Play Ball: Vintage Teams Preserve Baseball History In NY
This year is the 150th anniversary of professional baseball, dating back to the launch of the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869. As today’s major league teams battle for a spot in the playoffs, “vintage baseball teams” across the U.S. like to celebrate the game as it was played in its formative years. WAMC’s Jesse King caught a recent doubleheader between the Fleischmanns Mountain Athletic Club and the Brooklyn Atlantics.
“We’re going to get started, folks. Be aware of all the balls, you guys are all in play area here. So we’ll try to be careful about being around you but be alive, this is a live game," warns Collin Miller, captain of the Mountain Athletic Club.
Miller directs fans via megaphone as they park folding chairs along the edge of a field. The original Mountain Athletic Club, or MAC, was founded in 1895 in Griffins Corners, New York – but today’s edition is in Grahamsville, in Sullivan County. Aside from the bases, a pitcher’s box, and a makeshift hay backstop, the field is bare. Miller, a professional forester, introduces himself as “Stumpy” before the bat toss, while his competitor, English teacher and Atlantics Captain Frank Van Zant, goes by “Shakespeare.”
“You just have to be very careful not to do something extremely stupid on the field, because that’s what your nickname’s gonna be based on," says Van Zant. "We had a fellow named 'Crawler.' On his first day on the field, he crawled to second base — and he was kind of a night crawler, also, so it was apt — but it was kind of based on a stupid thing he did on the field.”
Van Zant says the original Atlantic Base Ball Club was founded in 1855. Back then, “baseball” wasn’t yet a compound word, and the Atlantics’ dawn white shirts have “ABBC” stitched across the front. They play by the rules of 1864 – one of two years the Atlantics went undefeated as National Champions. Van Zant says, depending on who you ask, the club was a precursor to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and missed a chance to become one of the first professional teams in 1871.
“Professionalism was very controversial, the same way that professionalism is controversial for college athletes today – ‘Should we pay them, should we not pay them?’" explains Van Zant. "A year later [the Atlantics] tried to recoup that and they did become professional, but they didn’t have the players to justify it. And they were a very poor professional team for a period of time until they sort of fell out of practice.”
Today the Atlantics are in full form for Game 1. By 1864 rules, all pitches, or “hurls,” are underhand, and the batter, or “striker,” is out if the ball is caught on the fly or on the first bounce. That could be because there are no gloves – players catch the ball with their bare hands, sometimes at their peril. “Daisy cutters,” now known as grounders, are common. Fouls don’t count as strikes, and three balls make a walk. Umpire Jeff Frey stands to the side of the striker, dressed in a shirt vest and top hat while calling pitches as he pleases.
“When I feel the pitcher’s throwing too many balls, I give a warning to the pitcher that lets him know anything he throws that I feel is a ball after that, I’m going to call a ball," explains Frey. "Same thing with the batter. If the pitcher’s throwing strikes and the batter’s just standing there, I give a warning to the striker – which means any pitch that comes in after that, that I feel is a strike, I’m going to call a strike.”
Van Zant says hurlers no longer had to throw underhand in the 1880s, and clubs like the Providence Grays made overhand pitching the norm. The MAC’s Archie Biruk says fielders were wearing gloves by 1895, although they had little padding and no webbing. Biruk’s been playing vintage baseball for about 20 years, goes by “Lumberman” with his teammates, and makes a new bat before each game at his sawmill.
“For the era we play today, we’re only allowed [a] two-and-a-half-inch barrel, it’s gotta be over an inch on the handle," says Biruk, turning a cherry wood bat in his hand. "And then the second game we play, you can go up to two-and-three-quarter [inches], still no less than an inch [on the handle]. It can be over 42 inches long, which nobody could ever swing.”
Hits are louder in Game 2, which uses the MAC’s 1895 rules and a livelier ball. Catches on the first bounce no longer result in outs, but foul balls hit off a bunt or caught by the catcher are strikes. Atlantics Co-Captain Dean Emma, aka “Dreambucket,” explains the Red Stockings won 81 straight games when they first started paying stars – before, he notes, falling to the Atlantics 8-7 in an 11-inning game in 1870.
“‘The finest game ever played,’ that was how it was written by the journalists – Tag tag tag tag, go, it’s bouncing, go!" Emma claps, eyes on the game. "Yeah, so before 1869, they were getting paid underneath the table, and gamblers would be like ‘I’ll give you 100 bucks if you guys beat this team.’ That was pretty well known.”
As Van Zant explained, the Atlantics initially passed on professionalism. But the MAC became a semi-pro team. Miller says owners Julius and Max Fleischmanns eventually got involved with the Cincinnati Reds, and used the MAC as a “spring training” for Reds players. Miller says the MAC bankrolled five of the Chicago White Sox’ “hitless wonders” in 1906, as well as Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Miller Huggins.
“Miller Huggins actually played under the name Proctor," notes Miller. "At the time he was an NCAA athlete and he was afraid he would lose his scholarship money if he got paid to play by the Fleischmanns. So he played under the name Proctor.”
The MAC continued in Griffins Corners until 1913, when the village changed its name to Fleischmanns.
Now, today is a golden era to be a baseball fan — you can watch games in HD on your smartphone and follow box scores in real time, with major league baseball now a billion-dollar industry. So why play vintage baseball? Van Zant says there are hundreds of teams across the country, and the Atlantics play over 40 games a season. Fan Vivian Ginsberg says she wouldn’t miss it.
“They’re like baseball reenactors," she smiles, just as a fly ball soars overhead. "Woah, heads up! Save that ball, that’s a $12 ball.”
Players like Van Zant and Miller say it’s about keeping baseball history alive. Like their original counterparts, today’s vintage baseball teams get people outside and having fun.
“It’s very hard to get a sore attitude when you’re on the field. It’s really enjoyable," says Van Zant.
“Yeah, I liken it to sort of like a baseball subculture," adds Miller. "I would say fraternity, but we actually have co-ed.”
The Atlantics are one of the MAC’s toughest outs. By the end of this day, the ABBC have swept the bill, taking Game 1 16-9, and Game 2 20-7 in seven innings. The Mountain Athletic Club still calls its original park in Fleischmanns home. The Brooklyn Atlantics play their home games on Long Island, at the Smithtown Historical Society.
All you need to attend is a temporary trip back in time.