Most first basemen would probably just keep their mouths shut if they had a foot off base when the umpire called a runner out. But in the sport of historic base ball, things are a little different.
Marcus Dickson, umpire for Greenfield Village’s two historic base ball teams, recalls one such close play at a championship game.
“Our first baseman said, ‘No, sir, he was not out. My foot was off the base,’ ” Dickson said. “The people were surprised that you would do that in a championship game, but all the players said, ‘Of course you would do that. That’s the right thing to do.’ I want to play that game.”
That spirit characterizes the late-1860s version of a classic American game still played by more than 130 teams (or clubs) nationwide, including the Village’s home teams, the Lah-De-Dahs and the Nationals. Some of the rules are different; no gloves are used, and the players’ uniform short ties and high socks certainly harken back to an earlier time. But the biggest difference lies in the attitude.
“Of course, using strategy and winning the game was exciting,” says Jim Johnson, senior manager of programs at Greenfield Village. “But it was really played by gentlemen in clubs that came together to sort of have fellowship, get exercise and just have a good time doing it.”
The atmosphere at a base ball game in the Village’s Walnut Grove is one of raucous good spirit. A top-hatted commentator editorializes constantly as he calls out the plays, gently heckling players, saluting the Village’s steam engine as it passes and encouraging spectators to use period-appropriate lingo. Game attendees respond enthusiastically, particularly to yelling the expression “He muffed it!” when someone bungles a play.
It’s all in fun, though; both team captains are allowed a final speech to the audience, usually incorporating a last good-natured jab at the opposition.
“We’re actually all the same group of guys here,” says Nick Wincent, first baseman for the Nationals. “We just split up into two teams. So we’re a really good example of the camaraderie that goes into it.”
Getting to the roots
The Village’s players are all dedicated volunteers. Johnson estimates that the average player spends five to 10 years on the team. Wincent, a former high school baseball player, has played base ball with the Village for seven years.
“Having played baseball all my life, I like seeing the roots of it,” he says. “I actually like watching these games more than Tigers games, because you see a lot more exciting plays with no gloves.”
The Village’s teams play by the 1867 rules set down in “Haney’s Base Ball Book of Reference,” as would have been the case at the World’s Base Ball Tournament held in Detroit the same year. Notably, pitchers throw underhanded and umpires do not call strikes unless they feel players are deliberately not striking at or pitching hittable balls.
Johnson says the Village takes pride in the research that goes into making the game as historically accurate as possible. The Lah-De-Dahs are named after a club that played in the Waterford Township area in the 1880s. True to an old newspaper’s description of the team wearing “their mamas’ red stockings,” the Dahs’ uniforms today include high red socks.
When the Village made its first foray into historic base ball in 1992, things were much more informal. The Village originally responded to an invite from the Ohio Village Muffins, who play at a living history museum in Columbus. Johnson was among the base ball players who traveled to Columbus for the game.
“We got a team together and went down there and got our butts handed to us, but we thought it was great fun and really thought it was a great fit for Greenfield Village,” he says.
Big fan base
Today, the Lah-De-Dahs and the Nationals are a Village institution. Hundreds of spectators show up for games every Saturday and Sunday during their home season, which runs from mid-June to mid-August. Before and after the home season, the teams play away games as far north as Mackinac Island and as far east as New York and Pennsylvania. In some cases, the fans will follow. Players refer to their most dedicated followers as “superfans.”
“They come out to every single game,” says third baseman Matt Pazur. “Every Saturday and every Sunday, we can count on them. They’ve got their noisemakers and we love them to death. We couldn’t do this without them.”
Superfan Jeanette Dubrul is the one responsible for those noisemakers, vintage wooden instruments properly known as “ratchets,” which she ordered online for herself and several superfan friends. Dubrul attended her first base ball game in 2007.
“In 2008 we came to a few more games,” she says. “By 2009 we were planning our summer around the base ball schedule.”
Dubrul hasn’t missed a game, home or away, since 2012. She says she enjoys the “gentlemanly conduct” of the game, and the personal interaction she gets with the players by sitting right on the edge of the field.
Dubrul’s friend and fellow superfan Amanda Howe hasn’t made quite as many games as Dubrul, but she says historic base ball is a welcome respite any weekend she doesn’t have to work.
“I call it my moment of Zen for the week,” Howe says. “If I can get through the week and make it to a base ball game, I’m good. ...Walnut Grove is under a giant protective bubble of goodness, and I love it.”
Same game, different rules
Early base ball writer Henry Chadwick laid down the rules used today by the Lah-De-Dahs and the
Nationals in the 1867 book “Haney’s Base Ball Book
of Reference.” Here are some of the more unusual rules noted in the book and used at the Village:
■Umpires give batters a warning if the umpire
believes the batter is not striking at hittable balls,
then begin to call strikes.
■Umpires may also warn pitchers with the phrase “Ball to the bat” if they are not pitching hittable balls. After this warning, three more unhittable pitches constitute a walk.
■Contrary to earlier baseball rules allowing fielders to catch balls on the first bounce, by 1867 the practice was considered childish and fielders had to catch balls on the fly.
■Fielders didn’t even have the luxury of a glove to cushion the blow of a ball caught on the fly, as the accessory was also considered unmanly.
■Batters are to keep their feet planted while
swinging at the ball.
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Lah-De-Dahs vs. Nationals BBC
at Walnut Grove in Greenfield Village
Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
Lah-De-Dahs vs. Nationals BBC
at Walnut Grove in Greenfield Village
Aug. 23, 2 p.m. Lah-De-Dahs vs. Wyandotte Stars
Aug. 24, 1 p.m. Lah-De-Dahs vs. Rochester Grangers
20900 Oakwood, Dearborn
Tickets: Games at village are included with admission; adults, $24; seniors, $22; youth, ages 5-12, $17.50; and children 4 and younger are free
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.