Base Ball—Vintage Style: Connecting the 1870s and Today

Nick BarnowskiCorrespondent IJune 28, 2009

The Ballpark in Arlington, home of the Texas Rangers, Arlington, Texas, July 1995.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Sliding, spitting, or swearing will cost you a quarter. 

A fan is called a crank, and the men must ask the ladies for permission before they roll up their sleeves. 

Have any ideas of what game I’m referring to?

The game is base ball―vintage style.

Yes, base ball, with two spaces, is still being played today.  Teams are sprouting all over the state of Michigan with men and women playing our national pastime with rules from the 1870s.

With players who sport nicknames that range from “Iceblock” to “Bender,” these games are competitive yet fun for everybody.

“The game allows the cranks (fans) to get into the action and help cheer the teams on,” said Rob “Iceblock” Berg, manager of the Hartwick Pines Swampers, who are located in Grayling, Michigan.

Indeed it does. 

Introduced to this form of baseball a couple of years ago as a fan, I have found it slotted into some of my summer weekends, this time as a player.

My team is the Walker Tavern Wheels, based out of Brooklyn, Michigan.  There are around a dozen other teams in the Great Lakes state with clubs located in cities, like Ludington, Rochester, Midland, Mackinaw City, and Northville.

The Swampers regularly advertise in local newspapers, and are always welcoming new players to their club.  Advertising isn’t the only way clubs draw new players, though.

“My father plays down state, for the Rochester Grangers team, and he has been an inspiration to me,” said Craig “Splinter” Kasmer, who is the behind (catcher) and self-proclaimed jokester for the Swampers.

“My family and I went to watch a game at Hartwick Pines, and decided to join a team downstate,” says Don “Skeeter” Barnowski, scout (outfielder) for the Wheels (he also happens to be my dad).

To play this game, you must brush up on your vintage base ball rules and lingo.

For example, a ball can be caught on one bounce and still can be considered out.  Any ball that’s hit fair, regardless of where it landed, can roll foul and still be considered fair. 

“Basetenders,” baseman, are supposed to play within two strides of their respective base.  As you can see, the game has changed so much since the 19th century.

Baseball lingo was completely different back in the 1870s.  Errors were called muffs, ground balls are daisy cutters, and left-handers were referred to as wronghanders. 

Hitters were strikers, and pitchers were hurlers. 

Use these words during a game today? 

Chances are you’ll get laughed at.  At these games, it’s expected.

The ball, commonly referred to as the “lemon peel,” is softer than the present day baseball because the players do not use gloves.

That is just another quirky intangible that makes the game fun and interesting for the players and the fans.

Part of the reason most players are hooked to the game is because of the history that’s involved. 

The game of base ball caught on in the Northern Michigan area around the late 1870s.  Local newspapers covered these matches, and a quick look at these documents provide for some interesting facts. 

The Crawford Avalanche, now the Crawford County Avalanche, was the source for base ball news back in the day, proved by these excerpts:

The earliest quote found was from June 4, 1879.  “The boys are thoroughly waked up on the base ball question and will organize immediately.”

This excerpt from July 23, 1879, describes a failed attempt to play between Grayling and Kalkaska: 

“A letter from the base ball club of Kalkaska was received in this village last week, containing a friendly challenge to play a match game at ball with the Grayling club, but as the later club is too defunct for a resurrection, we will have to respectfully decline joining issues with them this season, which we regret, as we know it would afford us much pleasure.”

“It’s a great opportunity to have fun playing the game the way it used to be played,” says Barnowski with a smile.

What could be better than that?