It was the bottom of the fifth at the historic Old Bethpage Village Restoration when a batter for the Atlantics accidentally walloped a line drive toward a nearby home on the sidelines. Everyone sighed with relief when it missed a window, hit the roof and rolled down untouched.
Watching the scene, Mike “Hobo” Leutz speculated with Kevin “Flash” Harrison about whether it would have been fair if caught on one bounce off the roof, which is the rule on the field. What if it was snagged after it rolled off the roof, they wondered? Or maybe exited a gutter? Both knew if it had hit the tree next to the house and been caught by a waiting defender, that would have been an out. No argument there.
Frank “Shakespeare” Van Zant, the umpire at the contest, smiled.
“It’s a crazy game,” he said.
Moments like this aren’t unusual on the suspended-in-time teams that make up vintage “base ball” (two words in the 1800s). Many matches follow rules set up in 1864 — and include the sport’s traditional ribbing. Later in the game, “Hobo” Leutz, who plays barefoot, tried to steal a base and was nearly thrown out. Which gave the opposing pitcher, a member of the Brooklyn Eckfords, a chance for a snarky gibe.
“Maybe the shoeless guy should put something on his feet,” he said.
Anyone who thinks today’s baseball, with its vast stadiums and multimillionaire-dollar players, is out of touch with the natural joys of the game need only find a venue like this to see that its spirit is still very much alive. You just have to travel back a century-and-a-half to find it.
“Flash” Harrison, 42, a Freeport math teacher from Oceanside, and an imposing 6-foot-5 figure at first base, used to play modern-day hardball and softball, but he became a convert to the original form of America’s pastime 20 years ago.
“This is the best version of a ball-and-bat game that ever was,” he said.
Baseball’s roots date back to England (a book recorded the first “base ball” game in 1749 and listed the Prince of Wales as a player). It was adopted in the United States in the 1800s and spread during the Civil War, mostly by Northerners who played in Confederate prison camps. Sometimes the guards joined in.
New York’s Knickerbocker Club codified the first rules in 1845 and within a few years base ball was a national craze. Women had their own players’ groups dating back to 1865, when their teams were divided into blondes and brunettes. It is unknown whether the blondes had more fun.
Organized at Old Bethpage in 1979, the Atlantic Base Ball Club was one of the first vintage teams in the nation, said Gary Schiappacasse, 74, president of the Vintage Base Ball Association created to preserve and promote the game. The team name is an homage to the 19th century Brooklyn Atlantics, who were world champions for several years in the mid-1800s.
The old-time variety of the sport exploded around the time of the 1994 strike in professional baseball, apparently because people were hungry to watch the game in any form, said Schiappacasse.
Today, there are at least 200 clubs in 20 states and Canada, though that number probably is bigger since there are regional clubs around the country not registered with the association, he said.
There are six organizations active locally — the Atlantics, the New York Mutuals, the Brooklyn Eckfords (named after a shipbuilder who sponsored several Brooklyn teams), the Farmingdale Modocs, the Manetto Hill Surprise and the Cold Spring Spiders. Contests are played mainly at Old Bethpage or on the grounds of the Smithtown Historical Society.
The atmosphere is informal enough that some players are members of several teams.
The rules may seem wacky by today’s standards.
A “striker” is out if the ball is caught in the air, but also if it is snared on one bounce. There are no fast pitches; the ball is tossed from the mound underhanded. No one, including the catcher, wears protective equipment for this game, which follows rules from 1864 (games set after a rule change in 1884 call for protective gear). Umpires don’t have to call balls and strikes, but they can if they want to speed up the game. A run is an “ace.” Period uniforms and caps are worn. And, just like in the old days, everyone has a nickname.
For instance, the roster for the Brooklyn Eckfords that day at Old Bethpage Village Restoration included “Wheels,” “Knuckles” and “Bullseye.”
“Shakespeare” Van Zant, 62, who heads an alternative high school teaching program in Rockville Centre, is an injured player and student of the game who often umpires. The Huntington resident got his name because he’s a published poet.
“I’m not Shakespeare but I’m a better third baseman,” he said.
Van Zant remembered umpiring a game in Central Park when a hotshot who had played semiprofessional ball joined in. He had a beautiful swing, Van Zant said, but he fouled off the first pitch, which went over his head and was caught on one bounce by the catcher. He didn’t understand why he was out until the rule was explained to him. He was not happy.
His next turn at the plate was revenge time. He whacked a ball deep into the outfield, where it hit a tree, bounced among the branches and was caught by a player waiting below. Since the ball had caromed off a “natural object,” he was out again, he was told.
He was livid.
“I told him, ‘Welcome to vintage baseball,’ ” Van Zant said.
All of this can be quaint and cute — and sometimes a bit of a bother.
“I was just saying to my brother that maybe I need to re-prioritize my life,” said Phil “Old Soul” Reece Jr., 36, an eBay product authenticator who drives to the games from Harlem. He has been playing for eight years. “Here I am getting up early on a Saturday morning to put on a wool uniform and go play baseball on a hot day.”
Then he grinned. “But I love it.”
It’s easy to see the draw, especially at places like Old Bethpage Village Restoration.
During the game, women strolled by in bonnets and long skirts accompanied by men in vests and hats with round flat brims. At one point during the game, a band marched past playing “Oh! Susanna.” The bucolic atmosphere is bolstered by the fact that the contests typically are held in fields with no fences. Play was stopped several times that day to find a ball that had been swatted into the surrounding forest. One was hit over a red barn into thick brush.
“We’re going to need another ball,” someone shouted.
Mutuals founder Tom “Big Bat” Fesolowich, 62, a retired schoolteacher from Farmingdale and an informal historian of the sport, said, “It takes you back in time. It’s so peaceful, sometimes you get goose bumps.”
That bubble can burst quickly, especially when one of those newfangled flying machines bound for LaGuardia Airport passes overhead. Visits by the media also bring people back to earth. Four years ago, talk show host Conan O’Brien brought a camera crew to film a game for his show. Sporting long sideburns and a mustache, he chided his team, saying, “You hit like a bunch of old men from the Spanish-American War — which hasn’t even been fought yet.”
“Hobo” Leutz, 34, of Bellmore, considers the retro game “a nice chill,” but isn’t particularly nostalgic about it. He doesn’t go shoeless as a tribute to the legendary “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, who actually only went barefoot once because his new cleats hurt his feet. Leutz didn’t have cleats when he played his first vintage game six years ago, and he continued playing without them because he liked it.
“All I need is my shirt and my pants and I can show up,” he said.
Mike “The Kid” Francomano, 23, a third-year law student from Brookhaven, considers the vintage game “a break from real life.” He has been playing baseball since age 4 and was a history major in college.
“Merging those two things together is a cool way to play the game in a fun manner and get that history fix that I love,” he said.
One of the rules that causes people to literally wince while watching the games is that baseball gloves are not allowed in 1864-era games. Everything has to be caught barehanded.
Authenticity like this can be painful.
When Fesolowich played first base for the New York Mutuals and the Manetto Hill Surprise, he said, he broke eight fingers.
“If you don’t try to catch the ball you look like a fool,” he said. “And if you do, you end up being one.”
Francomano abides by the rules, but he won’t necessarily take one for the team in every instance.
“There are times when a line drive is hit toward me and I just duck,” he said.
That aspect doesn’t bother Kelley “Pockets” Pagano, 41, an architect who lives in East Meadow and works in Manhattan. She played competitive softball in college and remains a fierce competitor.
“If it’s a close game and we win, that’s a great day,” she said.
She normally plays for the Mutuals, but was helping out the Eckfords that day. During the contest, Pagano hoovered up almost everything that came her way on third base no matter how hard it was hit. One of her tricks is to take the impact on her chest, she said, then catch the ball when it bounces off. Sure enough, during the game Pagano put her torso in front of a smoking line drive and caught the ricochet for the out. She said she has broken two fingers over the years, including one when the team was playing at a winery.
“I had to sit out the next day and I had a bottle of wine to myself,” she said. “I enjoyed the whole day. I don’t know how much my team enjoyed it.”
The game moves fast. By midafternoon, the doubleheader was done.
The Atlantics triumphed in both games, but the Eckfords put up a fight to the end.
Umpire Van Zant gathered the teams on the field and announced, “I hereby declare this a day of blue skies and base ball,” he said.
He complimented everyone on their sportsmanship. This was followed by one team giving their opponents three cheers of “Hip, hip, hooray.” Caps were raised with each cheer. The other team followed suit. Two lines were formed and handshakes and hugs exchanged. It was time to return to the 21st century, which had its advantages.
“Old Soul” Reece headed for the sidelines to pack up.
“It’s party time,” he shouted.
PLAY OR WATCH
Anyone can join a vintage team any time, said Frank “Shakespeare” Van Zant. The season runs from March to November.
“It’s really about recreating what the game actually looked like,” he said. “We’re trying to reanimate history.”
The Vintage Base Ball Association website, vbba.org, includes a rundown of the rules and lists teams from around the country. Teams include the Atlantic Base Ball Club, brooklynatlantics.org, and the New York Mutuals, nymutuals.com. Contact information for the Brooklyn Eckfords is at mavbbl.com/contact-a-club/brooklyn-eckfords.
— James Kindall