By C. Campbell, Staff Writer
IDER, Ala. — At this year’s Mule Day festival in Ider, I was privileged enough to get to take part in a vintage baseball game with a club from Huntsville. While I’ve read books about the early years of the sport, getting to actually play a game using the rules of the 1860s was quite the experience, but one that I wholeheartedly enjoyed.
The key to all of it was adapting to the vastly different rules. Fly balls caught after bouncing once on the ground was an out, but baserunners could advance without tagging up on those plays. Strikes only counted if you swung and missed at a pitch, which was thrown underhanded.
And gloves? Forget about it. None of us wore any, as they weren’t a part of the game until the late 1870s. Once all us locals joining the Huntsville players for the day had enough of an understanding of these differences, it was time to divide up into teams, the Redcaps and the Spinners, and play.
All of us had nicknames out on the field. Lancelot. Catfish. Lemon Drop. I became Seamus, an Irishman who had fallen in love with the game after immigrating to the United States. I started the game in right field, but shifted to second base later in the game. Fielding was an adventure, as the ball was given to take funny hops on the diamond.
Getting up to the plate and taking my turn as a batter, or using the terms of the era, striker, was just as interesting, swinging a solid wooden bat at a ball that wasn’t as lively as modern ones are. About the best I could do was beat the ball into the ground, though it moved in such a way I managed to leg out a couple of singles.
What was perhaps the most refreshing change of all was the gentlemanly way the game was conducted. Swearing was forbidden on the field.
A well hit ball, or a fine piece of fielding was congratulated not only by that player’s team, but by the opponents as well. I found myself saying “Well struck, striker,” or “Good play, fielder,” just as easily as anyone else out there, even if the play resulted in a run for the other team or an out for ours.
It may be human nature to argue the call when you believe you’re right and they’re wrong, but this did not happen during the game. There were times when both teams had to come together and discuss what the correct call was, but nobody showed any anger about the final decision.
After the game ended, the final tally showed that my team had lost, but, to be completely honest, that wasn’t the main thought on my mind. Sure, I would have loved to have won the game, but my main goals were to gain a much better understanding of baseball as it was played in its infancy, and to have as much fun as possible while doing so. In that regard, my time on the field was a tremendous success, not capable of being measured in wins and losses.
I know that if the opportunity presented itself, I’d play again in a heartbeat.
For more information on the Huntsville Vintage Base Ball Club (yes, that is correct. In the 19th Century, spelling baseball as two separate words was the proper terminology), feel free to visit their website at: www.huntsvillevintagebaseball.com