Bringing Back Base Ball

 

Photo: Dominic Mercier

Photo: Dominic Mercier

On a blazing hot and humid July day, the Athletic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia sticks to its guns. While it would be easy – and recommended – to switch to something cooler, players are adorned in their woolen trouser, long-sleeve jersey, puffy jeff cap, and bow tie uniforms as they take on Delaware’s Diamond State Base Ball Club. For the club, historical accuracy and education is just as important as the fun that comes with playing.

The Athletics, who play in a league with other vintage teams in the Mid-Atlantic region, was founded 2009 by Scott Alberts and Ryan and Eric Berley – the dapper proprietors of 2nd Street’s old timey Franklin Fountain – after Alberts was on a late-night Internet quest to answer about the Philadelphia Phillies history and the team’s late-1800s home, the Baker Bowl.

“The next thing you know, it’s two in the morning,”  Alberts, the club’s president since its founding, says. He started thinking it would be fun to “get 18 guys, some beer, and play a game in the park” following the early rules of the game.

A few days later, by chance, Alberts’ mother sent him an article about a match between Maryland teams from Elkton and Havre de Grace. Left scratching his head as to why there was no Philadelphia team, Alberts turned to the Berley brothers, whose father happens to be a baseball historian and the rest is, well, living history.

The Athletics generally play their home games in the shadow of Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, an ironic location, Alberts says, since the Centennial Exposition of 1876 contributed to the downfall of the original Philadelphia Athletics. Already feeling the pinch from bans on alcohol and gambling, the Athletics weren’t able to compete with the Exposition, which gobbled up the common man’s spending money as the preeminent recreational activity that summer and fall.

“It didn’t help, quite frankly, that the Athletics sucked that season,” Alberts says, though, historically, the Athletics were one of the most successful and most documented of the early base ball teams.

The current day Athletics and vintage base ball in general, says Alberts, draws interest from all walks of life, from hardcore baseball fans, history buffs, folks attracted to the social aspect, to softball teams who just want to wear cool uniforms. With 22 teams in the Athletics league alone, vintage baseball continues to grow.

“It’s viral,” he says. “A team starts up and everyone who goes and sees that team wants to start one. It’s like when everyone saw the Velvet Underground and went and started a band.”

The style of play varies from team to team, but when calling the shots on their home turf, the Athletics play by 1864 rules and some additional variants, including the Philadelphia version of town ball, a precursor to the game similar to rounders

Differences between the 1864 and modern game include only underhand pitching, bats that can be any length and the vastly reduced role of the umpire – whose main job is to keep the game honest by settling disputed plays. Overrunning first base is not allowed, and the lack of the infield fly rule and the ability of runners to move back and forth between bases leads to lots of trick plays, says Alberts. Gloves didn’t become commonplace until the late 1880s, and the first player to wear one in the 1870s was nearly laughed off the field.

Alberts says the club offers more than just the chance to play competitive vintage base ball. Taking on the role of historical educator, the club takes part in speaking gigs and other educational activities and partners with other events steeped in history, like the Tweed Ride.

“This is about teaching people history, not just base ball history,” says Alberts. “The game tells a lot about the history of Philadelphia, but base ball is just the hook.”

The club holds informal games from time to time so the curious can try their hand at the game. Interesting facial hair is encouraged, but not required.

The club is open to any who are interested and holds informal tryouts. Its next home game is scheduled for August 3 at Columbus Square Park, 12th and Wharton Streets. For more information see www.phillyvintagebaseball.org.

About the author

Dominic Mercier is a freelance writer, photographer, and graphic designer and Philadelphia native. He is a 2001 graduate of Temple University, where he majored in journalism. He is the former managing editor of Montgomery Newspapers and press officer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He currently serves as the communications director for the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. More of his photographic work can be seen here

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