After Christopher “Rufus” Nelson, of St. Paul, had been playing for the Quicksteps, an 1860s vintage ball team, for about ten years, he decided to declare his dedication to the team by getting a tattoo of their red logo on his left arm.
But Nelson had also started playing with another vintage team, the St. Croix Base Ball Club. “When the St. Croix players found out I got a Quicksteps tattoo,” he said, “they were so disappointed.”
The next week, just to even things out, his right arm bore a tattoo of the blue St. Croix logo.
It’s pretty representative of the spirit of the sport in its early years. According to Nelson and his fellow players, old-time ‘base ball’—it originally was spelled using two words—was much less competitive than its modern counterpart. Some players, he said, regularly served as “revolvers,” subbing in and playing on a different team.
“In the 1860s, being a revolver was a position of honor,” he said. “It was considered something honorable and flattering.”
The “shields” of old-style uniforms, which button to their shirtfronts and display the team logo, could be flipped so that the blank part faced forward when revolvers played with another team.
On August 9 at Scott County’s Cedar Lake Farm Regional Park, the St. Croix team will take on the Arlington (Minn.) Greys during a game organized by the Scott County Historical Society.
According to St. Croix player Erik “Sugar” Sjogren, of Albertville, vintage ball got its start in the early 1980s, when teams in Old Bethpage, N.Y. and Columbus, Ohio started recreating games using the old rules.
The St. Croix team has been playing for 17 years. Ten teams now play regularly in Minnesota, and three of them began within the last four years.
Sjogren, who sits on the board for the national Vintage Base Ball Association, said there are about 130 active vintage teams in the nation.
19th-century base ball lingo
Vintage players use the terminology of earlier times. An “ace” is a score, and fans are “cranks.” The players throw up their hats and give a “Huzzah!” at the end of a game.
Games tended to be played on open, grassy fields using bases that were square, cloth bags filled with sand, sawdust, or corn.
Early balls had a core of rubber straps wrapped with wool and yarn and a distinct “lemon peel” design on their leather exterior. Vintage-style balls start off tough and stiff, but according to players, soften up quickly, even by the end of the first game they are used.
“As long as you don’t break your fingers,” said Sjogren.
The joke refers to the fact that early players didn’t use gloves. That’s something Ryan “Lariat” Medeiros, of northeast Minneapolis, took some getting used to.
One of the first times he caught it, the force of the catch on bare hands actually knocked him back.
But, he said, “It’s either put up my hands to try to catch it, or let it hit me.”
A game that’s more ‘lively’
In vintage games, said Menk, like early amateur games, players and spectators make the calls, and an umpire only helps to settle disputes when asked.
Pitchers pitch underhand, and many of the rules differ from modern baseball. For example, if someone catches the ball after one bounce on the ground, it’s still considered an out. Also, players can’t run through first but have to stop right on the base.
Medeiros, who started playing four years ago after seeing an exhibition at a St. Paul Saints game on his 27th birthday, said he had trouble with that last rule. The first time he got on first, he said, he planted his face in the field.
It worked, though. “I was safe,” he said.
Throughout the season, teams try to organize games on open fields when they can, and Medeiros said he actually prefers an uneven, rutty surface. It’s toughest to play on, he said, but also the most fun.
“The ball might hit and bounce a completely different way than you were expecting,” he said. “It just makes the game a little more lively.”
Kurt Menk of the Arlington Greys said that team plays one location every year where “there is a barn in deep center field and usually a manure spreader in left field,” he said. “One year, the shade of an old dump truck served as our dugout there.”
A 1860s spirit
The sport of baseball didn’t start to become professionalized until the 1870s, and, Sjogren said, amateur games prior to that had more of a sense of camaraderie and sportsmanship.
Nelson said it’s the only game he’s played where everyone cheers for everyone else regardless of what team they’re on.
“The team he did it against would cheer him,” he said. “There’s many a game I’ll be playing and I won’t know what the score is. There’s no showmanship to put someone down.”
Jason “Redneck” Robinson of Lake St. Croix Beach, observed: “You don’t get all the big heavy egos.”
“It truly is played in a sportsmanly or gentlemanly way,” said Medeiros. “The leagues are all about win, win, win. I play it for the love of it. Whatever happens, happens.”
We are family
“I know everybody, so it’s really fun,” said Sarah “Boot” Peterson. “It’s like family.”
In her case, it actually is family. Her father, Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, captains the team.
The junior at Augsburg College had been watching over the years and recently started playing. She acquired her nickname because she broke her ankle and has to wear a boot, but she still bats and someone subs in to run bases for her.
Robinson also plays with family.
“I definitely like the idea of being able to play on the same team as my son,” he said. His oldest son, 17-year-old Justin “Buzz Saw” Robinson, often plays shortstop.
The elder Robinson even makes his own bats, and his has his nickname “Redneck” etched into it.
He made a bat for a friend, he said, to whom the sport meant so much that he was buried with the bat when he passed away.
Bats in the 1860s tended to be tapered all the way down, without the knob on the end, said Sjogren, who also reps for a company that makes vintage bats. “They’re a little more no nonsense, no frills,” he said. “So many people made their own.”
High turnout, happy fans
Why the growing interest in vintage base ball?
Kathleen Klehr, executive director of the Scott County Historical Society, has noticed more interest in history and genealogy in general in recent years. “Maybe this is an offshoot,” she said. Also, she said, “I think that the more people are exposed to vintage base ball, the more bookings there are.”
Sjogren agrees that exposure, especially through social media, has helped to get the word out. He also points to another possible influence.
“I think that the Major League Baseball strike 20 years ago was the first step in helping to focus people’s attention on other baseball than just the major leagues,” he said. “It’s not just vintage base ball that’s seen an increase in attention and focus. Even minor league…teams have seen a higher turnout, more press attention and happier attendees.”
“It’s a different game in the majors now,” said Liberty, of Stillwater, who plays with the St. Croix Base Ball Club. He pointed to controversies associated with the sport, like steroid use and stadium bond issues. He called the vintage version “a little more purist” and “a little more salt of the earth.”
He said also that people can play it later in life.
Robinson agrees. “Every year I play this,” he said, “it’s easier than trying to keep up with a 90 mph fast ball.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a freelance journalist.