The modern pastime of vintage base ball

"Vintage base ball" has actually been around for over thirty years, with the number of clubs growing more and more each year.  Michigan alone boasts more than 35 clubs, including at least four ladies clubs.  Virtually every weekend from late April until early October matches are played throughout the state, and the whole pastime operates without any sort of organizing league or authority.  The matches are strictly amateur and organized by the clubs themselves, purely for fun.  Nationwide the number of clubs is in the hundreds, and many festivals and tournaments often bring clubs from different states together for exciting and friendly matches.  The emphasis on sportsmanship in this sport is truly exceptional.  In general, the goal of all the clubs is the same, but each club has its own distinct personality and often times interpretation of the rules. 

locations of Michigan's vintage base ball clubs

locations of Michigan's vintage base ball clubs

The Monitors and Merries prefer to play their home matches by the rules of 1860, as published in the Beadle's Dime Base-Ball Player booklet in that year.  As a spectator, you will notice the main differences between 1860-rules and modern baseball are:

  • Players do not wear gloves (which adds a thrilling element of technique!)
  • The "Bound Rule" is in effect:  a batter is declared out if his struck ball is caught either in the air or after the first bounce.  Baserunners must tag up on a fly catch, as in modern baseball, but may advance at their own peril on a bound-catch out.
  • First-base cannot be over-run.
  • A struck ball is considered fair or foul depending on where it first hits the ground.  For example, if it first alights in front of home plate but immediately spins into foul territory, it is considered a fair ball.  (In modern baseball a ball must stay fair until it passes first or third base.)

Like many vintage clubs, the Monitors and Merries also allow free rotation of players in and out of the game, a difference from the modern rules, where a lifted player may not return to the game.  And all of a club's hitters are allowed to bat in one long batting order, not just nine.  Sometimes you will see a club with as many as 15-8 players on hand, and all will take their turns in the field and at the plate.  Some other things you may notice at a vintage match in Chelsea:

  • The side that hits first is determined by either a coin flip or bat toss, not by 'home' or 'away.'
  • Sliding is discouraged, unless a player is attempting to get back to a base.  In which case, head-first sliding is the preferred method.
  • Base-stealing is only allowed on an agreed-upon condition by the clubs' captains pre-match, usually if the catcher "muffs," or mishandles the pitch.
  • Baserunners are usually obliged to stay within two strides of the base.
  • Close plays at the bases are encouraged to be called on the honor of the players involved, as opposed to having the umpire make a ruling.  Watch for a baserunner who feels he was beaten to the bag to declare himself out, something you would not see in the modern game!
  • Balls and strikes are not called, with some exceptions.  Three swings and misses do constitute a strike out, though the batter cannot strike out on a foul ball.  On rare occasions, the umpire will decide to issue a warning to the batter or the pitcher, and thereafter call balls & strikes.  "Ball to the bat" will be called if the pitcher is not delivering hittable pitches.  "Bat to the ball" will be called if the hitter is refusing to swing at good pitches.  But we are very reluctant to institute this, so look for patient hitters!
  • On a foul ball, the baserunners must return to their base quickly.  If the fielders return the ball to play, through the pitcher, before the runner returns, he shall be declared out.

Not all vintage clubs play by the rules of 1860, and even those that do may have slightly different interpretations in play at their home fields.  Some other common sets of rules preferred by clubs in Michigan are those of 1858, 1864 and 1867.  The latter two rules feature the elimination of the 'bound rule,' thus putting a higher premium on a fielder's ability to catch the ball barehanded in the air.  You will surely witness some astounding plays made at a vintage base ball match!

Many vintage clubs also choose to utilize an amalgam of old-fashioned baseball lingo as part of their matches.  While there is some controversy among purists as to the precise authenticity of this lingo--both in terms of when they might've been used in history, and how often or common they were--the Monitors and Merries feel they add to the diversion of the matches.  Here is some of what you might hear at a match:

  • "Striker to the line!" - the umpire calling the batter to the plate
  • "Foul tick!" - the umpire declaring a struck ball foul
  • "Three hands dead!" - three 'outs,' retiring the striking side
  • "Leg it!" - a way to exhort a runner to make his base
  • "Well held!" - for a fine catch made
  • "Huzzah!" - a cheer for a fine play or to salute the opposing club

Hitters are sometimes referred to as "strikers," and a left-handed striker may be called a "wrong-hander."  The pitcher might be called the "hurler" and catcher the "behind."  Fans can be called "cranks" or "bugs," and they might cheer for their favorite "ballist" to "show a little ginger" (play well).  A ball might be called an "apple" or a "pill," a bat might be a "willow," and runs are often referred to as "aces" or "tallies."  A hard ground ball might be called a "daisy cutter," while a bloop hit could be a "banjo hit" and a flyball a "skyball."

Again, the use of these terms is purely for fun, not intended to reflect absolute historic authenticity from the 1860's.  Most importantly, fans are encouraged to cheer for both sides, and you will very often see players from each team congratulating their opponents whole-heartedly for fine plays made.

Of course, just reading about vintage base ball does not do it justice...come join us at a match or two!  For Monitors' schedule, click HERE.  For Merries, click HERE.  We'd love to see you out there!