America's pastime: Baseball once a gentleman's game
EAGLE--Umpire Ron Rogahn turned to the women watching a ball game earlier this month and politely asked:
“Is it OK if the players roll up their sleeves?”
On a sunny afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-80s, players wearing wool shirts did not want to offend the ladies.
With sweat on their brows, they waited on the sun-boiled field for a verbal go-ahead.
After all, in the mid-1800s, baseball was a gentleman's game, and no player wanted to act unseemly.
Mike VanderBunt of Williams Bay will tell you that early baseball had little in common with the game played at Miller Park.
He is a member of the Eagle Diamonds, a vintage baseball team from Old World Wisconsin. All players are volunteers for the historic site.
“You can think of us as part of the museum,” VanderBunt said. “We play a real game with other vintage teams from around the state and Illinois. We also play by the rules and customs of 19th-century baseball.”
Back in the day, baseball was written as two words, base ball.
But that was only the beginning of differences between then and now. The first is how players viewed the game.
“The 19th-century game isn't necessarily about competition,” VanderBunt said. “It definitely is about camaraderie, sportsmanship and bringing the community together.”
On Aug. 9, the Diamonds played another vintage team on an unkempt field at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor museum celebrating the state's ethnic heritage. They handily beat the Wade House Red Jackets, 28-14, but they were ever so polite.
“The game always starts with introductions and welcoming the other team to the home field,” VanderBunt said.
No one did any showboating or taunting. No one forgot to address the umpire as “sir.” No one had signed a mega contract.
Bob Weber of Muskego is the team's coach.
He schedules practices and praises the players.
“This is how the game should be played,” he said. “There are no instant replays and no arguing.”
Nineteenth-century rules are different, too.
Unlike today, the pitcher focuses on throwing the ball where the batter or striker likes it.
“That's a huge difference between then and now,” VanderBunt said.
Also, if a player catches a fly ball after it bounces once, it's considered an out. No one wears gloves, and there are no strike zones. Players are never supposed to slide into base or run beyond the base. And if a play on the bases is questioned, the audience gets to decide if a player is safe.
“The audience was considered to be 'cultured folks,'” said Diamonds manager Ryan Schwartz, who is an employee of the museum. “They were thought of a lot like a theater audience.”
The late Marty Perkins of the museum fashioned the Diamonds after an 1874 team that played at Carroll College in Waukesha.
In their 10th year, the Diamonds wear uniforms that are impeccably authentic, right down to the stitching on the buttons. In addition to wool shirts, they don knickers, knee-high white socks and flat-soled shoes. On their heads, they wear flat caps with stylish four-point white stars.
“These guys were out to look good and to have fun,” Schwartz said.
Until the early 2000s, vintage baseball had mostly been a local phenomenon. Today, 225 clubs play in 32 states.
Schwartz encourages people to see a game, where scores can get high.
“It has a distinct and different flavor than what you will see at Miller Park,” Schwartz said. “No one will throw down a bat and walk off. In the 19th century, men were playing in front of neighbors and friends. They did not want them to think badly of them.”
“Baseball is America's sport. If you love baseball, you will love these games.”
Vintage baseball has its own lingo. Here are modern words followed by the language of a 19th-century match.
Fly ball: cloud hunter
Ground ball: bug bruiser
Hard hit: hammer
Home plate: dish