Ellicott's Mills Surveyors play vintage form of national pastime

For The Baltimore Sun
The Ellicott's Mills Surveyors will host the Talbot Fair Plays at 1 p.m. July 31 at Yingling-Ridgely VFW Post

When an outfielder scoops up a ball in his bare hands after a bounce or a batter overruns a base instead of sliding in, don't be too quick to yell at the umpire for calling an out.

Be prepared to cast aside a lot of what you know about today's version of America's pastime when you're watching a game of vintage base ball — yes, two words — the popular sport with mid-19th-century roots.

The Ellicott's Mills Surveyors and their opponents will follow 1864 rules when the team hosts the Talbot Fair Plays at 1 p.m. Sunday at their home field, the Yingling-Ridgely VFW Post 7472 in Ellicott City. Spectators are welcome, and there is no admission fee.

"Vintage base ball has been around since 1980, but it has really picked up steam in the last several years," said Dustin Linz, team founder and manager.

The 1864 rules were adopted by the National Association of Base Ball Players in December 1863, according to the website of the Mid-Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League, to which the Surveyors belong. There are also 1884 rules, as adopted by the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs.

"We're like Civil War re-enactors, only our games aren't scripted and the results aren't already known in advance," said Linz, who usually plays center field. "Both teams are competing to win."

Linz, 22 and the assistant manager at the Museum of Howard County History, named his team after Andrew Ellicott, a prominent surveyor and descendant of the Ellicott brothers who founded the historic mill town in 1772.

"He worked with [African-American scientist] Benjamin Banneker to survey the streets of Washington, D.C., and also taught Merriweather Lewis" of Lewis and Clark fame, said Linz, an Owings Mills resident.

"When I decided to start a team last year, I immediately knew I wanted it to be in Ellicott City, since I work here and have grown to love the history of the town and the people," he said.

Linz said he enjoys the sport "in a nerdy way," and loves analyzing statistics and developing game strategies.

The main rule differences in vintage base ball are that runners must slide into the base, gloves are not permitted, a ball caught on a bounce is an out, and pitchers must throw underhand, he said.

Demonstrating skill on the pitcher's mound was not a priority in 1864.

"Pitchers threw underhand to avoid any deception and to make the ball easy to hit," Linz said. "The average speed of a ball was somewhere between 25 miles per hour and 35 miles per hour, and curveballs were considered cheating. The game was more about running and fielding."

Vintage teams use a ball that lies somewhere between a softball and a modern baseball in size and hardness, he said. But catching the ball bare-handed — gloves hadn't been invented by 1864 — is no simple feat.

"It's intimidating for the first couple of months, and your palms are sore and bruised," Linz said. "It takes a while to build up calluses, but your hands toughen up gradually."

Bruce Leith, coordinator of the Mid-Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League, said the sport has roots in the games played by soldiers in Civil War camps.

"Base ball was being played in the late 1850s in some of our major cities, but [the war] was the start of the boom," said Leith, an Elkton resident who is manager of concession development for the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Baltimore Base Ball Emporium was opened downtown by a New York entrepreneur shortly after the war ended, he said. The owner recruited men from surrounding towns to play and then sold his equipment and clothing to players and onlookers.

By 1867 the game had spread all over Maryland, Leith said.

"Once men come out for vintage base ball, they never go back to softball," he said of MAVBBL, which was founded in 2009 and has 24 member teams from Rhode Island to Virginia. "We have a real respect for history and a love of the game."

Spectators who aren't knowledgeable about the sport won't have any difficulty picking up on one obvious difference from today's sport — the team's uniforms.

The Surveyors wear green-checkered shirts, black knickers and green-and-gold argyle socks. Vintage teams wear modern cleats for safety's sake, but 19th-century players wore brogans, which are ankle-high leather shoes, or played in their bare feet, Linz said.

Lauren Grannas, a fan who lives in Hanover, Pa., described vintage base ball as "a cool experience."

"On opening day this year, I dressed my 5-year-old and 7-year-old in old-fashioned clothing: suspenders, bow tie and hat for Liam and a dress and pearls for Addison. The kids loved it," said Grannas, who works in Baltimore.

"It makes you feel like you're watching a game from that era, and I learn more about the rules each time I go," she said, adding that spectators often get to try their hand at pitching or batting after the game ends. "You definitely get a little bit of a history lesson."

Mike McManus, who plays second base and works with Linz at the historical society museum, said observing the contrasts in the game between then and now makes it interesting.

"It's like stepping back in the past," he said. "We really work at engaging the crowd and making them a part of the game."

Linz — who posted on YouTube his performance on guitar of a fast-moving tune he composed and calls the Surveyors' Theme Song — said the team is always recruiting.

"We're always looking for more players and no experience is needed," he said. "This is such a great way to learn about the history and development of the sport, and to have fun."


If you go

The Ellicott's Mills Surveyors will host the Talbot Fair Plays at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Yingling-Ridgely VFW Post 7472, 4225 VFW Lane, Ellicott City. Games last about 90 minutes; admission is free. A snack bar is available. Information: SurveyorVintageBBC@gmail.com or facebook.com/SurveyorBBC.

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