By Budd Bailey
It was 1868 during a visit to Genesee Country Village in Mumford on Sunday afternoon – at least in baseball terms.
New York’s largest outdoor museum has a number of old buildings around its rural grounds as it tries to bring back a taste of the past. However, the big attraction on this particular Sunday was a chance to see a baseball game played with the same rules as the ones used before the first all-professional team was ever formed. That, as any fan who has spent too much time reading baseball history books knows, was the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869. Those players won 81 straight games through June 1870.
In this case, Rochester suited up against Flower City in the Silver Base Ball (yes, two words were required back in the day) Park. Who could pass up a chance to see that? Not me. I was one of about 50 spectators to the game, and enjoyed the chance to watch it with other fans.
Everyone’s first question about such a game centers on the rules. What were they like? Before outlining the differences from the present day, let’s start with an important point. You really would recognize the game as baseball. It looked like there were 90 feet between bases. Three strikes and you were out. Nine innings were played. Still, there were plenty of differences to make the game unusual and interesting. Here are some of them:
- * Let’s start with the ball, which I had the chance to hold for a moment. It’s not as hard as a baseball. It’s not quite as hard as a softball. There’s a bit of a sponge-like covering, although it’s still relatively solid. That’s important because …
- * The fielders play without gloves. As I understand it, one of the ways to make an out in relatively prehistoric days was to throw the ball at a baserunner and hit him. That obviously meant you couldn’t use a hard ball, because you’d run out of players quickly. When that rule was dropped, the balls could get hit harder and go faster and farther. But without gloves, the ball couldn’t be too hard, or fingers and hands would be in serious jeopardy.
- This, then, was something of a compromise. The fielders on Sunday could catch relatively lazy flies rather easily as well as most throws from teammates. But line drives were another story, and it was tough to throw out a base runner from any sort of distance. On the other hand, since the ball couldn’t travel too far, the outfielders could play quite shallow. Silver Base Ball Park does have a fence marking a boundary. But if you hit the ball over it, it’s supposedly a ground-rule double … and then the defensive players have to go find it, since there aren’t many balls.
- * The oddest rule involved foul balls. If a batted ball landed in foul territory, bounced up and was caught by a fielder, the batter was out. The first one in Sunday’s game was a fly well down the left field line in the sixth inning that the left fielder had no chance of catching on the fly, but then grabbed on the first hop. Out! Runners generally are not allowed to advance on such plays.
- The rule also applies to a foul ball at the plate, if a batter bounces it straight back to the catcher on a foul tip. The catcher plays several feet behind the plate, because he’s not allowed to have any protective equipment, so it’s easier than you’d think. (Footnote: Since the catcher is so far away from the plate, stealing bases is not allowed. Runners could move up on a wild pitch or passed ball, although no one did in this game.)
- * On the other hand, the batters get a big break when it comes to fouls. If a batted ball lands in fair territory initially, it is a fair ball for keeps – no matter where it lands from there. Early in Sunday’s game, a hard-hit ball down the left-field line started in fair territory but was clearly foul by the time it reached third base. That’s a foul ball in 2022, but a fair ball in 1868. One batter in the game took a few odd swings to drive the ball down to the ground in front of home plate, and then hoped it would skitter away into foul territory for an easy base hit. It worked; one ball wound up rolling under the Rochester bench and out of play for an easy single.
- * Pitchers threw underhanded in this game, along the lines of slo-pitch softball. Under the actual 1868 rules any velocity was allowed – if you could throw strikes. Most pitches on Sunday were lobbed into the plate. It’s not easy to notch a strikeout under such circumstances, and there was only one on this day. Walks can be called by the umpire if a pitcher can’t find the strike zone after a warning; three balls equal a free pass.
- An umpire may decide to issue a called strike if the batter has been passing up hittable pitches after a warning. So the game feels like a pickup contest at a picnic in the park – essentially no called balls and strikes.
- * The batter can’t overrun first base, which led to some odd-looking dances between the first baseman and the batter. That rule was changed in 1870.
- * The infield fly rule didn’t exist until the 1890s, so a pop-up with the bases loaded and less than two outs wasn’t an automatic out. Good thing, since catching the ball without a glove was no sure thing.
- * The field was essentially a pasture. There was a little dirt around the bases, but that was about it. What’s more, it was not particularly level, leading to some odd hops. By the way, the pitcher’s mound did not exist. Home plate was “surrounded” by a chalked “X,” which served as something of a batter’s box.
As long as I’m making a list, here are a few other items from the game:
* The biggest anachronism of the day probably was the use of a public address system. It was used sparingly, at least. A big megaphone probably wouldn’t have been too helpful. I suppose the ballplayers’ uniforms were made of something other than wool, which would have been a little warm on a sunny, 80-degree day in Mumford.
And a concession stand served hot dogs and cold drinks, probably using some devices that would have drawn blank stares in 1868. The proceeds from the sales there went to the two teams to help pay their expenses.
* The teams consisted of players of all ages and athletic abilities. There are national tournaments for baseball under 1868 rules; one was held in Mumford last year.
* Even though Flower City, the home team, had a lead after eight and one-innings, it came to the plate for the bottom of the ninth. The eventual winners went down quickly and deliberately in its last lacks, leading to a Stanley Cup-like handshake line between the teams after the contest.
- It all took about an hour and 50 minutes to play, even without commercials between innings. Since Flower City won the game, 19-5, that probably was satisfactory for all concerned. In other words, there were no calls for a pitch clock from the spectators.
We don’t realize it often, even during the course of our lifetime, but our oldest games are constantly evolving. This particular afternoon in Mumford offered everyone a chance of where we’ve been – making it an entertaining and educational day in the pasture.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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