19th-century baseball in Lincoln Park, circa 1858

by

8 comments

I went for a jog in Lincoln Park last Sunday afternoon, running along North Avenue just east of Clark Street, when suddenly I entered a time warp. I saw a man dressed like Abraham Lincoln, a woman and some children straight out of Central Casting for Gone With the Wind, and a bunch of guys in vintage attire playing a game that resembled baseball.

Chicago Salmon ballists
  • Ryan Hubbard
  • Chicago Salmon ballists
Fielders were catching a brown ball with no gloves, and pitchers threw underhand in a style between slow- and fast-pitch softball. The dimensions of the bases looked familiar, but the field was simply a grassy, open section of the park where several trees stood in play. That woman, wearing a pink hoop skirt, approached me with a smile and a flier that said "S vs. E" and "Civil War Era Base Ball." Turns out I was watching a "match" between the Chicago Salmon and the House of David Echoes from Benton Harbor, Michigan—two teams that barnstorm the midwest playing America's favorite pastime in actual fields and parks according to rules from 1858.

An abbreviated list of these rules was printed on the back of the flier, beginning with the following: "Base Ball is a gentleman's game. There is no bunting, stealing bases, leading off of bases, wagering, spitting, rudeness, or cursing." This isn't the game Pete Rose played.

Players are "ballists," fielders are "bagmen," pitchers are "hurlers," hitters are "strikers," left-handed strikers are "wrongsiders," and opponents call each other "sir." There are serious differences from the modern game. 1) Bagmen can make an out by catching a hit ball on one bounce or by tagging a runner who advances through first base instead of stopping on the bag. 2) One bagman, the "rover," is apt to stand anywhere, even in foul territory, though he most frequently hovers where modern shortstops play. 3) The purpose of the hurler is to help the striker put the ball into play, so hurlers do not compete with strikers by altering the motion or speed of the ball.

This time period was important to the development of baseball, which evolved from the English game of rounders in New England in the late 18th century. According to Michael Mandelbaum in his excellent The Meaning of Sports, "The Civil War helped to spread the game all over the country--it was played in military bases and prison camps in both North and South--and in the wake of the war what had been an informal game was transformed into an organized sport. Permanent teams were formed and regular competitions among them scheduled." In 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first fully professional club, setting the stage for the formation of the National League in 1876 and the American League in 1901.

I grew up playing baseball and consider myself a fan—going to several Cubs, White Sox, Reds, and minor league games each year—but I was totally unfamiliar with this style of play or these teams. And they're not the only teams. According to the Vintage Base Ball Association, the leading resource for a movement of 19th-century baseball enthusiasts, there are more than 100 teams across 23 states (and two Canadian teams), a slim majority hailing from the midwest. Illinois hosts eight member teams, including the Elk Grove Village Bucks and the Downers Grove Plowboys. The Ohio Village Muffins, founded in 1981 with support from the Ohio Historical Society, are credited as the first team to play a schedule of 19th-century-style baseball games, though the first "official" single match appears to have been played at Old Bethpage Village Restoration in New York in 1980. Given modern Americans' interests in Civil War reenactments, Renaissance fairs, historical societies, and reality shows like PBS's Frontier House, it's no surprise our pursuit of "authentic" experiences has led to retro baseball.

Elizabeth Boss Lady Carlson
  • Ryan Hubbard
  • Elizabeth "Boss Lady" Carlson
The woman in the hoop skirt, as it turns out, is a woman of many costumes. Elizabeth Carlson, or Ellie, is the Curator of Costumes for the Winnetka Historical Society and the owner-manager of the Chicago Salmon. She goes by "Boss Lady" at matches—the ballists go by nicknames, too, like "Jumbo Shrimp," "Moonglow," and "Neutral"—but she's also known as Mrs. Potts or Miss Isabelle Hoffman, two of the historical "interpretations" she's created for living-history farms. (See her personal site for more.) Ellie formed her team in 1996 and chose the salmon for a mascot because her husband likes to fly-fish. She even found a "fishtail" typeface for the "S" on the team shirts — there's a forked tail at each end of the letter. The Salmon play once a year in Lincoln Park, with support from the nearby Chicago History Museum.

The Salmon are technically based in Chicago, but they don't have a home field (Sunday's two games against the House of David Echoes were this year's only visit to the city), and just a few of their members live in Chicago. Ballists range from high-schoolers to men in their 60s and represent a variety of educational and professional backgrounds. They're not all history buffs, but they're serious about honoring the way the game was played back then, starting with the uniforms. The caps are either cotton or the more authentic — and expensive — wool. The wool ones come from the Cooperstown Ball Cap Co. in Cooperstown, NY, also home of course to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. The sleeves of the button-down shirts—which the Salmon wear in cotton instead of wool to beat the heat—appropriately extend beyond the elbow, since showing one's elbows was considered ungentlemanly. They favor the thick, coarse, zipperless pants of an Amish pant maker. They wear contemporary cleats or sneakers, owing to the very dangerous terrain of the unmanicured fields they prefer to play on. Back then ballists didn't have much choice but to play on rugged grounds, I was told, since any flat, open field would be farmed.

And they play with authentic replicas of bats and balls from the era. The wooden bats are made to spec by Phoenix Bat Co. of Columbus, Ohio (home of the Muffins). Even the classic Louisville Slugger didn't come around until 1884. The Salmon use baseballs also made by Phoenix Bats. Sometimes called a "lemon-peel" or "orange-peel" ball, it features a rubber center, about the size of a ping-pong ball, that is wrapped in wool yarn and covered in one piece of cowhide with some stitching. (The modern ball has a livelier cork center, wool and polyester-cotton yarn wrapping, a cowhide cover made from two separate pieces, and additional stitching.) The Salmon's home plate is simply a small metal plate, and their bases are "pillows stuffed with sawdust," Ellie says.

Ray Never Wrong Grish
  • Ryan Hubbard
  • Ray "Never Wrong" Grish
Honest Abe turned out to be the Honorable Ray "Never Wrong" Grish, an umpire who's officiated for the Salmon and other retro teams for several years. Less an ump, by today's standards, and more like a presiding judge of the event, he stood mostly stationary near the "behind" (catcher) and called outs by stating, "one hand dead" or "two hands dead" or "three hands dead." He did not call balls and strikes. (Teams do not appear to have consistently incorporated both called balls—and walks—and called strikes—and strikeouts—across regional leagues until the 1870s, when more teams turned fully pro and the actual balls became more aerodynamic and controllable.) But while a striker cannot earn a walk, he can strike out. The umpire may call a hand dead if the striker swings and misses three times.

The Salmon won the first game 18-4. When a Salmon player had to leave, I got to fill in and play much of the second game, taking my old family nickname "Bubba." We won the second game of the double-header 27-16. And by then, despite being in decent shape, I'd pulled a hamstring while running the bases and hyperextended my left knee after discovering a dip in the ground on my way to a fly ball. I don't know how the older guys do it week to week.

After each match the ballists lined the first- and third-base lines as Never Wrong announced the final score to the crowd—which wavered during the matches between 25 and 40 people, as dogwalkers and sunbathers and bicyclists and other joggers paused out of curiosity. Then the opponents shook hands—something the modern game should return to—often with a hearty "Good match, sir!" Per tradition, the home team fed everyone after the second game. The field turned into a picnic ground, with eats ranging from Ellie's homemade pretzel bread rolls to bean and pasta salads, bbq chicken, and peach cobbler.

Mandelbaum: "The space in which baseball is played reproduces traditional, agricultural life. With a few exceptions the game takes place outdoors, in the familiar setting of rural existence: brown dirt and green foliage. . . . Its leisurely pace, the result of the absence of a clock, its roots in America's 19th-century and even 18th-century history . . . and its pastoral setting make a baseball game a preserved fragment of days gone by."

The baseball matches on that breezy, gorgeous, late-summer Sunday afternoon felt like a preserved fragment of both a national and personal past. In a time of billion-dollar stadiums, multimillion-dollar contracts, and high-tech training and equipment in American sport, it was nice to be outside in the grass and dirt of a real park, enjoying the shade of trees, hitting an old leather ball with a wooden bat. And then injuring yourself in front of strangers.

The Salmon will play the Echoes on October 4 in Benton Harbor. For more info on playing for the Salmon or learning more about 19th-century baseball, contact Ellie at ellie@elliecarlson.net or Ray at rgrish@live.com.

What would Conan O'Brien think of 19th-century-style baseball? A friend pointed me to this funny video.

Spectators in Lincoln Park watch the Chicago Salmon play the House of David Echoes
  • Ryan Hubbard
  • Spectators in Lincoln Park watch the Chicago Salmon play the House of David Echoes
A Chicago Salmon striker prepare to hit a pitch from a House of David Echoes hurler
  • Ryan Hubbard
  • A Chicago Salmon striker prepare to hit a pitch from a House of David Echoes hurler

Chicago Salmon bats
  • Ryan Hubbard
  • Chicago Salmon bats
Chicago Salmon and House of David Echoes ballists shake hands after a match
  • Ryan Hubbard
  • Chicago Salmon and House of David Echoes ballists shake hands after a match

Find out how you can help

Comments (8)

Showing 1-8 of 8

Add a comment
 

Add a comment