By Oatlands’ Board of Directors member Doug Miller
For a century and a half, warm and lazy Sunday afternoons in summertime have been perfect settings for our national pastime, baseball. It was that kind of afternoon yesterday, July 29, at Oatlands for our Vintage Base Ball event, a doubleheader between the Potomac Nine and the Old Dominions.
Oatlands hosted its first vintage base ball event in 2011, and the games are gaining momentum. All you need is a few innings of Our Game in its elemental form, played in with 1860s style and rules, to see why it sticks with us through the generations. Take away the big stadiums, the music blaring, the concessionaires yelling, the glitzy scoreboards, and the shiny celebrities on the field, and you see the gemlike perfection of the game – a diamond in the rough.
One hundred and fifty years later, some things haven’t changed. The game is so well-calibrated that there have always been bang-bang plays at first base. There has always been the tension of a tight game, disagreements with the umpire (arbiter, in 1860), long periods of apparent tedium underscored by taut tactics and interrupted by moments of great excitement, and the thrill of a runner rounding third and racing home. And that’s just on the field. Among the fans watching the game – “kranks”, as they were known in 1860s vernacular – there have always been the soft pleasures of a gentle summer afternoon, cooled with ice cream or a cool drink, and the singular satisfaction of watching a game with a son or daughter, passing baseball’s charms and mysteries on to the next generation.
We had all of that happening at Oatlands on Sunday. The Old Dominions won the first game, an official game in their Mid-Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League play, 12-6. The Potomac Nine were gracious in defeat. The umpire, or arbiter, for the first game was Oatlands Board Chair Michael O’Connor, who called a great game while sporting a snappy Bowler hat. The second game was an unofficial “pick-up” game, just for fun.
The rules were a bit different in the 1860s, and you can see how they shaped tactics. Because there are no gloves or helmets, a ball hit in the air can be caught on one bounce and it is still an out. But if you let it bounce, a baserunner does not have to tag up. Because there are no gloves, baserunners have good reason to be aggressive on the base paths, forcing throws that might not be caught. There are lots of stolen bases.
Baseball has always had its own argot, and it was colorful in the 1860s. It takes a lot of muckle (power) to hit a sockdolager (well-hit ball). A sharp ground ball is a daisy-cutter that might be muffed (dropped) by a cake (untalented player). True kranks pick up the lingo right away.
As with baseball today, you can sit and enjoy the afternoon and have only the slightest notion that a game is going on, or you can pay close attention to each and every play and revel in the nuances of the game. Or everything in between. The delights of the game were apparent 150 years ago, and the rich history of the game since has been inextricably linked to the history of our country. Vintage Base Ball is a great way to connect the past to the present, and have a hot dog and a lemonade while doing it.