Take me out to the ball game - in 1860s style
Wednesday, May 28, 2014 4:53 AM
Baseball is a key part of our culture. There are major league teams, minor league teams, high school and college teams and even children's teams. Ever wonder how it was played before today's modern rules came into being?
Jon Pieper scores a run for the baseball club. COURTESY OF DAVID TACKE
The game has been around for hundreds of years, but it was only in the mid-1800s that the game began to take a more professional twist. The fields were all grass and the ball was not the hard ball used today and did not fly as far. In fact, the ball was the same size, but soft enough for a person to catch it with bare hands. The game wasn't even called a baseball game but a "base ball" game.
Many of the rules were different as well. When playing this old-style game, there are no walks, balls, stealing bases or leading bases and there are no strike-outs unless the batter swings and misses. And then the player is "dead" not "out." The catcher is called the behind and the batter is the striker.
Sometimes "at bats" can last a while when there are no walks, balls or strikes. The striker simply watches for a good ball that he can hit. But, if this goes on too long, the umpire can tell the striker to either start swinging or he is dead.
These old-style games do not necessarily mean the home team is the one who will bat second. Rather, the order is determined at the flip of a coin. They also go a full nine innings. And even when the team batting second is winning, the ninth inning must be completed.
Other differences include a striker is dead if he hits a fly ball, it bounces and is caught, when running to first base, the striker must stop right on the base, not run past it. If it is at the end of an inning and a striker hits the ball, but another player is tagged out, the striker leads off batting in the next inning. When one striker runs into home base, he is to ring a bell signifying the score.
There is one more tricky detail. The pitcher is not supposed to try fooling the striker.
Back in the 1860s, this was considered a gentleman's club. As such, the players are fined and must pay $0.25 to the umpire for behaving in an ungentlemanly manner. This could be spitting on the ground or saying a foul word.
Now that one understands the rules of the "base ball" game from the 1860s, one may actually want to see a game played. If that's the case, take a drive down to Lanesboro and see Gordon Tindall and the Lanesboro Excelsiors play the Rochester Roosters on Saturday, May 31.
Several years ago, Tindall and his wife traveled to Forestville and witnessed an 1800s-style game of base ball.
"I have been a baseball fan all my life and said we should watch the game. We were overwhelmed because it reminded us of how farm kids back east used to play it. They were playing in a field like a pasture. We thought it would be fun to have our own team," he said.
The idea rooted in their minds, the Tindalls toured around the area watching the same types of games in Rochester, Owatonna and Spring Valley.
Being a fan of baseball, Tindall would often go to today's more modern games. But there was a problem he saw with the games now.
"I used to go to major league baseball games, but they are so commercialized now you don't know the game is there. I don't want to go anymore," he said. "Back in the '50s and '60s, you would only hear the crowd when something happened, the crowd and the crack of the bat. I like this vintage better."
Three years ago they began to pursue the possibility of putting together an 1860s-style team in Lanesboro. After a brief respite, around a year ago, the idea came to fruition.
"The Quicksteps from Minneapolis came down to play the Roosters and I said we should start our own team. That got the ball rolling again. We talked to some people we knew around town and thought might want to play. The big problem was the uniforms," Tindall commented. "There are no numbers or names, but you pull it over your head and there are eight buttons in the front for a bib."
The process to get a team in Lanesboro took some work, but the Sons of Norway women and the Lanesboro Chamber of Commerce lent assistance. The women donated the time to sew the uniforms and the Chamber helped with the expenses for the first game. The team did not get a chance to play a whole season, but were able to play the Quicksteps in one game last year.
"The people just loved it. They packed the stands on the first game," Tindall related. "We won that game and the Quicksteps have decided to come back at the end of the year and bring both of their clubs. We had a fantastic time."
Last year, their one and only game was held on the Taste of Trail weekend. The Chatfield Brass Band came and The National Anthem was sung by a member of the Commonweal Theatre.
This year there will be eight "contests" for the base ball team to play.
There are 12 uniforms for the team, but Tindall hopes to have a few more people willing to play, especially during the July 26 game. The Vintage Base Ball Association in Minnesota and western Wisconsin is home to eight such teams.
"Not every state has a team, but Minnesota has quite a few for not being on the east coast and Rochester and La Crescent have teams," Tindall noted. "There is no age requirement. People as old as 95 can play and a 15-year-old kid can play. Some of our guys are in their 30s, 40s and 50s and are all from town. I have noticed that players are usually around 50."
Practices generally begin at 2:30 or 3 every Sunday. Unlike scheduled practices teams use today, whoever wants to come to practice can come. But in the way people 150 years ago played, Tindall does not want this team to simply be a team. He wants it to be a club. Though it is not in the near future, he would like to have a clubhouse for his team with a pool table where they can all relax and have a good time together after a game.
"I hope this will be popular like last year. People have been making inquires about it. I would like this to keep going for years to come," he related.
But his hope does not stop there. He also would like to see Lanesboro hosting a tournament in its ballpark.
"It's a good ball park. Lanesboro would be a great place to have a tournament. Families could come here and play ball and then go biking, go to the theatre - there are lots of options. There are enough teams close by that it could work. It depends on how Lanesboro receives this base ball season," Tindall expressed.
Lanesboro and Forestville both have excellent fields for playing this game, but Tindall is always on the lookout for other good places to play games. One field he would like to play in is located by Highland Prairie Church.
"Right by the parsonage there is a baseball field and there is a natural amphitheater for it," he excitedly explained.
The first game will be on May 31. On July 4, the team will be playing at Forestville State Park and on July 12, La Crescent comes to Lanesboro. On July 26, the Excelsiors play two games in Rochester, though there may be some complications with three of the team members also involved in "Fiddler on the Roof" that same day. On Aug. 23, there will be a game at La Crescent and on Sept. 20 and Sept. 27, the Quickstarts play an encore of last year's game. Each game begins at 2 p.m.
"We did not want to play only six games this year, but we did not want 10 either since it was our first season," Tindall stated.
Now, there's just one more lesson for history and baseball fans. The Lanesboro Excelsiors were named Excelsiors for a very particular reason.
"I was a big fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers when I was younger. Lanesboro was settled by people from Brooklyn. When they came here, Brooklyn had many different teams. But one ball club was very prominent and one of the top clubs of the country. They were called the Excelsiors," Tindall described.
So, want to take a step or two back in time? Go see the way base ball was played around the time of the Civil War and experience how this club of gentlemen have brought back a game to celebrate part of America's history.