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The Really Old Ball Game

Vintage Baseball Hits a Home Run in Akron

The Akron Black Stockings won't tolerate any tomfoolery.
  • The Akron Black Stockings won't tolerate any tomfoolery.

The gardens of Stan Hywet Hall in Akron are in full bloom, and cries of "Hoozah!" echo over the main field, where the Akron Black Stockings battle the Great Black Swamp Frogs of Sylvania in a game of vintage baseball. It could be the summer of 1869, with Ulysses S. Grant in the White House. The umpire is dressed to the nines in a regal top hat and coat with tails. He prowls the first base line, hand on cane, calling the plays: "The striker is dead!" "Foul tick!" "Three hands down, no aces!"

The sport—re-created every Sunday in the summer at historical societies throughout the state, including Stan Hywet Hall—is a variation of English rounders, the rules of which were standardized in 1845 by Alexander Cartwright, effectively creating the game we now call baseball. Prior to the rise of professional leagues in the 1870s, baseball (or "base ball," as it's known in these circles) was less competitive and more "sport," in the traditional sense of the word.

"This is baseball as it was intended to be played," umpire Ed Searle says between matches, "before super-contracts, super heroes, and super egos—as sport and relaxation for gentlemen." With "no swearing, no spitting, and no scratching," it recalls an era that was more polite, when players had to ask permission of the ladies before even rolling up their sleeves. After the game, the host team provides a picnic, so the gents can discuss the match and congratulate each other on good plays.

"We trust the integrity of gentlemen," Searle says (though in preparation for their match, the Canal Fulton Mules presented him with a fresh carnation and several two-dollar bills). "If I miss a play, I ask the players, or a spectator, what the call should be." It's a far cry from modern, bench-clearing brawls over the ump's poor eyesight.

Just as different are some of the rules. Vintage baseball doesn't have called balls or strikes. The job of the "hurler" (pitcher) is to throw a ball—underhand—that the "striker" (batter) can hit. And with gloveless fielders, flies can be caught for outs on one bounce. This makes it a hitting and placement contest instead of a pitchers' duel, and offers more chance for excitement, with few hitless innings.

The captain and founder of the Black Stockings, Mark Heppner, is also the curator of Stan Hywet Hall. A dapper fellow sporting a handlebar mustache, slicked-down hair, and the standard-issue 1869 uniform, he equates vintage play to a backyard game between friends. Previous experience with a Summit County club had shown him the fun and value of reviving the vintage rules, but he knew it had to be more organized than what he'd seen. It was under these auspices of good, wholesome, and historic fun that he managed to talk Stan Hywet Hall into supporting the exhibitions. "We're not quite in sync," he admits. "The hall was built in 1915 and we're playing in 1869, but the Seiberlings (who built the estate) enjoyed sport, so we feel it fits the mentality of what they did."

With a marginal yearly budget from Stan Hywet Hall, the Black Stockings were born, modeling themselves after the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Made up of volunteers, the team members are mostly friends and co-workers of Heppner. "It had to be done right from day one: the bats, the balls, the uniforms, the players willing to play," he says. Heppner marvels at how well the project has been received, though most of the crowd consisted of relatives and the curious who had wandered over from the hall and gardens tours. And with fourteen vintage ball clubs in the area, and a national association in place, finding a game isn't too difficult, says Heppner. "We even have groupies now."
—David Powers

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