Be Gentlemen, Gentlemen: The Return of Vintage Base Ball to the South

The Return of Vintage Base Ball to the South

 

One hundred and fifty years ago, working-class Chattanoogans fielded three hometown base ball teams—the Lookouts, the Lightfoot Club, and the Mountain City Club. It was a time when the sport had a civility that’s lost on many leagues today. You didn’t heckle the other team. You let the spectators help the arbiter (umpire) decide on difficult calls. The pitcher threw underhand from 45 feet out, aiming to deliver a hittable ball. Ungentlemanly behavior was subject to a fine.

 

By Camille Platt

 

 

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Today vintage base ball (yes, two words) is making a comeback—community teams play by the 19th century rulebook with period costumes and equipment. Chattanooga’s teams are two of more than 400 in the U.S. and Canada keeping the old-time tradition alive. The Lightfoot Club plays in red bowties. The Mountain City Club dons suspenders. Everybody gets a nickname. And there are three expectations on the field—no spittin’, no swearin’, and no gloves.

 

A Pastime Resurrected

Founded by Trapper Haskins and Michael Thurman in Nashville in 2012, the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball uses Murfeesboro-made solid wood bats and hand-stitched balls, wound less tightly than modern balls and covered by one solid piece of leather. Set on recreating the base ball experience specific to 1864, nobody wears a glove.

“It’s kind of like a Civil War reenactment,” says Chattanooga’s Sean McNally, captain of the Lightfoot Club. “Only you don’t know who’s going to win.”

Today 11 teams across the state play on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at historic sites like Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Sam Davis Home and Plantation in Smyrna, and 6th Cavalry Museum in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Chattanooga’s teams were formed after interest grew at an exhibition between the Nashville Maroons and the Highland Rim Distillers at Engel Stadium in 2014.

Intentionally spelling base ball with two words to reflect the way newspapers wrote about the sport in the 1860s, Haskins says there is something special about taking the game back to the simplicity and gentility of the Civil War era.

“Quite reasonably I could stand on the field and believe that my great-great-granddad played the exact same game in the exact same way. Being a part of that continuum is important to me, and I think that it’s important to the communities that we play in to respect that place we’ve come from,” Haskins says. “A lot of history—especially history in the South and history in Tennessee—is centered on the military. But base ball was a very important part of civilian life in the 1860s, and I think it’s important to honor and cherish that tradition as well.”

When deciding on a uniform for each team, Haskins and his board of directors looked for historic documentation of what may have actually been worn by teams in each city in the 1860s. The Knoxville Holstons, for example, wore a star on their cap. So the vintage team does the same.

If uniform information is not available, the team is given an outfit that reflects the daily dress of the time—overalls, bowler hats, suspenders, or bow ties. “Some think people would be wearing knickerbocker pants—those are seen as old-timey base ball pants. But the reality is those pants didn’t come around until 1869 when the Cincinnati Red Socks started wearing them,” Haskins says. “In 1864, the men were playing base ball wearing full-length trousers.”

So what’s special about 1864, specifically? That was the final year the on-the-bound rule was in play. In other words, you don’t have to catch the ball out of the air for the batter to be out. It can hit the ground one time.

Besides showing up for games, teams in the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball are encouraged to be active in the community. They appear in dress (and in character) to give historical talks and demonstrations at civic clubs, rotary clubs, libraries, and children’s groups. In Knoxville, a steam train takes fans from downtown to the Historic Ramsey House to watch the game. In Chattanooga, Little League teams have gotten a visit from players to teach them about the history of the game.

“We’re interested in playing base ball, yes,” Haskins says. “But we are also interested in being the team of the community, as it would have been in the 1860s.”

 

Lightfoot Vintage Base Ball Club of Chattanooga

Founded in November 2014, the Lightfoot Club of Chattanooga practices every other Sunday at 6th Cavalry Museum in Fort Oglethorpe on the former Army post’s polo field and parade ground. They opened the 2016 season with a game at Carnton Plantation against the Highland Rim Distillers on April 10 and will play eight home games between May 7 and August 29.

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A founding member of the team, Sean McNally is an on-air radio personality and program director for Brewer Media’s Big Easy 95.3 and Big Easy 106.9. “I’m a big fan. I grew up playing baseball in high school, and I tried to be around the sport whenever I could,” he says. “A lot of guys in the league are like me, and we found vintage base ball and fell in love with it. Not just because we got to play baseball again but because of the historical aspect of it too.”

Fast on his feet, McNally—known as “Mac”—plays in the garden (that’s the outfield). One of the youngest members of his team at 26, he says the league is for all ages and abilities. New recruits just have to read up on the rulebook and code of conduct, purchase the uniform, and love the game.

“The rules you can pick up fairly easily,” he says. “There are some subtle differences from the normal game, but really it’s not so much about your athletic ability. It is more of how you carry yourself on the field and how you present the game.”

In vintage base ball, two-handed catches are most common, but a one-handed catch will earn you praise from the crowd. If you over-run first base, you can get tagged out. The only restriction on bat size is it must be 2.5 inches in diameter.

McNally says learning to play the part of a gentleman—and learning the lingo—will make you more legit. “We are acting in the behavior of 1864 with our terminology, the way we dress, the way we carry ourselves. If I’m playing first base and you get a great hit, I will congratulate you and say ‘Well struck, sir,’” he says. “It’s not quite like today’s game where a lot of guys are fending for themselves. It’s very laid back.”

 

Mountain City Vintage Base Ball Club of Chattanooga

Also founded in November 2014, Mountain City Club opened the 2016 season with an away match against the Knoxville Holstons on April 9. They practice batting and fielding once a week at 6th Cavalry Museum. Their home matches against the Lightfoot Club—a friendly rival to whom they have yet to lose—will be held on June 18 and July 23, beginning at noon.

Mountain City’s Andrew “Mighty Bandit” Bewley is a local financial advisor who lives in Brainerd and has been playing baseball since he was a boy. A shortscout (shortstop) on the team, he says the most special part about heading into his second season with Tennessee vintage base ball is playing alongside his son, William, a centerfielder and a 23-year-old senior at UTC.

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William was given the nickname “Sweet Feet” for his speed and tendency to fake the other team into making a mistake. “What would normally be a routine single, he tears through the bag and starts heading to second, forces a throw and acts like he’s doubling back to first,” Bewley says. “For him one of the best things is to get caught in a pickle.”

A fan of the contributions the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball brings to the community, Bewley says it is not just speaking engagements that offer entertainment and enrichment. Practices, scrimmages, and home games also draw quite a crowd.

“The folks that live on Barnhardt Circle in Fort Oglethorpe—they see us out there playing and come out to watch. At first they are tentative, staying in their front yards, then they’re crossing the street and asking us questions during the course of the game. That in and of itself is a form of community outreach.”

Both teams encourage children who attend a game to run the bases or take a turn at bat once the innings are complete. There is no fee to watch a game as a spectator, but concessions and team merchandise are available for purchase.

There are no grandstands—but there is plenty of shade—so bring a picnic blanket (and possibly a banjo, if you play).

 

The Future of Vintage Base Ball

Newspaper clippings from the mid-1860s reveal the respect and decorum base ball has held in its communities since the beginning of the sport. One report from the Nashville “Press and Times” details a player who wasn’t quite himself on the field because he was suffering from “the cholera.” The writer scolds a team that nearly sacrificed its reputation with bad attitudes: “Be gentlemen, gentlemen! Even if you are defeated a thousand times.”

Haskins says he expects vintage base ball in Tennessee will only continue to grow. His league already plans to add a twelfth team in 2017, possibly based in Chattanooga, if the interest is there.

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For the players who love the game and the fans who love the historical flare, vintage ball is here to stay. “I’ve been around this game so long, and sometimes I take for granted what it really means to me,” Bewley says. “The day that I finally have to hang up my cleats for good—that’s going to be the saddest day of my life. But until that day, I’m going to enjoy every single second of this.”

To catch a glimpse of each team’s full schedule for this year, visit tennesseevintagebaseball.com