Vintage baseball players (from left) Steve “Flop” Couch, Ryan “Hurley” Berley, Ed “Lighthouse” Skirkie, T. Jamie “Mouth” Ford, Scott “Balls” Alberts and Dennis “Laddie” Link. Photo by Jody Kessler.

by Jody Kessler
As I walked out onto the field of the Athletic Baseball Club of Philadelphia, something was different right away. The fielders weren’t wearing any gloves! That’s right – as the team reenacts baseball from the 1860s and 1870s, one of the rules is “no gloves.”

 

A slightly softer ball is used, and there are other different rules, but when you break it down it still resembles the sport we love and watch today. There is still a pitcher and a batter, but defense is a bit different as you field ground balls with your bare hands instead of gloves, which have been used since the beginning of the 20th century.

 

The club is the brainchild of Scott Alberts, of Upper Darby, an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania. He started the team five years ago, or, in other words, re-formed it as it existed in the 1860s and 1870s. It plays against teams from the mid-Atlantic states of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. Home games are played at Memorial Field in Fairmount Park by the Civil War monument.

 

There are a multitude of rules that players have to become familiar with. Overhand pitching had not been introduced yet, so the games feature underhand pitching. The batter and the pitcher each get a warning before balls and strikes are called. There are only three balls, but “no call” can be called if the arbiter (umpire) is not sure of the pitch.

 

Fouls do not count as strikes, but if a foul tip is caught – even on a bounce – the batter, or “striker,” is out. Balls hit in play can also be caught on one bounce for an out, which takes some of the pressure off catching it with bare hands. Trees line the foul lines at Memorial Field, and the trees are in play, adding to the excitement with wild ricochets.

 

If a runner overruns first, he can be tagged out, so sliding into the bag is normal. Just like in modern baseball, leading and stealing is allowed, which there is a lot of because of the underhand pitching. One result of these vintage rules is that high scoring is normal – one team scored 30 runs last week.

 

The Philadelphia team has seven home games this year and will play eight games on the road. A national tournament is in the works to be played here as well. Women are encouraged to play, something they did in the 1860s and 1870s. The Athletics will be at the Haverford Township Society on June 5 (check www.havefordhistoricalsociety.org for more details).

 

New players are welcomed all the time. Even if you just want to show up and play an inning or so, that is allowed, but the team is actively recruiting players, including Chestnut Hill residents. I went as a reporter the first time, but loved it and was asked back as an arbiter (another name for a modern day umpire). I had a great time, dressing up with a boater hat and bow tie, umpiring the game and enjoying the camaraderie of the players. It is a great way to spend a Sunday as a baseball enthusiast. It’s so neat and convenient having a league like this right in our backyard.

 

“It’s very satisfying,” Alberts said. “It’s a sport, it’s fun, its athletic, but also we get to wear these funny costumes and kind of nurse our history muscles a little bit. We’re all history buffs and baseball fans, so it’s more interesting to play this than modern baseball. It requires a little more research. There’s a scholarship aspect to it.

 

“We have a good solid group of guys who play together, have fun with each other. It’s a social club as well as a sports team. I want it to grow. We are always looking for new players and try to have it be a real experience.

 

Glyn Richards, of Elkton Eclipse, Md., who played against the Philly team last month, said, “It’s a league where we may be past our prime, but we all love the history of the game itself, so we get together and recreate the history of the game and we try to do it as real to life as possible as we can. It’s an enjoyable weekend activity for us, and we have fallen in love with it ever since.”

 

When asked what the biggest difference is between modern baseball and the version they play, he said, “How your hands feel after the game!

 

It makes you a better fielder because you keep your eye on the ball the entire time,” he added. “I love the camaraderie on both teams.”