‘Base ball’ like it used to be
EAGLE – Time travel is still the stuff of science fiction novels – but it will feel like it’s happening at the Bull Pasture Park in Eagle during Flight Days.A “vintage base ball” game on Saturday will commemorate Eagle’s centennial year. The local Eagle Valley Merchants baseball team will play a “vintage” team from Denver, the Colorado Territorial All-Stars.The All-Stars are some of the best players from the six-team Colorado Vintage Base Ball Association. And, while the game they play is similar to modern day baseball, it’s the differences that will make it a unique game.Expect to see are teams in the uniforms of the 1862 era and players seated on hay bales rather than in dugouts. The game is played by 1862 rules with a softer, lighter ball and no mitts; basemen standing on their bases (only the short stop could roam); and a “hurler” instead of pitcher. In those days, the umpire stood across from the batter (striker) and usually carried a gun.Base ball festivalsBase ball – it was two words then – was still developing in the 19th century. Teams popped up all over the country, and the rules varied depending on where, and whom, the opponent was. Teams were established in New England and New York in the first half of the century. In the 1860s, upstart teams formed in places like the Kansas Territory, including what is now Colorado. The first team in the territory was the Colorado Base Ball Club.League play faltered during the Civil War, but began again all across the state after the war’s end in places like Central City, which had a dominant All-Star team, Denver and Leadville. All the teams all played in the Colorado Base Ball League. Leadville was the league champion in 1877.
“Many of the people who came out here during and after the Civil War were looking to get away from what was going on in the rest of the country,” said Mike Moger, founder of the Mastodon Mine Minstrels, Vintage Base Ball Association team. “They were independent and wanted to be alone to mine or farm.”Baseball became a part of the social fabric of the state. Wherever there were people, there was a base ball team, which was often associated with a local firehouse. Games were not scheduled. “One town would send a message to the other team saying their nine would be at a certain place at a certain time,” Moger said. “It was up to the other team to show up.” Churches would close, farmers would come in from the fields and people would travel from their homes from all over for what was often a two-day event. The games were akin to community festivals.Crank participationThe fans back then were called “cranks,” and they were more than just spectators, said Gary Wickett of the Territorial All-Stars. “The fans were an active part of the game back then,” Wickett said. “They could catch a ball on one the fly or on one hop. The out went to whatever team the fan handed the ball back to.”The practice was, in part, responsible for the growth of the concept of “home field advantage.” Adding to that advantage were the umpire’ who asked fans to weigh-in on tough calls. Yeas and nays often decided balls, strikes and outs.There were other rule differences, too, said Charles Knezevich, who will play with the All-Stars at Flight Days. Balls could be played on the first bounce off the ground, in both fair and foul territory. For example, if a ball headed toward the crowd, skipped off the ground, caromed off a picnic basket, and was finally caught by some crank, the ball was still alive … if the defense was able to entice the crank to hand over the ball without letting it drop to the ground a second time.
The left, center and right fielders had to start in a specific position. They couldn’t shift. Players getting a hit could not overrun first base.Stealing bases was considered un-gentlemanly, and sliding of any form was hazardous because of field conditions. The fans were also held to a standard of etiquette by the umpire, who could fine them as much as a dollar if they got out of line.Just crossing home plate does not automatically score a run. The run will not count unless the runner must reports directly to the tally-keeper’s table, rings the scoring bell and asks the tally-keeper to “Tally one run, sir!” The gameAll of these rules will apply when the All-Stars come to Eagle to play the Merchants. It’s an admitted advantage for the visitors.”We do a good job of explaining the rules,” Knezevich said. “Usually whomever we are playing catches on about the fifth inning and starts to catch up.”In the spirit of keeping the game’s history alive, the umpire assumes the role of teacher, in addition to his on-field duties.”They do a great job of stopping the action and explaining what is going on to the fans,” Wickett said. “We play hard, and seriously, but we also play to entertain.”The home team for the Flight Days Centennial Match is the Eagle Valley Merchants. Team Captain Chris Spiegel said his squad is excited for the challenge. The guys on his team just plain love the game, and want to help nurture its history, he said.
“I hope we can keep (the game) going,” Spiegel said. “It seems like the younger kids aren’t as interested as they once were. When I grew up that was all we lived for. We played whenever we could.”Spiegel is confident his team will hold their own, despite the differences in the rules, he said.”We have a good team. Even though this is just an exhibition, we will be giving it our best,” said Spiegel, whose team will compete in the Grand Junction semi-pro league this year.The Merchant’s roster for the game will include Spiegel, Tom Klahr, Kraige Keltner, Jesse Merihew, Jose Mesa, Keegan Keltner, Micah Bernhardt, Nathaniel Gallegos, and Andy Johnson.Organizers hope to see throngs of “cranks” turn out for Saturday’s game. “It’s a lot of fun to play this way,” Moger said. “But more than that, it’s nice to see the roots of where the game came from, and get away from the problems they have in the game today.”Vail, Colorado