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Active Cultures: Hobart's old-timers game

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Brian Doolin has broken his right pinky every summer for the past eight years, and he expects to break it again this summer. But it's a price he's willing to pay to play second base for the Deep River Grinders, a Hobart, Indiana, team that's been playing 1860s-style vintage baseball since 1991.

On game days the 36-year-old special ed teacher from Valparaiso turns into "Do Right" Doolin, the Grinders' lead striker (the period term for leadoff hitter). Like the rest of the club nine (team), Doolin plays in a historically correct uniform consisting of a baggy light blue shirt (the neckline of which is held closed with a shoelacelike placket tie), navy blue trousers cut in the archaic broadfall style (and sewn by local Amish seamstresses), a short-brimmed navy blue woolen cap, black stockings, black shoes with rubber cleats, and a black belt and/or suspenders. Absent from the getup is a glove, because baseball gloves didn't come into use until the 1890s--hence the high risk of broken fingers. "Usually you can catch the ball without too much pain," Doolin says. "The key is timing where your hands are going to be when the ball gets there. As long as you know where the center of your hand is going to be and you can catch the ball there, it's not too bad. Of course, all of us have broken fingers. It's pretty much inevitable."

Whether playing or just talking about vintage baseball, Doolin and his teammates adhere scrupulously to period vocabulary. Where modern teams have fans, the Grinders have cranks, some 250 of whom attend the average home match, which is played on a meadow, not a diamond, in Deep River County Park in Hobart. What modern baseball calls a catcher, the Grinders call a behind. Runs are aces or tallies, foul balls are foul tics, and pitchers are hurlers. Even the cheering is period: a good play is met with lusty shouts of "Huzzah!"

The Vintage Base Ball Association, of which the Grinders are members in good standing, currently boasts 50 clubs in 13 states--Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas. Not all of these clubs play gloveless: some have chosen to re-create the game as it was played in later, less rugged eras, from the 1890s through the 1920s. But what all of them have in common is a commitment to old-fashioned ideals of sportsmanship. None of the clubs permit spitting, swearing, or arguing with the umpire. The VBBA doesn't even keep track of team standings--it's a base ball association, as opposed to a baseball league. Neither does any VBBA team record errors, RBIs, or any statistics other than the final score of a match.

"In a way, this is like a vaudeville act," says Dave Stutler, a 49-year-old upholsterer who hurls for Hobart. "No way do you cuss. If you do, you get fined. You don't spit. You don't scratch. You have to be a gentleman at all times. If you're not a gentleman, then the umpire fines you a day's wages"--a preinflationary 25 cents. According to Stutler, who goes by the nickname of "Tacker" on the meadow, the team pays out $3 or $4 in fines every match. Mild violations of the rules are part of the fun: the Grinders have one player who makes a point of spitting every game just to draw the umpire's ire. "I don't know what the umpire does with that money," Stutler says. "I think he buys himself a good dinner at the end of the year."

It's the theatrical aspect of vintage baseball that most appeals to Stutler, a self-described history buff who can't sit through an entire modern baseball game without squirming. Stutler says he enjoys wearing the uniform and the formality of addressing the umpire as "sir" and the female cranks as "ma'am." Most of all, he says, he likes bringing history to life. He considers the Grinders to be a sort of living museum. "It's like people in the south will reenact the Civil War," he says. "We're doing the same sort of thing, only with baseball."

Stutler regards himself as only an adequate hurler. Modesty of this kind is typical of the Grinders, many of whom admit that playing vintage baseball is the only exercise they get. In any case it's hard to be a hotshot when it's considered bad form to strike out the striker. The whole point of the game's slow, underhand pitching style is to let the opposing nine put the ball in play. "That's how a gentleman plays," Stutler says.

"I think the reason this has become so popular is the camaraderie the players develop," says Joanna Shearer, historical program coordinator for the Lake County parks and recreation department and founding manager of the club.

Shearer schedules games, signs up new players, and travels with the team in a van to away matches in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio. She finds it unsurprising that the Grinders draw larger crowds than any other baseball team around Hobart. "Baseball is a game people know," she says. "They'll come to see it, and they expect to understand it. But vintage base ball is different, to a point. It's familiar but it's unfamiliar, which is intriguing to people. And it's just good family entertainment. A lot of the guys are very with the meat of the game. They have dialogue and expressions worked out among themselves, so they can ham it up for the cranks. And they cheer hardest for the opposing nine, which is very different from the spirit of what professional sports is like now."

The differences Shearer refers to extend beyond the game's vocabulary and equipment. Formalized by the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1860, the rules by which the Grinders play state that a fly ball caught on the first bounce is an out. A ball that lands fair between home and first or third but then bounces foul is still a fair ball. Then there are ritual differences that aren't in the rules: When a Grinder scores an ace, he must stop by the tallykeeper's table, raise his right hand, and request that his run be recorded. Once that's done, he's entitled to ring a bell on the table.

Shearer, who sometimes also serves as tallykeeper, was instrumental in bringing vintage baseball to Hobart. She discovered the sport through her involvement in the Midwest Open-Air Museum Coordinating Council, an organization for curators and docents at regional historical sites. During a council meeting in 1991, a member from Ohio challenged her to muster a team to play against the Columbus club, the Village Muffins. When the Hobart delegation showed up for the match in modern clothes and four men short, the Muffins were generous enough to loan them four players and some proper garb. "Of course they beat us pretty easily," Shearer says. "But when I left that day, I said to the people in the van, 'I want to be a part of this.'"

Despite her central role in founding the club, Shearer has never aspired to join the game. "I think this is all wonderful, but I don't play," she says. "I can't even run, much less play. I'm more useful at the scorer's table." Asked if women are eligible to join the Grinders, she hesitates. "That's never come up yet, but I'd really rather avoid it from the angle of staying historically accurate." There are clubs with female members, she adds, but they play in character as men.

When the Muffins traveled to Hobart the following year, the Grinders had 17 players; this season they have 20. Shearer says it wasn't much of a challenge to build the club: she simply asked every man she knew if they'd be interested, and the five original players did the same. Coworkers, friends, relatives, neighbors, and cranks quickly filled out the ranks. "We have college students, grandfathers, white-collar workers, professionals--people from all walks of life and ranging in age from 21 to 59 years," Shearer says. "By practicing with us once a week, players quickly learn the lingo of the 1860s. The longer they play, the more comfortable they become with the whole premise of vintage baseball."

The Hobart players are enthusiastic missionaries, too: they've helped establish new clubs at parks and open-air museums in Elkhart County, Conner Prairie, and Door Village. They also visit local schools in uniform to talk to students.

The Grinders played their first match of 2003 against the Chicago Salmon on March 29, on the east lawn of the Chicago Historical Society. A polite but decisive victory for the Grinders, the match was part of the society's exhibit "Chicago Sports! You Shoulda Been There." Although their schedule has yet to be finalized, they'll play about 35 more games this summer. Information about the club is available from the Deep River County Park at 219-947-1958. For information about the Vintage Base Ball Association, visit its Web site, www.vbba.org.

For more on Hobart see the Visitor's Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Chicago Historical Society/Jay Crawford, Gregg Ott.

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