Bill “Silver Fox” Walsh, at 70 the apparent patriarch of the Chesapeake Nine of Baltimore vintage baseball team, steps up to bat at the team’s first spring training of the season. A gold fabric shield buttoned to his shirt bears the team’s “C” emblem in an old-time font.
The pitcher (“hurler” in vintage ball speak) lobs a few underhanded throws until he hears that soul-stirring thwack of bat meeting ball. A textbook line drive zips past the shortstop, drops onto the grass and bounces skyward. The center fielder pounces and nabs it with two bare hands. “Silver Fox” is out, per the historic “1864 rules” of the game.
To the uninitiated, vintage baseball is played in a language of its own, with quirky rules, whimsical player nicknames and curious old-fashioned uniforms. To the Chesapeake Nine, whose players range in age from their 20s to their 70s, it’s simply a passion that lets them escape to another time.
“Vintage baseball is a way to experience history but … not exactly pure re-enacting,” says Gary “Weasel” Wasielewski of Havre de Grace, who became intrigued with the sport nearly 20 years ago after reading a Smithsonian magazine article. “Re-enactors observe the War of 1812 in Havre de Grace every year, and the ending is always the same. The nice thing about vintage baseball is that you are doing some re-enactment, but the results are always open.”
With a home field at Jerusalem Mill Village in Kingsville, the Chesapeake Nine play in the Mid-Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League, an organization comprising of 22 clubs in a territory that ranges from Virginia to Rhode Island. They favor games at historic sites where they can recreate 19th-century playing fields and customs as closely as possible.
When the first Americans started playing baseball in the mid-1800s, there were no manicured diamonds. Neighbors played in local fields, sometimes in ankle-high grass, and marked base lines with flour. Hay bales formed a backstop and benches. Players carved their own bats.
Today’s vintage players purchase their balls and bats from companies that specialize in vintage equipment. Even the team refreshments honor the past.
“We only drink Yuengling beer since that was the only beer that was [commercially] brewed in the mid-1800s,” says Kevin “Moonshine” Walsh, Bill Walsh’s son.
Though many teams insist on historically accurate uniforms, the Chesapeake Nine wear three-quarter-length shirts and lightweight pants in a nod to health and safety. (“Silver Fox” Walsh, of Havre de Grace, says he pitched for a previous team wearing a wool uniform in temperatures above 90 degrees.) They won’t, however, carry a cellphone or wear nonprescription sunglasses or a watch.
“Most vintage players are modern-day fans, too,” says Steve “Scoop” Kahl, president of the Chesapeake Nine of Baltimore. Teammates named him “Scoop” when they learned he once worked for a local business newspaper. “That love of baseball draws them in. … They like the uniqueness of the rules, the uniforms and the fact that you get to play in historic sites like Gettysburg and Bethpage, N.Y.”
By far, however, what the spectators (called “cranks” in another nod to historical accuracy) will notice is how the sport’s rules have evolved since the 1800s. The vintage league follows “1864 rules.” To avoid confusion, many vintage teams explain the basics to the cranks before game time, Kahl says, and sometimes pause the action to explain a call.
Some rules are apparent: Three called balls allow the batter to walk and all base runners advance, regardless of a force. When a batter hits the ball, it is ruled foul or fair depending on where it first hits the ground, even if it eventually rolls into another territory. Foul balls are not counted as strikes.
And “in 1864 rules, you can catch a ball on a bounce,” Kahl says.
In addition, no one wears a helmet, glove or, for that matter, any protective gear, including catcher Rebecca “Burner” Petruccy.
“It sounds intimidating,” says Petruccy, one of two female players on the Chesapeake Nine. “It’s slow-pitch, and the ball usually hits the ground before it gets to me.”
Kahl recruited Petruccy, a co-worker and a chemist (her nickname, “Burner,” was a natural) when he learned she played softball in college.
Though she knows that many find baseball’s pace excruciatingly slow, she enjoys what happens in between bursts of action.
“There is a lot of strategy involved,” she says. “Because you are playing with a softer ball and a wooden bat, just hitting a line drive is not going to get you on base. You have to think about where the holes are and remember that anybody in the field can catch the ball with one bounce and you are still out.”
If you happen to be called out on a bounce, cursing is frowned upon, although no one bats an eye at a well-timed “tarnation!”
It is, by all measures, a gentlemanly game. There is just one umpire, or “arbiter,” in a vintage game, and he stands to the side of the batter. In the event that the arbiter is unable to see a play clearly, he will sometimes defer to the players involved, who are expected to make the call honestly.
“We try to win and play the best we can to win,” says Bill Walsh. However, he adds, “we are a little more interested in honoring the history of the game and having a good time playing the game.”
At game’s end, each team lines along the first and third baselines to shake hands, thank the spectators and exchange a robust “huzzah!”
For Kevin “Moonshine” Walsh, vintage baseball’s rules and slower pace make it an everyman or -woman’s sport, just as it was meant to be.
“Usually when you think of baseball, you think of someone throwing a 100 mile-per-hour pitch at you,” he says. “Vintage baseball rules are such that anyone from a little kid to a professional athlete can play.”