Vintage team spotlights how women helped build baseball

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

When it comes to preserving history, Evette Griffore and her teammates on the Detroit River Belles prefer to show rather than tell.

The vintage baseball team, whose season began Sunday, spotlights the birth story of America's pastime and the role women played, in an era long before gloves, standardized rules and women's suffrage.

"At the time of the Civil War, women had no rights, they couldn't own land, they couldn't vote, they couldn't go out without a chaperone," said the Davison resident. "And yet, they were going to watch these public baseball events for the first time, and it was so liberating for them to do this.

"That's what really made it become American pastime, because finally everyone could go and do it together."

Griffore started the Detroit River Belles in 2012 and the team started playing official games in 2013. When they play, they follow the original customs and rules.

For example, there are no baseball gloves because they didn't exist in 1860. Each team plays by home field rules because there were no standardized rules and teams weren't able to communicate with each other like they can today. Sometimes three strikes aren't called, and they often play with the "bound rule" — an out is called when the ball bounces and is caught by a fielder.

On Sunday, when the Belles took on the all-men's Detroit Early Riser Base Ball Club at Navin Field, one of Tiger Stadium's previous names, attendees were transported to the pre-Civil War era.

The matches typically take two hours to play and, as the afternoon went on, the game play changed to represent the changing rules throughout the years.

Former Detroit Tigers outfielder Ike Blessitt "hurled" the first pitch.

The participants try to make the games as authentic as possible.

The balls are from vintage companies, the bats and uniforms are handmade and each of the players goes by a nickname. The players even talk like they are from the 1860s.

"For me, it's showing them living history. The games are real but what you're seeing is the way it used to be played," said Keith "Hatchet" Jacobson, captain of the Early Risers and Griffore's boyfriend. "The camaraderie and everything that goes into it, that's what makes it so great."

Jacobson, a history professor, has been playing with the Early Risers since 2010, a year after the team was formed. The squad's home field is at Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit, but it often plays games at Navin Field.

Playing at the former home of the Detroit Tigers adds an extra layer to that history, says Jacobson.

"You just think about Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and all those greats played there, you can feel it," he said.

Mike "Mad Dog" Gebert of Warren said joining the team was a way for him to enjoy team sports as an adult without having to deal with the alcohol consumption that goes with many pickup leagues. He's also a fan of the history.

"We lose a lot of history because we throw away everything, we don't fix things anymore," said Gebert. "To me this historical part is what I love."

Theresa "T-Pain" DeWalls loves baseball, which is why she decided to join the Belles. Sunday was her first game.

"It's just really showing how the sport of baseball evolved," the Auburn Hills resident said. "There aren't a lot of women's baseball teams around, so this is a great way for women to play."

The Belles were the first all-women's vintage baseball team in Michigan, but interest has grown. There is now a team in Chelsea and two more on the west side of the state. They often play each other, but it's also common for men and women to play each other.

"We're not out there to prove we're better than the men," Griffore said. "The philosophy is we're equal. This is the first time in history women were treated equal to men."

Baseball's earliest roots go back to the 1840s, when it served as an outlet for the working class, according to the Vintage Base Ball Association. By the 1860s, the game had grown in popularity and spread to cities all along the East Coast. Many of the rules centered on gentlemanly behavior, such as being fined for using inappropriate language or spitting.

Eventually, when the men were drafted in the Civil War, women started playing baseball. After the war, baseball was used as a form of exercise on campuses across the country for men and women.

Some women formed leagues and were even paid to play. In fact, the all-African-American Dolly Vardens of Philadelphia became the first paid baseball team on any level, paving the way for the modern game. Nowadays, baseball isn't that popular as a women's sport, part of why Griffore started the Belles.

"People don't realize that if women (hadn't) started playing baseball, there wouldn't have been that pay-to-play," said Griffore.

Empowering women is part of the Belles' philosophy. On Mother's Day, the team will partner with the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes roller derby club to play a charity match at Navin Field.

Proceeds will go to the nonprofit Alternatives for Girls.

"Our motto has become 'strong women helping women get stronger,'" said Griffore.

(313) 222-2127