Vintage baseball league takes spectators 'out to the ballgame'

By Lauri Voter - Staff Writer
Stafford - posted Thu., Jul. 5, 2012
'Pops' explains the rules of 1865 baseball before the second game of the double-header begins. Photos by Lauri Voter.
'Pops' explains the rules of 1865 baseball before the second game of the double-header begins. Photos by Lauri Voter.

The Stafford Historical Society, in conjunction with The Friends of Vintage Base Ball, Inc., took sports and history fans “out to the ballgame” on Saturday, June 30, when the two groups co-sponsored a vintage baseball double-header in Hyde Park in Stafford Springs. The event, which was rescheduled due to a rainout earlier in June, was played on the Little League field, where dozens of residents and curious spectators gathered in the shade of the park to observe the historical curiosity offered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historical society.

The two teams - the Alert Fire Hose Company and Billy Barnie’s Blue Boys, both members of the Coltsville Vintage Base Ball League – wore recreations of 1860s uniforms, used replicas of era-appropriate equipment and applied the customs of 19th century baseball. The first game was played using circa-1861 rules, while the second game was played under the rules of a circa-1865 game.

Before kicking off each game, the rules of each and pieces of historical information were provided to spectators. In between games, the players – each of whom went by a vintage nickname – interacted with the crowd and offered opportunities for fans to have an at-bat, making the event both interactive and educational.

In the 1860s, the pitcher was known as a "hurler," the catcher was known as "the behind," and batters were called "strikers." In 1861, runners could only take a one-step lead off base and run on the release of the ball in order to steal a base. In 1865, players could take an unlimited lead and run at any time to steal the base. Depending on the era, players could be tagged out if they overran first base or be out if the fielder caught the ball on the first bounce. Players of the 1860s did not use gloves.

Friends of Vintage Base Ball was started by husband-and-wife team Gary “Pops” O'Maxfield, commissioner, and Karen “kayo” O'Maxfield, president. When introducing the 1865 game, “Pops” explained that the reason the new rules became popular is because the men who returned from battle wanted a “more robust” game, a “manly game,” that suited post-war sportsmen.

“I'm a baseball historian, so to actually have teams playing from the era I was researching was kind of cool,” said Pops. “The crowds enjoyed it, so we morphed into a living history organization.” Playing vintage games is only one function of the group, which also conducts educational programs at schools, libraries and other organizations.

Alert Fire Hose Company team captain Bill “Firehouse” Abbott said, “Everybody has a nickname.” He described the 1860s uniforms, saying that players would wear regular long pants, but would eventually begin to bunch them, cut them off short, or roll the cuffs to display their socks.

Alert Fire House and the Blue Boys were both original teams for Hartford, said Abbott.

Each team member is identified by his “shield,” which displays the team's emblem and is buttoned to the front of the shirt. The bats used in the 1800s were created in different shapes and sizes to aid in strategic hitting associated with the early rules. Baseballs in the 1860s were called “lemon peel” balls. Historically, the baseballs would actually soften up as the game progressed, but they would remain in play unless lost.

The league members were pleased with the large turnout for the Hyde Park event. “The cranks [fans] seem to be enjoying it,” said Abbott.

Vintage sportsman Chris "Bootstrap" Rataic, who stood in as captain of the Blue Boys during the second game, said, “I enjoy playing baseball. I got tired of playing regular softball and all the shenanigans that went on with it. I like the gentlemanly play that goes on here.”

Stafford Historical Society President Dave Bartlett said that the vintage game was a first event of its kind in Stafford, adding, “I think the turnout's very good so far. We've got a perfect day and a good crowd...  It's something a little different.” Bartlett said that Stafford had a baseball team at least as far back as the 1860s. “There were always big rivalries between Stafford and Rockville, and Stafford and Monson, [Mass.],” said Bartlett. The SHS might bring the vintage baseball event to Stafford again.

Members of the McKay family enjoyed the event, particularly the league's interaction with the audience. “It's educational,” said Craig McKay, who said he feels that the vintage games are as interesting as minor and major league games. “I think a lot of young kids should see this who are interested in baseball. I didn't even realize that baseball teams were playing in the 1860s.”

Local resident Tom Topping said, “I've wanted to see these guys play for quite some time. It's nice that they brought it to town.”

Resident Matthew Thibeault was inspired by the event. He said he was in a local coffee shop when he heard about the game and decided to check it out. After watching, he said he wants to join the league. “I think it's cool how they play by some of the old rules, and I want to try it, actually.”

During the summer, the Coltsville Vintage Base Ball League plays weekly games at Colt Meadows in Hartford.

For more information about the SHS and 50th anniversary events, contact Dave Bartlett at 860-684-5115. For more information about the Friends of Vintage Base Ball, visit www.friendsofvintagebaseball.org.


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