It’s said that among the major American sports, baseball has changed the least.
That’s surely true over the past century. But in the decades immediately following its creation in the mid-1800s, baseball changed quite a bit. On Saturday, Pittsburghers can watch an interpretation of how the game looked in the 1860s, before some of the bigger innovations took hold.
Two local teams that are part of the Vintage Base Ball Association (yes, “baseball” was once two words) face off in a double-header at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village, in Washington County. The teams wear vintage-style uniforms and even sport vintage-sounding names: the Somerset Frosty Sons of Thunder and the Addison Mountain Stars.
“The people who play the game, they play it for the spirit of the game,” said Adam Johnson, a member of the Stars. Johnson, who’s 35, started playing vintage ball 14 years ago. While it’s still recognizably a version of the modern game he grew up with, there are significant differences.
Players, according to the custom of the time, are called “ballists.” The fielders don’t wear gloves. (Most baseball players didn’t wear gloves of any kind until the 1890s, and the modern webbed glove dates only to the early 1920s.) Fly balls caught on one bounce are an out. And, balls are ruled fair or foul based only on where they first land – so a grounder that hits in front of the plate is fair even if it immediately bounces across the foul line.
The vintage game looks different thanks as well to baggy uniforms, thinner-barreled bats, and the lack of a pitcher’s mound or delineated infield.
It feels different, too, literally. “They use balls that are hand-made, and they’re still pretty hard, but they’re not quite as hard as a modern baseball,” said Meadowcroft director David Scofield. It’s not unusual to see players with taped-up broken fingers, he said.
This is the fourth straight year that Meadowcroft has hosted vintage baseball.
The Vintage Base Ball Association operates nationally and lists more than 100 participating clubs. Johnson said that the Mountain Stars, like most teams, plays two to four games a month, plus weekend-long tournaments.
Meadowcroft, in Avella, Pa., is known for its rock shelter, an archaeological site that is regarded by some as the longest site of continual human habitation in North America, and replica colonial and Native American villages.
The first of Saturday’s ball games starts at 12:30 p.m., the second later in the afternoon. (The open field on which they’ll be played has no lights, of course – though it does boast a couple of large sycamore trees, which are in play.) The seven-inning games are included with Meadowcroft admission, and such traditional ball-game fare as hot dogs, peanuts and popcorn will be for sale, Scofield said.
Avella is located an hour southwest of Pittsburgh. More information on Meadowcroft is here.