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Timelessly Old Timey

Cleveland's vintage base-ball scene does it 19th-century style


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Take me out to the ballgame, take me...back to 1860?

Not many customs from the 1860s merit revival. We'll do without unsanitized bonesaw amputations. Ditto slavery.

1860s-style baseball, on the other hand, is a different ballgame entirely, one that Cleveland-area vintage ball fans have embraced with hearty period-appropriate "Huzzahs!" and mangled fingers.

Playing barehanded is just one of the original gameplay rules compiled by 19th century dime novel company Beadle's Dime in "Base-Ball Player" instruction volumes published throughout the 1860s, now adopted by contemporary vintage "ballists" in favor of modish namby-pamby gimmicks like leather mitts. Other departures from conventional baseball rules include underhand delivery, proscription of bunting and sliding, notching outs by catching fair or foul balls on the bound, and, most importantly, a host of mannerly protocols meant to evoke the game's long-lost spirit of gallantry.

A Gentleman's Game

Bill "Moonlight" Graham, the manager of the Whiskey Island Shamrocks, one of two Cleveland-area teams, says there are three paramount rules he relentlessly impresses on players—"Be gentlemanly, play hard, and entertain the cranks," or fans.

Baseball in the 19th century was "very much a gentlemanly game," Graham stresses, a principle espoused by Beadles' original tenets for "this invigorating exercise and manly pastime" and a tradition he tries to uphold in every aspect of gameplay and player etiquette.

The hitter, or "striker," may request where the "hurler," or pitcher, delivers the ball according to his or her preferences. And as per the rules adopted by the Shamrocks, "Uncivil language, ungentlemanly behavior, spitting, alcohol consumption, chewing of tobacco, and wagering are not permitted."

While gambling and chewing tobacco aren't a major problem, Graham concedes that the swearing moratorium can be a challenge for some players—and he insists that violators are duly punished.

"If someone swears, you give them a warning," says Graham. If the profanities continue, a period-appropriate penalty is imposed: "We say, 'Sir, do we have to fine you a day's wages?'," Graham laughs. A day's wages in the 1860s amounted to a quarter; perpetrators of "uncivil language" these days are fined the same.

The Gear

Aside from repressing errant expletives, the throwback custom that players have the hardest time adapting to is the lack of gloves. "It takes a little bit of getting used to," Graham confesses. He gets a little cagey when asked about the preponderance of injuries in the barehanded game—"Yeah, you get injuries. We try and keep that quiet," he smirks. "I was playing third base once and I forgot I wasn't wearing a glove. The ball nearly took my hand off. We've had pulled-back fingernails and broken fingers once or twice."

Less reckless (not to mention maiming) outfitting requirements are the Shamrocks' wool vintage reproduction uniforms, including knickers and shield-front jerseys with bibs—a seemingly infantile detail inspired by the functional pockets worn by 19th century firemen and coal miners to carry burning objects.

Both the Shamrocks and their crosstown "rivals," the League Park-based Cleveland Blues, use vintage replica bats and balls. The balls, slightly bigger and softer than contemporary regulation baseballs, are yarn-wound and have a "lemon peel" leather cover. The bats have a thicker handle diameter than standard bats and often weigh in at an unwieldy 44 ounces—Major League bats, in contrast, usually don't exceed 34 ounces. "It kind of deadens the ball," shrugs Graham. "You get good arm muscles."

As with any re-enactment pastime, some modern concessions must be made. Spray-painted Nike and Adidas cleats sheepishly litter the Shamrocks' playing diamond. "Some guys go to the extent to buy a 250 pair of replica cleats—they're like lace boots up to their calf.," Graham snorts.

He says he's also caught flak for sporting much needed but woefully inauthentic prescription shades. "Some guys like it, some guys don't," he remarks of his brazenly contemporary accessory. He tries to minimize their offending appearance by buying retro wire-trimmed glasses, noting "Guys definitely can't wear Oakleys" in vintage baseball.

The Field

While the Cleveland Blues enjoy the storied League Park as their stomping ground, the younger Shamrocks have suffered a more peripatetic fate, shuffling between Wendy, Thrush, and Lakewood parks.

But with exciting park reclamation projects on the horizon, Graham hopes the team will someday be rewarded with their own field of dreams: historic Brookside park, currently a neglected trash repository bordering I-71, reputed to have once held the largest crowd in Cleveland baseball history—in 1915.

Graham, a baseball memorabilia collector, shares finger-worn postcards of the Brookside field from 1910 and 1913, when throngs of spectators clotted the park's slopes at amateur baseball championships, the rowdy stands long since replaced by the riotous gleam of discarded Cheetos bags.

Happily, Graham just so happens to be fundraising chairman and vice president of the board for the Stockyard, Clark-Fulton & Brooklyn Centre Development Office (SCFBC), which is seeking a historic designation for the park in hopes of securing funds to revive its erstwhile glory.

Graham and SCFBC recently met with Director of Public Works Michael Cox to discuss renovating Brookside's historic field. Graham is optimistic about funding the endeavor--"I don't want to venture a number, but it would cost much less than League Park," he says. And with Ward 14 councilman Brian Cummins a zealous proponent—"It's kind of his passion," Graham remarks—and other City representatives on board with the project, restoring the field to playable conditions is looking both "very plausible" and "very awesome," says Graham.

Graham admits that some of the Shamrocks' other fundraising ventures have flopped: "We're not helping children. We're not helping the homeless. When you tell people, 'Hey, would you like to invest in a ball club? We're a bunch of guys wearing Civil War outfits who are going out to have fun and play baseball...' it doesn't go over very well, because you're not 'helping' people."

Graham insists, however, that his dedication to revitalizing Brookside field isn't selfish: "I would like to see it happen for us for a home field, but I also want to see the field used by other people. It may be 'just a ball diamond,' but it's a part of the city's history, and I think it's an important part," he enthuses.

The Teams

Both of Cleveland's teams—the Blues and the Shamrocks—boast historical pedigrees. The Blues were Cleveland's National League team from 1878 to 1884. The Shamrocks, or "Shams," were one of the best amateur teams on the Western Reserve in the 1880s, practicing on Whiskey Island's old river bed grounds­­­—and according to local lore—claiming all five of the Delahanty brothers, including Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty, as sandlot stars at one time or another.

The proliferation of vintage baseball clubs in Ohio—Ohio has more clubs registered with the Vintage Base Ball Association (VBBA) than any other state—is attributable to the Buckeye roots of the old-timey sport's contemporary incarnation. One of the first vintage teams was the Ohio Village Muffins, founded by the Ohio Historical Society for period reenactments in the early 1980s. They traveled around the country in search of rivals, spawning spinoff clubs they eventually comprised under the Columbus-based VBBA umbrella in the 90s.

Cleveland hosts a Western Reserve Cup tournament every year, pitting the four area teams—the Blues, the Shamrocks, the Chagrin Falls Forest City Base Ball Club, and the Akron Black Stockings—against each other in revivalist bonhomie.

"I would consider us an underdog team," says Graham, who avers that "there's a lot of encouragement and camaraderie on both sides" when locals play one another. "There's really no rivalries at all. It's one big brotherhood. It's love of the game."

Players rank somewhere below Civil War re-enactors and Renn Faire enthusiasts in their dedication to retro hamming, their pastime an amalgam of reverence and frivolity. "It's a combination of tongue-in-cheek and serious," says Graham.

Players have readily adopted vintage baseball's colorful 19th century patois, however, yelling "Stir your stumps!" instead of "Hustle!" and admonishing the "hurler" to "Throw that apple in here"—"apple," along with "onion" and "horsehide," are alternative terms for "ball." Rookies are "muffins"; proficient ballists "artists." At every game, celebratory cries of "Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!" abound. And pity the ballist who swears or slides: in addition to the prohibitive wage fine, he'll be subjected to jeers of "Boodler!" for his ungentlemanly blunder.

And as for the Shams' underdog status, Graham denies any sore feelings. "As far as I'm concerned, we're doing it for fun and entertainment. We're celebrating the infancy of the game. If we don't win, I don't go home and hang my head, though I may go home and soak my knee or shoulder."

Spoken like a true gentleman.

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