Vintage baseball league combines hits and history
Cranks, judges and scouts hardly seem like terms associated with any customary type of baseball game.
Welcome to vintage baseball!
The St. Croixs posed for a photo with the umpire after a recent game. The guys are holding their “willow sticks” and “onions.” Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society.
Instead of gloves, sunglasses, and lightweight jerseys that players of this era don, these “throwback” players participate in vintage baseball which utilizes gear, terminology and rules from the 1860s era.
On a sun-splashed day, a light breeze brought little relief from a hot and humid day as players took a step back into time recently in Becker.
This game featured an entertaining battle between The St. Croixs, of Washington County, and the Rum River Rovers, of Anoka County.
The game was hosted by the Sherburne County Historical Society located in Becker. The executive director of the Sherburne County Historical Society, Mike Brubaker, even got into the action, filling in at third base for Rum River.
“I had a great time,” Brubaker said. “I can see why they play these games. You learn what baseball was like long ago while also having a good time.”
In these “throwback” games, no gloves are allowed for fielders or batters. Every so often a player grimaces while shaking his hand after catching a hard-hit or hard-thrown ball.
“Yeah, we have a lot of little injuries,” laughed St. Croixs’ first baseman Erik “Sugar” Sjogren. “You can really feel it at this time of the year when we’ve already played a lot of games.”
A ball is pitched in a vintage baseball game between The St. Croixs and the Rum River Rovers. No gloves are used, and all the players wear long-sleeve shirts and black shoes, just like how it was played in the 1860s. Photo by Scott Thoma
“I played with a crooked finger for a year after getting hit by a line drive,” remarked pitcher Christopher “Rufus” Nelson, while displaying his still slightly bent but now-healed digit. “Injuries happen. But they heal up.”
Fans attending games in the 1860s were referred to as “cranks.” The umpire was called a “judge” or “referee” and would wear a stovepipe hat while standing several feet behind home plate instead of squatting behind the catcher as they do now.
“(Judges) didn’t need to stand right behind the catcher because there were no balls or strikes called,” the umpire said, educating fans between innings. “A strikeout could only be recorded when a batter swings and misses three times. Foul balls did not count as strikes, and there is no bunting allowed.”
But if a “judge” decided that a batter was letting too many “good” pitches go by without swinging, he could use his own discretion and declare a pitch a strike.
“The game originally was designed to be a defensive game,” said Brent Peterson, the executive director of Washington County Historical Society based in Stillwater and also the player/manager of the St. Croixs ball club. “The game wasn’t originally designed so much to get the batter out at the plate.”
The “judge” was also in charge of keeping track of the runs crossing the plate and would inform “cranks” and players the score by shouting it out after each complete inning.
Many 1860s rules differ from those of today. For instance, a fly ball can be caught on the fly or on one bounce to be ruled an out. Pitches can be thrown as hard as the hurler wants, but must be launched underhand and not in a windmill fashion like fast-pitch softball. Swearing, spitting or arguing with the “judge” is prohibited.
There are seven or eight vintage baseball teams currently playing in Minnesota. The St. Croixs and Rum River Rovers play about 15-20 games each summer throughout the state.
“The players on our team come from all over,” said Peterson, who has been playing Vintage baseball for 18 years. “It’s not only entertaining for those coming to watch, but also a lesson in history.”
The players on the St. Croixs and Rum River Rovers teams range in age from teenagers all the way up to those in their 60s.
“It’s really a lot of fun to get out here with the other guys and play a game we love,” said St. Croixs outfielder Richard “Aces” Arpi. “That’s what it’s all about.”
In vintage baseball, minor injuries are common. They also play in hot and humid conditions while wearing long-sleeved uniforms, while receiving no compensation and often having to travel many miles to play. That doesn’t exactly seem like a recipe for fun.
But these players think otherwise.
St. Croix players, Christopher Nelson, left, and Brent Peterson, right, in the dugout at a recent game. Photo by Scott Thoma
“I love history and baseball,” said Sjogren, who travels from Elk River to participate. “That’s why I play. I’ve been playing for 13 years, and I plan to continue playing as long as I can. I really enjoy it.
The players on teams are all given nicknames, much as they did in the foregone era.
Nelson’s nickname “Rufus” stems from one of the pioneers of baseball, William “Rufus” Wheaton, who helped draft the sport’s first set of rules and was also one of the first “judges.”
“Sugar,” “Skinny”, “Portsider,” “Buzzsaw” and “Basher” are some of the names doled out to some of the other players.
“If a new guy joins the team, we get to know him and then give him a nickname,” said Peterson.
The terminology of old-time baseball also differs greatly from the modern era.
“If someone makes a nice catch, it’s referred to as ‘good ginger,’” explained Peterson. “A line drive is a ‘daisy cutter’ and a long hit is a ‘big fly.’”
Outfielders are called “scouts,” and a shortstop is a “short scout.” Crossing the plate safely is an “ace” and an out is a “hand” or “dead.” When three outs are recorded, it’s referred to as “three hands dead” instead of the more common “the side is retired.”
Bats used are referred to as “willow stick,” and the batter is called a “striker.” If the striker hits the “horsehide or onion,” as the ball was called, and doesn’t run the bases hard, a teammate may encourage him by shouting “stir your stumps”, as was common over 150 years ago.
The balls used in vintage games are similar in size and shape to those used in baseball games today. Bats are ordered from a company that manufactures vintage equipment. Sjogren is a sales representative for the company.
“We wear small-billed caps and long-sleeved shirts because that’s what they wore in the 1860s,” said Peterson. “And black shoes are a must because they didn’t have white shoes back then.”
The game being replicated is the same one that was played at the time of the Civil War, when Minnesota was only on its second state governor, and also the time of the Dakota War.
“It’s like what was said (by James Earl Jones’ character Terence Mann) in the Field of Dreams movie,” said Peterson. “The one constant through all the years has been baseball.”
And the “cranks” in the stands have been there to enjoy it every step of the way.