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."

A moment later, striker Kale "Gilly" Gilmore swung a fat-handled vintage bat at the hurler's underhanded offering and lofted a long fly deep into the cottonwood trees beyond left field. You can bet the vanished nine of the Colorado Base Ball Club, circa 1862, would approve of that. Gilmore's Sweepers won the game 3-2.

The remainder of the morning was a grab bag of muffed "bug-bruisers" and snagged "daisy-cutters," of unfortunate bad hops, sunlit fly balls tracked down--somehow, madame--by aging center scouts and puffing third-base tenders. Commissioner Massengil, a veteran ballist of some girth, reinjured his nagging calf muscle and was compelled to retire for the day. Assorted cranks wearing hoop skirts and straw hats exhorted their menfolk--fellows hauling around newly minted nineteenth-century nicknames like "Stogie" Peterson, "Whip" Atkison and "Diamond Jim" Ritzdorf--to "Hit a red-hot!" or "Give the man what-for!"

It was no less than base ball glory, fellow cranks.
Bruce "Old Hoss" Foster, a 42-year-old "hurler" and "behind" of note, took a tin cup of cold water from the players' common clay jug and gave his views on vintage ball. "We play to win and perform as ballplayers, but we don't get all bent out of shape over the score," he said. "The game we try to portray is the gentleman's club game--pre-gambling and pre-ringer." It is, of course, also pre-Babe Ruth, pre-AstroTurf and pre-Albert Belle. Let's not start thinking--okay?--that it's also an idealist's vision of a vanished America that never existed at all.

For his part, "Old Hoss" has played in (or umpired) almost 150 CVBBA contests since the league's inception in 1993--"same year as the Rockies!" he points out--and firmly believes the Old Game will survive in Colorado despite the current shortage of ballists and cranks. To wit: As many as 2,000 spectators might hang around for the annual CVBBA exhibition game at Sky Sox Stadium in Colorado Springs (it follows the Sky Sox themselves), but as few as four fans turn up for some contests. Vintage base ball goes all the way back to 1981 in Ohio and other parts of the Midwest: It's still finding itself here.

Still, the game must go on. "I like the general showmanship, and I love baseball in whatever form," Foster says. "It's been tougher recruiting players than I thought it would be, but we'll get there. Here's a hobby you can do all your life, all about history and a game we love." The morning of the 1995 Major League All-Star Game, the CVBBA was featured on TV's Good Morning America, and organizers of Saturday's festival hope to attract the Fox Network or ESPN to next year's national tournament, when many of the country's forty to fifty vintage teams may compete. There's still a way to go.

In the end, Saturday seemed to belong most of all to the 24-year-old who was playing a few innings in the nineteenth century because baseball in the twentieth had let him down:

"In the springtime now," Kale Gilmore said, gazing out across the crude ballpark of his youth, "I get a feeling inside me. It hurts, and it can leave a bad taste, wondering what might have been. When I go to the Rockies now, I don't really like to watch the game itself. I'm there more for the feeling of the field. The atmosphere. But a few days later, if there's a game and someone asks me to play, I'll play. Always have. Always will. I'll play!"

Huzzah, Gilly! Hit a bug-bruiser! And leg it, sir!