Baseball is widely recognized as “America’s game,” but the sport that began in the 19th century didn’t look much like it does today.

For starters it was called “base ball” (two words). No one wore a glove. Pitches were tossed underhand. If a fielder caught a ball on the first hop, the batter was out. Base runners could not lead off or steal. Umpires didn’t call balls or strikes, and close calls on the basepaths were decided between the runner and the closest fielder. The ump did, however, routinely fine players for chewing tobacco or using foul language.

It was, from all accounts, “a gentleman’s game.” It’s also one that’s making a huge comeback. Vintage base ball teams are springing up across the U.S. and, happily, in our own bluff country. “In addition to ours, there are teams in Lanesboro, La Crescent, Rochester, and Decorah, ” said Allan Skalet, manager/coach of the local Highland Prairie Hayseeds.

Skalet had never heard of vintage base ball until five years ago. “I saw a photo of my friend Gordon Tindall in his uniform, so I had to ask him about it,” he said. “Gordon started the Lanesboro team, and he explained the basics of vintage baseball to me. Then he said that the baseball field behind my church (Highland Prairie Lutheran, south of Bratsberg) would be one of the finest fields in the area for hosting games.”

That was all it took for Skalet, a retired teacher who played varsity baseball for Peterson High School, to get excited. He started recruiting church members, but quickly expanded his draft beyond the sanctuary’s walls. “Still, most of us are pretty local,” he said. “Gordon was the one who suggested the name ‘Hayseeds’ and I guess it’s accurate. We’re basically a rural bunch.”

Skalet admits the Hayseed’s first season was a learning experience. “We didn’t have uniforms, and we never won a game,” he recalled. Learning the new-old rules was also a challenge for those used to the modern version of the sport. “Playing without a glove, and remembering you can catch a fly ball on one hop and still get the batter out, can take some getting used to. But there’s just a real camaraderie and emphasis on sportsmanship that makes it a lot of fun. We’re starting to be competitive now, so that’s nice. I don’t care if we win, but I like us to be in the game.”

Steve Gorder, the Hayseeds’ standout outfielder and heavy hitter, agrees. The former Peterson High School star has channeled his love for the modern game into the 1860’s version in a big way. He attends scheduling meetings for area teams, signs up for umpiring seminars to learn the rules and, of course, plays whenever he gets the chance. Gorder has traveled as far as Ohio to partake in vintage tournaments, and last summer participated in an event at the “Field of Dreams” facility in Dyersville, Iowa. “That was just an awesome experience,” he said. “You get to play under the lights, and at the beginning of each game they introduce the teams, and the players come walking out of the cornfield, just like they did in the movie.”

Naturally, aluminum bats are not allowed in vintage ball games, so one of the first things Gorder did as a Hayseed was to have a custom wooden bat made. “I just wanted something special made for that experience,” he said. “I’m very competitive—I hate the feeling when I can’t hit the ball well—but vintage ball emphasizes fun and the love of the game, and I guess an appreciation of history, too. There were few, if any, official fields back then, so people played where they could. Awhile back I played a game at Forestville State Park, and half the field was uncut, almost like a hayfield And I thought ‘Well, this is what it was like for those [early] players.’”

Gorder also appreciates the friendly competition and easy atmosphere built into the vintage game. “When a team is short a player and the opposing team has a spare, you just recruit from them, and vice versa,” he said. “If both teams are short, the batting team supplies the catcher. Anything to keep the game going.”

Skalet notes that during the Hayseeds’ last game, the team was comprised of players as young as 11 and as “experienced” as 80. The player on the senior end of that roster was Maynard Thompson, a retired teacher/principal and the team’s pitcher. Thompson was among Skalet’s first recruits and has grown to love the game. “I’d never heard of it when Allan talked to me,” he said. “But it’s a wonderful thing.”

Thompson, known for his blazing fast ball when he pitched for Peterson High School, also starred in town baseball teams in the 1950s and 60s. “Town baseball was really popular in the post World War II era,” he said. “Many of the players were soldiers just home from the war, and there are some pretty strong parallels between that game and the vintage game,” he said. Interest in base ball, which had started in the early 1800s, soared in popularity after the Civil War. The sport started on the East Coast, then spread across the country, where it remained largely a “gentleman’s game” until—you guessed it—teams started paying players, rules changed, and winning became important. In just a few short decades, baseball’s modern era began.

But of course money, fame, and winning at all costs never enters the minds of the Highland Prairie Hayseeds. Before each game the players will introduce themselves by an assumed nickname (Skalet calls himself “Lightning” for his well-documented speed on the basepaths), and after the “match” the manager will thank spectators for attending, then lead his team in a rousing, respectful cheer for their opponents. In between, players take to the field for nine innings of fun, athleticism, and great sportsmanship. And, whether the Hayseeds are thinking about it or not, they’re also celebrating the infancy of America’s game.