What's New, Old Sport?
Over Labor Day weekend (from Friday September 1st through Sunday the 3rd) in Roxbury, New York, visitors and residents will enjoy a “Turn of the Century” experience that promises to be the perfect occasion to don that straw boater or wear dress whites one last time for the season. While festivity particulars, including an appearance by the ubiquitous Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, are detailed on the web (see link at column’s end) my focus is predictably on the sporting story. In addition to the hometown Roxbury Nine, a highly competitive club that plays all summer long under the rules and equipment of 1884, Kirkside Park will host such vintage baseball antagonists as the Gothams and Mutuals, both of New York, the Atlantics of Brooklyn, and the Providence Grays. Some of these contestants will have been seasoned under earlier rules—those of 1864 (when a ball caught on a bounce was an out and a pitcher could not throw sidearm or overhand) or as late as the 1890s, when the game looked much as it does today, though a foul ball was still not chalked up as a strike.
Although the charm of the grand old game is that it appears to be the same as it ever was, or at least the same as in McKinley’s day, it has changed most radically in ways that are not to be found in the rulebook. Bigger and stronger athletes play in smaller ballparks with shrunken strike zones, endangering pitchers’ physiques and psyches and threatening their very species with extinction. Steroids, expansion, threatened contraction, greed ... I could go on, and often enough have, so let’s stop kicking that can. Baseball today is still the game of our fathers and grandfathers, and its self-conscious archaism is a large part of its enduring charm.
There are those (baseball’s equivalent of the Amish) who believe the game today has gone so far in the wrong direction that it needs to go back to the future if it is to have one. Just give us baseball as it ought to be, and used to be, we graybeards wail. “Our” game may have changed in ways that are irreversible, in matters of style and scale and “monetization,” that cold cash word for a cold hard era. The playing of baseball is increasingly detached from watching it, as football and basketball have raced past the old ball game in terms of participants and spectators. Once boys dreamed of playing center field; now, playing fantasy baseball in preference to sandlot ball, they dream of being a real general manager buying and selling real players. In a single generation we have moved from emulation to simulation.
In short, the things about today’s game that make those who love baseball grind their teeth are the things that have propelled vintage baseball to a popularity unimagined when it commenced at Old Bethpage Village back in 1980 as a living-museum demonstration. A quarter-century later their players still host matches on the scenic grounds, only now they and the Meadow Muffins of the Ohio Village Historical Society — the second vintgae baseball team, having commenced in 1981 — are joined in other locales by well over a hundred clubs playing by a variety of antique rules.
In 1985 Tom Heitz, then librarian at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, joined with some twenty-somethings at the New York State Historical Association to form the Leatherstocking Base Ball Club of Cooperstown and a road companion team called the Cardiff Giants. They played not by New York Game (Knickerbocker) rules, but by those of the Massachusetts Game or Town Ball. I umpired at many of these contests, with all three of my sons as occasional players, in stovepipe hat and frock coat, from an 1858 rules contest at Tarrytown to 1882 rules at Troy and a memorable revival at Lake Placid of the odd game of baseball on ice. Knowledge of and adherence to the rules was important for umpire and players alike, but we were not above a bit of conspiratorial theatricality to highlight for spectators the most quaint features of the old ball games.
The game that was left behind, I came to believe, was in many ways the superior version, for both players and spectators. It was about joy. The corrosive effect of the modern era has been that while our work grinds at us as an impediment to leisure, our play seems more like work—ask any Little Leaguer—and joy is available not via competition but only in victory.
Vintage baseball is not yet as popular as Civil War battle recreations, but its numbers are drawing ever closer. Some fifty-plus clubs belong to the Vintage Baseball Association, playing in strict concordance with the rules of a particular season—1845, 1858, various years in the 1860s, and a few stragglers into the next two decades. Another association, the Vintage Baseball Federation, has grown up with a less museum-oriented approach, playing in the spirit of the 1880s under an amalgam of rules that permit overhand pitching, modest period gloves and catcher’s equipment, and a more competitive if equally gentlemanly approach to game day. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I must state here that I have recently been asked to serve on the board of directors of this newer organization.) And most vintage base ball nines belong to neither group becaise they cannot yet commit to at least six scheduled games over the course of a summer.
As we look toward Labor Day weekend at Roxbury, these last lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer must mean ... football. In this space, however, I am not talking about the preseason camps and games dotted with chorus-line hopefuls. Why should the vintage concept be limited to baseball?
The Vintage Football League (VFL) is the brainstorm of old friend and football expert nonpareil Bob Carroll. It could be a nationwide network of games, teams, and divisions dedicated to playing the game they love under the rules and equipment of bygone days. Take, for example, the state of the game in 1947-48 (although we could offer local teams/divisions the option of playing according to the rules of 1888, 1905, 1920, 1932, or 1960 as well). In 1947-48, except for punters and place-kickers, the NFL permitted no substitutions during a possession and only three substitutions when the ball changed hands. (In earlier years, a man taken out for a substitute could not return in the same quarter.)
Consider the benefits to players and spectators. All this ludicrous situational substitution will be out the window, and fans can begin to see players as people instead of cogs. And with most of the players forced to play both offense and defense and to stay on the field for an extended time, guys who are naturally big will be able to play, but the behemoths who huff and puff through two downs — well, they won't last.
If this return to sanity were to occur in the NFL, you'd find the size of players would decrease. And that would decrease injuries and increase career longevity. (Fat chance of that.) But in the VFL stars will shine because of their old-time combination of agility, ability, grit, and stamina.
For those of a pecuniary bent, the possibilities for merchandise creation and licensing are enormous, given the need for authentic uniforms and equipment. The VFL will provide fun for walk-on players at a local event, passionate devotion from teams and divisions with regularly scheduled games, and a fabulous off-season programming concept for television networks panting all spring and summer long for lack of the NFL.
For the specific schedule of events at Roxbury’s “Turn of the Century Days” weekend, September 1-3, see: http://www.roxburyny.com/features/2006/TOC2006_activities.html