The Old Ball Game

Over the weekend, Dante Bichette, Ken Griffey Jr. and their brethren in The Bigs tried something new--interleague play. Meanwhile, Kale "Gilly" Gilmore, Pat "The Deacon" Massengil and their friends tried something old--baseball circa 1862. Guess who had the better time.

Amid Saturday afternoon cries of "Huzzah! Fine handle!" and "From horse thief to umpire! My, how you've sunk!" nine clubs contested the first annual National Vintage Base Ball Festival in a Broomfield pasture behind a grammar school. There were enough handlebar mustaches, coal-bucket caps and Victorian turns of phrase running around the grounds to furnish Alexander Cartwright's fondest dream. But there wasn't a single outfielder's glove. Not invented yet. For that matter, there wasn't a single outfielder. Before the 1880s, outfielders were called "scouts."

But for the occasional pack of Marlboros stuffed into an ample waistband and at least one egregiously ill-timed shout of "Show me the money!" this was "base ball" as played in the mid-nineteenth century--sunlit and pastoral, mittless and innocent. On Saturday, the game's elision into one word--much less the appearance of the designated hitter--had not even happened yet. Once again, pitchers were "hurlers," their battery-mates "behinds." Ladies unfurled their parasols and took seats on hay bales, and the players, if you can believe it, addressed each other--and the lone umpire--as "sir." Upon plating a "tally," they were required to report it at the scorer's table. There was not a high-five or forearm bash in sight.

"Deacon" Massengil, a 44-year-old graduate student in history who doubles as commissioner of the five-year-old Colorado Vintage Base Ball Association (CVBBA), sought to explain the appeal of going to bat in a century that's not your own.

"Many players out here today love the major-league game," he said. "Many don't. Personally, I don't like it. All pro sports have gotten out of hand. The greed. The professionalism. Here, we're not concerned with team standings or championships. We'd much rather lose by one run than win by ten. There's great camaraderie. We like it when the games are close and when people get a sense of what baseball was like back in the beginning."

A blend of amateur sport and community theater, the CVBBA and its 52-game season attract as many recovering Civil War re-enactors and dyed-in-the-wool history buffs as it does actual second-base tenders. But everyone seems to have the same goal in mind: to remind themselves and their "cranks" (early baseball-ese for "fans") what the national pastime was like before polyester double-knits, multi-million-dollar contracts and disastrous player strikes--in the days when the batter was a "striker," the "hurler" threw underhand, and every gentleman "ballist" played for the love of the game.

On Saturday, a forty-year-old construction worker shouted to a teammate chugging home to second: "Leg it, sir!" and you couldn't help hearing the self-conscious theatricality in that. A black-clad sheriff and his entire posse, all gotten up in Stetsons and long black dusters, materialized in the third inning of the game between the Broomfield Sweepers and the Central City Stars, and the playacting degenerated into gunshots and catcalls.

Little matter. The game on the field--in the authentic high grass--gave off unmistakable joy and (dare we say it?) palpable purity. "It's the ambience," said longtime ballist John Bosio, a contractor who specializes in restoration work. "Getting dressed up. Maintaining history. The camaraderie. The banter."

Kale Gilmore knows more than most people about such things, even though this was his first game of vintage base ball. An all-state athlete in three sports at Broomfield High School, he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners as a teenager but played three seasons for the University of Arkansas instead. As a senior transfer to the University of Northern Colorado, he hit .384, with eighteen home runs. By the summer of 1994, Gilmore had grown into a 21-year-old, 6-foot-3, 220-pound outfielder with the Winston-Salem Warthogs, a double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. The whole diamond looked bright.

Then came the major-league baseball strike. Gilmore lost his spot in the Reds organization to a "replacement" player. The next year he went with the Sioux Falls Canaries of the Northern League and became the club's fourth-leading hitter. But he was released after a road trip because the team needed the apartment in which Kale, his wife and their two-year-old son were living to house four other Canaries. Next stop: Pueblo. Gilmore signed on a Tuesday. On Thursday the team folded.

At 23, he concluded the gods don't want him to play professional baseball. Now he's an information-systems coordinator. "Ballplayer to computer nerd," he reckons.

Last Saturday, Gilmore found himself wearing black suspenders, a flowing silk tie and a gray striped cap, playing an antique version of the game he loves. As irony would have it, this was also the very same country field, just blocks from his old house, where he learned to throw a baseball as a four-year-old.

"In some respects, it hasn't changed," Gilmore mused. "It's the same game. I get as much joy coming out here as I did playing pro ball. I grew up on the game. It's inside me. So I still get a tingling feeling whenever I play baseball...Like a lot of guys, I wanted so much to get to the majors, but it wasn't in the cards. Now I'd be very interested to know what the pioneers would think of today's game--whether they think we've done a good job with what they started."

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