was long, it was unseasonably warm, and my mind began to drift. I thought of the upcoming World Series, which was to pit Tony LaRussa’s muscle-bound, juggernaut Oakland A’s as a prohibitive favorite against the Los Angeles Dodgers. These A’s — the Bash Brothers, Canseco, McGwire — hit for power like no one since Murderers’ Row. They were giants! They looked like wrestlers!! I was ostensibly rooting against them on principle, but secretly I thrilled to watch them pummel opposing pitching with automaton-like brutality.

Suddenly, I was snapped from my reverie by a cacophony of thundering hoofs and the crash of a man falling from his steed. He was rolling on the ground, pretending to have been impaled by a rival as an enthusiastic crowd applauded his gutting. By then I had reached the front of the line and was addressed by the piercing tenor of an impatient male server in a peasant blouse and tri-colored Elope hat: “What’ll it be knave?” he shouted, “What’ll it be??”