Cumberland Times-News

August 4, 2012

And if you like, you can play in the mud

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— The umpire — actually, he was the arbitrator — called “One hand!” and I thought, “Wait a minute. I know darn well the outfielder (sorry, the long fielder) caught that ball with two hands.”

Later, I learned that in 1864-vintage base ball, an “out” is referred to as a “hand.” (What we know as “baseball” was “base ball” — two words — back then.)

And the hands with which you catch the base ball are bare. There are no gloves or mitts, which introduces an element of uncertainty that requires considerable reliance on fundamental playing practices.

Every play is backed up by one or more ballists (players) because it’s hard to tell where the ball is going to bounce. The hurler (what the pitcher was called — and still is, in today’s baseball slang) roams all over the infield.

Our buddy Bill Wills, proprietor of Gettysburg Eddie’s, invited Capt. Gary and 1Sgt. Goldy to put on our Civil War uniforms and come to lend an element of color to his Old Time Base Ball Tournament. The ballists wore uniforms appropriate for that era, albeit with modern footgear.

(Bill’s pub is dedicated to Eddie Plank, a Hall of Fame pitcher from Gettysburg who played early in the 20th Century. It is decorated with old-time base ball pictures and memorabilia, and the ballists love it.)

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee took turns throwing out the first pitch.

Fourteen clubs (teams) played for two days on a farm field. The farmer and his tractor were on hand to rescue anyone whose car got stuck in the mud, and a couple of them did.

Gary and I never got hooked up with the Somerset (Pa.) Frosty Sons of Thunder, but we did meet ballists from Michigan, Boston, New York state, Rhode Island and Elkton, Md.

I told one ballist from Boston there were some pretty good athletes on those clubs.

“Yeah,” he said, “and there are guys like me.” (He’s 46, but I thought he’d played well.) He and his buddies said they would take us out for lobsta if we ever made it up their way.

The matches (games) were played for the most part under 1864 rules.

A Rochester Hills, Mich., Granger said his league back home did not allow unrestricted base-stealing, but it was permitted in this tournament. The other club did a lot of running on their behinder (the catcher, who plays behind the plate), who wasn’t used to such activity.

The ball was like the rubber baseballs we played with as kids and had a firmness similar to that of a softball. (Another concession to modern times: Leather-covered balls were used in 1864, but rubber balls aren’t torn up easily and don’t need to be replaced.)

It wasn’t that hard to catch barehanded. I stuck out my left hand and snagged a foul ball on the first bounce (which would have meant the batter was out, had I been a fielder — although the runners could have advanced without tagging up), and the ballists raised a cheer for me.

One of Saginaw’s strikers (batters) hit two of those low-compression balls well over 400 feet — a serious poke with a rock-hard modern baseball. His teammates call him “Oxbow.”

It was like watching a cross between rookie league baseball and slow-pitch softball (the hurler throws underhand), but played on a full-sized baseball diamond.

The ballists were athletic, but the grounds (the playing field) were filled with humps and valleys, and only the infield was mowed. They wore no gloves and it had rained that morning, so just about anything could happen.

Some runners slid even when they didn’t have to, and Gary and I figured they just wanted to play in the mud. It’s what we did. I told a couple of ballists, “If your uniform ain’t dirty, you ain’t playin’ ball!” and they liked that.

One of the Saginaw, Mich., Old Golds told us that old-time ballists would go to their jobs in the evening and work all night so they could play base ball all day the next day.

Sounds like us, when we were kids. No matter whether it’s base ball or baseball, it’s more than just a game. You do it because you love it.

Although some of the rules differ, there are similarities between 1864-vintage base ball and modern baseball — and we have retained some of the old slang.

The ball is still the “horsehide,” a “daisy cutter” is still a sharp ground ball, runners still “leg it out,” a “tally” is still a run and holding the other team scoreless is still a “whitewash.”

The base was called the “sack” or the “bag” because it was a sack or a bag — and those names also have stuck. In 1864, home plate usually was someone’s metal dinner plate.

The umpire was an “arbitrator” or “arbiter” — the latter being another term that survives in the modern era. His job was to maintain order and issue warnings if he thought the hurler wasn’t trying to get the ball across the plate, or the striker wasn’t trying to hit it.

Fielders made the hand (out) call on close plays, and the arbitrator ruled if the call was disputed ... but if he couldn’t make up his mind, he asked the spectators what they thought.

There was a sportsmanship rarely seen these days. Opposing players often shook hands when a runner made it safely to the bag and helped each other get up off the ground.

After each match, the clubs lined up facing each other. The captains stepped forward to thank their opponents for a well-played contest and lead his teammates in hoisting their caps and calling out, “Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!” They also thanked the arbitrator and the tallykeeper (scorekeeper) for their service and the spectators for coming out to watch, and there were cheers all around.

One arbitrator called time out during his match, pointed to the captain and me in our uniforms and said, “Ladies and gentlemen! I would like to call your attention to the fact that two of our Union veterans are present!”

The spectators applauded, and the ballists gave us a round of “Huzzah!”s.

I took off my cap and, in my best first sergeant’s voice, called out, “Hit ’em where they ain’t, boys!” which drew another cheer.

What Gary and I watched in Bill’s tournament was everything that’s good about the game that got under our skins decades ago. (We grew up with “Beat ’em, Bucs!”)

Only one thing could have been better: to turn the clock back a few years to a time when our backs, legs and lungs were still ready and willing, and play in it ourselves.