City Room: Vintage Baseball Uses Rules From the 19th Century


In the third inning of the New York Gothams’ first game on Governors Island on Saturday, a batter hit a towering fly ball to shallow left field.

The outfielder followed its arc, jogged into position – and let the ball drop in front of him, catching it on one hop.

Under the 1864 rules by which the game was being played, the batter was out.

But that did not stop the opposing squad from engaging in some 1864-style heckling.

“Unmanly!” one player shouted at the left fielder, Nathan Alexander (known as Crash), as he tossed the ball back to the pitcher. “Put on a skirt!”

The one-bounce rule (and the dusty epithets it occasions) are among the many quirks and oddities that distinguish vintage base ball (yes, two words) from its modern counterpart.

The game, played by more than 100 teams across the country, including the Gotham Base Ball Club of New York, as the team is officially known, is part historical re-enactment, part sport. But one look at the players on the field confirms: it’s fully old school.

“I think playing this version, you really get an appreciation of how the game was developed,” said Ben Levinsohn, 29, the man, known as Collector, who yelled insults at Mr. Alexander.

The players all go by nicknames — Monk, Smoke, Bugs, Sleepy, Wickets – making a lineup announcement sound like roll call for the Seven Dwarves. And their historically correct uniforms include conductor-style hats, thick white shirts, dark blue pants and a bib on the chest emblazoned with either a Gothic “G” or the word Gothams.

Different teams abide by the rules of different years (when they play each other, they decide before the game which rules to apply). The Gothams, who number more than 20 and play their home games at the Governors Island parade ground, chose to plant their flag in the year 1864, said a team member, Rafael Garcia (or Wickets), because that was the last year before a major rule overhaul that did away with, among others, the one-bounce regulation.

There are reams of other old rules and terms: fielders don’t wear gloves, pitchers (called hurlers) throw underhanded, and batters (called strikers) wield skinny wooden bats. An out is called a hand, a run is an ace, and any new player is given the nickname Muffin until the team assigns him a more permanent moniker.

Games take place on open fields without a pitcher’s mound or a fence. And the balls are softer and slightly bigger than modern baseballs.

The Gothams, whose members sunlight as financiers, writers and library administrators, among other things, and range in age from the 20s to the 50s and, in ability, from clunker to near-ringer, were named for a team that played on Staten Island in the 1850s. It was formed in 2002 by Drew Frady (nickname: Wilkes Booth) who has since retired from the team.

But the roots of contemporary vintage base ball can be traced back to 1979, when a game was played during a Civil War re-enactment at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Long Island.

The game has blossomed into a full-on subculture. The Gothams are one of more than 125 clubs across the country affiliated with the Vintage Base Ball Association, and the total number of teams across the country may number as high as 400, the association’s historian said.

The Gothams also belong to the 16-team Mid-Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League, where their opponents include the Brooklyn Atlantics, the New York Mutuals, and, further afield, the Chesapeake City Cecils, from Maryland, and the Potomac Nine of Washington, D.C.

Games are almost always high-scoring – base runners seem to steal at will – and some contests are more casual than others. On Saturday, the Gothams had to split up their team to make two squads, since only a handful of members from their opponent, the Brooklyn Eckfords, showed up.

But that doesn’t mean the players don’t take the game seriously. Hurlers heckle strikers if they allow good pitches to pass over the plate, and base runners sprint and slide their way around the makeshift diamond with abandon.

On Saturday, when Charles Klasman (or Bugs) ripped a line drive to left-center and Chip David (Smoke) made a diving catch to snag it on one bounce, the fans — known as cranks in 1864 — hooted approval.

“I think these guys have the right spirit about it,” said Chris Hoopes, 48, watching with his 12-year-old son, Bill. “Seeing these guys, it’s a little like time travel.”

But for most players, the game is simply an addicting combination of history and baseball.

“It’s a really fun sport to play,” Mr. Klasman said. “I think I’d have a tough time going back to the modern game.”

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