Would you know a dew drop if you saw one? What about a muckle? A daisy cutter? While your nineteenth century lingo might need some freshening up, odds are good the ballists of the Capitol Conference would have no trouble telling you that these throwback terms mean, respectively, a slow pitch, a power hitter, and a fast ground ball.
I wrote about the Old Dominions, Virginia’s vintage base ball team, for the August 2013 issue of Virginia Living Magazine. I wanted to offer a hats off to men and women who are making an effort to actively preserve folkways that might have otherwise been relegated to dusty library shelves.
Vintage base ball takes America’s pastime back a century-and-a-half or so. As part of the Mid-Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League, or MAVBBL, the Capitol Conference–five teams gathered in greater metropolitan Washington, D.C. and Baltimore–plays base ball according to 1864 rules. Other leagues around the United States, and there are many, choose from among any of the twenty or so guidelines established in the latter half of the nineteenth century by amateur and professional base ball leagues.
Clubs in the MAVBBL follow nineteenth century customs, dress and language as faithfully as possible. Uniforms are an eclectic blend of baggy pants and shirts and simple button-front logos. Players use old terms to describe every element of the game. An infielder is a basetender. An enthusiastic teammate who has more spirit than skill is a muffin. Home plate is a dish. (There’s a complete list of the terms here). Athletes all go by a nickname bestowed by their teammates: Lightning, Skipper, Skedaddle, Roman.
And then there are the rules. Matches are literally a whole different ball game; the rules of 1864 are a far cry from those that govern modern Major League Baseball. Players do not wear mitts. A batter is out if opponents catch his fly ball after the first bounce. The order of play–that is, which team bats first–is determined by a bat toss whereby the two team captains alternately grab the same bat hand-over-hand until one of them has reached the top.
The athletes I spoke with all mentioned how thrilling vintage base ball is, that this is unlike some re-enactment where everyone knows that the Confederates are going to lose or the Americans will take the fort. You can see players’ disappointment when they’re tagged out, hear teammates’ cheers at runs scored. Defenders steel themselves when the star player takes the line. Vintage base ball players are living a dynamic past, replete with all the uncertain outcomes that were a day-to-day part of our ancestors’ lives.