Hey, Batter Batter!

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"Some say a waste of time, some say an even bigger waste of time." These are the famous words of comedian Conan O'Brien describing my favorite pastime -- vintage base ball.

Vintage base ball (that's right, two words) is America's favorite pastime played by the rules and customs of 1860-1880. The game itself is pretty similar to modern-day baseball except for a few key differences.

  • No gloves are used, just bare hands to catch the ball.

  • Players can't overrun first base.

  • The hurler (pitcher) has to deliver the ball underhand.

  • There are no called balls, but a swing and miss of the bat is still a strike.

  • Any ball caught on the first bound or bounce (fair or foul) is considered an out.

    COURTESY INDIANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
    • Courtesy Indiana Historical Society

So why play by these rules? There's always a softball league somewhere that lets you use an aluminum bat so you can impress Dave from accounting, showing him how you were really something in high school. But these 19th-century rules add a new dimension to the game that makes it more inclusive in my opinion.

Without the requirement of expensive or exclusive equipment, the game takes on a more pick-up-and-play feel, with added emphasis on the ball being put into play and fielded by a team, versus skilled pitching with the hope they don't hit the ball.

I play for the comradery. In vintage base ball, within the first couple of games you're given a name that you're stuck with, even if it doesn't make sense. Mine? It's evolved over the past six years I've been playing. It's gone from Steamboat to Big Wheel to Mary and back to Steamboat/Dreamboat. We keep nicknames to maintain that old-timey feel of the game, but possibly also as fair warning for the other team. We have a player that will go back and forth between Highball and Celtic Thunder, depending on the amount of kettle corn he eats the night before.

I play on the Indianapolis Hoosiers team, which is based on the city's pro base ball team. Led by Captain Jack Glasscock, the original Hoosiers posted a 146-249 record over the 1887-1889 seasons. They played off 16th street, where Methodist Hospital now stands (outside the blue law zone of downtown, if anyone is familiar). Captain Jim "Mountain" Walker founded the current Indianapolis Hoosiers in the summer of 2004. The Indiana Historical Society had just discovered a batch of old, black and white Hoosiers base ball cards, and in typical Jim Walker fashion, he was able to put together a ragtag team of artists, architects and anybody with a passion for the sport. Indianapolis currently has three active vintage base ball teams: The Indianapolis Hoosiers, Blues and White River.

COURTESY TOM STREIT
  • Courtesy Tom Streit

The Hoosiers call Garfield Park our home field today. A dirt infield wasn't the setting for the sport back in the olden days, so our playing surfaces reflect what they used to be -- a big grassy field. Over the years, our playing fields have had just as much character as the teams we've encountered. In Ohio, there's one where an outhouse lies somewhere between center and right field (if the ball hits the house, it's still in play). In Detroit there is a time-out called by the umpire every time a train goes through the outfield, and my particular favorite is in my hometown of Batesville, Indiana, where we had a flyover before the game for a sculpture dedication. Maybe not a vintage way to start a game, but it was cool nonetheless.

The Indianapolis Hoosiers get ready to kick off their season tomorrow (Saturday, May 17th) at Garfield Park. Games start at 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. and are free and open to the public. You can find our schedule on our Facebook page or on our website.

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