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.”