Saturday, September 13, 2008

Old time baseball in the here and now

Old time baseball in the here and now
by Cynthia August

In a late season meadow, the boys of summer are calling to each other. In the low afternoon light, bright uniforms move against dark green grass and lush maples. Dust hangs low in the air like a mist, or a dream of the past. A bat crack and the sound of feet digging for home. Urgent calls, then only the sound of the ball moving through the air and the hush of tension until it is caught. The breeze before twilight moves laughter and lazy talking into the outfield. Everyone settles in to watch the next at bat.

Baseball. Plain and simple as a summer day. Not HDTV baseball with whirling, whooshing scores, nine angles on the field and deeply analytical playbacks, or an overpriced seat in the stratosphere of an enormous stadium. No, just baseball at it simplest and oldest and perhaps best.

This is the Essex Base Ball Club, a team that has brought the perfect combination of sport and history to the North Shore for seven years. The game is old, with some of the earliest rules - 1861 is the chosen set for this team, although others use rules that are later or even as early as 1850. The men who play are volunteers of all ages, and they certainly aren't professionals. But they share an enthusiastic, infectious love of the game and its provenance with their fans, and they are more than willing to talk about their love. That makes spending a day with this up-close and personal team playing ball about as good at it gets.

The Essex team is comprised of players from all over the North Shore. It is a member of the North Shore Vintage Base Ball Association and plays with teams from all over the area. From May to September, the team plays or practices nearly every weekend and travels rather extensively to help promote their version of America's national pastime. Most of their games are free to the public.

Brian 'Cappy' Sheehy, the team's captain, is a history teacher in North Andover. But he found the team in a way that had nothing to do with his background.

"I saw an ad in the paper," he says, "and liked the idea of something other than men's softball, or even regular men's baseball. This is unique, more competitive."

The historical aspect of the game was also appealing.

"It's accessible and approachable to everyone. Its history without the history book," he says.

Indeed, while sitting field side, one feels as intrigued by the historical differences as by the game itself. The manner of the ball players is different. They refer to each other as "mister" and "gentlemen." The umpire (there is only one) will ask players to make calls on any play he has not been able to view fully, and players are expected to answer truthfully.

"I believe I was out, sir."

"Thank you sir. Sir, you are out."

A sport of gentlemen, etiquette at the game is of primary importance for both spectators (cranks) and players (ballists), and so any improper behavior earns the offender a fine of at least 25 cents.

Uniforms are far from the high-tech, low-sweat gear of today's players. There is wool and plenty of it. Baseball was created by firemen and so it is no surprise that the 1861 uniform resembles a fireman's garment with a loose fitting shirt and a button-on patch to mark the team (The Essex players sport a large E.) Coupled with loose, baggy trousers, the men look for the entire world like old ball players and not the teachers, accountants and college students they actually are.

Their game lingo is a tangle of words from then and now, and watching the play alongside the comments works some effective translation. "Striker to the line" and the batter is up. "We need a well-placed daisy cutter Mr. Mac Quarrie" will hopefully result in a ground ball. But if "The hurler is tossing nothing but jimjams," it will be tough to tame the wild pitches into a solid hit (which, by the way, are called strikes.) Hit enough strikes, and "you'll put a dagger in the other team."

And then there are the rules, which changed almost yearly in the early stages of baseball and continued to change as the sport evolved. In 1861 baseball, there are no gloves - all the catching is barehanded. A ball that bounces once and caught is an out. There is no strike zone and a batter may take as many pitches as he likes. The pitches are underhand and are from 45 feet away as opposed to the 60 feet 6 inches of today's game. A fair ball is determined by where it first strikes the ground; if it rolls into foul territory, it is still fair. And there is one handmade ball for each game, which makes the hits more erratic as the ball softens through nine innings of play.

"Can you imagine what playing this game must have been like in the 1860's?" asks A.J. Guanci from Peabody as he waits for a turn at bat. " When I first joined the team, we practiced pre-season in regular clothes and it felt fun, but the day we put on our uniforms and took the field, it was really wonderful. You feel in touch with something from the past."

"It keeps me young," says Brian Besse of Boxford, one of the oldest players on the team. When I called up the team, I was hoping to coach, but they needed players. I thought to myself, 'Could I play?' I trained over the winter, lost some weight, joined in the spring. That was five years ago."

The team is growing, and not just as a sports club. It recently became a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Sheehy gives talks and teaches students about the history of baseball, and the team uses games as an opportunity to teach by talking to their spectators during the games and inviting kids to come out and give 1861 rules a try with the team at the end of the game.

Next summer, the team hopes to take their game to Ireland to commemorate an 1858 trip by National League players to play exhibition games for the Irish people. In November, Sheehy will visit the Ipswich Historical Society, and a day of vintage ball is in the works to celebrate Ipswich's 375th birthday.

Baseball, played in this way, is a chance to bring the game and its proud history back to the people without corporate complication or slick, shiny expense. By keeping it simple and reaching out to those who come to watch, Sheehy and his teammates not only play the game, they keep its true spirit alive.

The Essex Base Ball Club will play a triple-header Saturday, Sept. 6, from 11 a.m.-4 p.m., at the Spencer Peirce Little Farm, 5 Little's Lane, Newbury. Free to Historic New England members, $3 per person for non-members. Grass field seating: Bring blankets and lawn chairs. Weather permitting. For information, call 978-462-2634.