At quitting time on a sunny spring afternoon, a handful of co-workers switch out of their business clothes and into long-sleeved gray wool uniforms. Once transformed into 19th-century baseball players, they head outside for batting practice on a grassy field. Batters wear old-time cabbie hats and hit hardballs with slim wooden bats. Fielders catch balls barehanded. If not for some players’ designer sunglasses or the occasional smartphone ringtone, it’s easy to imagine you’re back in 1864.

Minerva Base Ball Club Founder Paul Ritter III and Team Captain Adam Lamanteer

Minerva Base Ball Club Founder Paul Ritter III and Team Captain Adam Lamanteer

“It’s almost like a Field of Dreams out here,” says Paul Ritter III, founder of the Minerva Base Ball Club of Bridgeton and president/CEO of Cumberland Insurance Group, where most of the team’s members work. “We have an Amish market right down the street with mules pulling carts, and the farmer next door has a horse-drawn plow. You almost get the feeling that time stopped.”

Vintage baseball – a modern-day take on an earlier version of America’s favorite pastime – was invented in 1979, but the quirky sport has grown in popularity in recent years.

“There are more outlets for publicizing it,” says Vintage Base Ball Association (VBBA) Vice President Ed Shuman. “Teams have Facebook pages. A lot of people see festival games. Sometimes the local fire station will play a vintage team. That will do a lot for spreading the word about the game. It also draws in at least nine players on each side, their family members and maybe the community.”

Last year, Ritter and some colleagues attended a Philadelphia-versus-Flemington vintage game and were invited to play. The experience piqued their interest.

“We thought, ‘This is neat. It would be fun to have our own team,’ and there was enough interest to form one,” Ritter says. “We’re the only vintage base ball team in South Jersey.”

In the 1860s, Bridgeton had been home to a baseball team named Minerva, comprised of local firemen from Bridgeton’s Minerva fire company. That fire company happened to have been formed by the 170-year-old Cumberland Insurance Group, which Ritter runs today. Ritter jumped at the chance to name his vintage team after his predecessors, some of whom were likely company employees 150 years ago.

The original Minerva team formed in October 1863, and their first game was against the Philadelphia Athletics. Last year, the vintage Minerva team played its first game against the reconstituted Philadelphia Athletics, which formed in 2009. The 150-year anniversary game was held at Alden Field in Bridgeton, Minerva’s home field. “We had commemorative tickets printed and everything,” Ritter says.

Modern-day vintage baseball was created at Old Bethpage Village Restoration, a 19th century living-history museum on Long Island, New York. In 1979, a historian there researched baseball from that period because he thought the public would enjoy a demonstration. The initial exhibition was so well received, it became an annual offering. Old Bethpage representatives then gave a vintage baseball presentation at a living-history conference in Massachusetts in 1981.

“That’s when they unleashed it to the rest of the country,” says association secretary Eric Miklich, who plays for the Brooklyn Eckfords at Old Bethpage. “Attendees brought it home with them.”

Dozens of teams popped up as far away as Ohio and Texas. By the late 1990s, when the Vintage Base Ball Association formed, there were 100 teams nationwide. Today, more than 300 teams compete.

Part of the appeal of vintage baseball is the look of the game: The antique-style uniforms. The slender bats stashed in wooden barrels. The umpires in suits and top hats.

“Most teams do their best to portray the uniforms and equipment appropriate for the era,” Shuman says.

In 1864, baseball players (called ballists) wore long-sleeved wool shirts with shields on the chests, long wool pants and floppy cabbie hats. Minerva players wear the complete uniform, which makes playing in hot weather uncomfortable. “Wool uniforms are tough when it’s in the 90s,” Ritter says. “We don’t have any games scheduled in July or August – that was by popular demand.”

The first Minerva baseball team was formed in the 1860s. Today's team – complete with original uniforms – was formed in 2013 and follows the rules of the original league

The first Minerva baseball team was formed in the 1860s. Today’s team – complete with original uniforms – was formed in 2013 and follows the rules of the original league

The team orders its uniforms from a Connecticut-based company that has been custom-making vintage baseball uniforms since company co-owner Ken Weaver, a Civil War re-enactor, saw a vintage baseball exhibition at a re-enactment in 1996.

“We’d been making Civil War re-enactment outfits, and a bell went off in my husband’s head: Why don’t we go to the Baseball Hall of Fame, research the uniforms and offer them to teams?” says co-owner Paula Weaver. “We’ve outfitted 80 to 85 percent of the vintage clubs out there.”

Minerva’s vintage bats aren’t found in sporting goods stores; they’re ordered from Ohio-based Phoenix Bat Company, which has sold them since the early 1990s. At the time, company founder Charley Trudeau played vintage ball and remodeled homes. Because he had a hand lathe, someone asked him to fashion a vintage bat. His efforts blossomed into a full-time business. “Charley was bringing bats back to life that hadn’t existed for over 150 years,” says Phoenix General Manager Seth Cramer.

Sometimes, vintage baseball players are compared to Civil War re-enactors because both wear outfits designed with painstaking historic accuracy. But there’s another link between the two groups: Civil War soldiers played pickup baseball games to pass the time between battles. There are sometimes vintage baseball exhibitions at Civil War re-enactments. Minerva’s team manager, Rick Ritter (no relation to Paul Ritter), a Civil War enthusiast, saw his first vintage game at a re-enactment at Gettysburg years ago.

“It’s baseball in its purest form,” he says. “Just like a battle re-enactment, as you watch, it’s easy to take yourself back in time and imagine soldiers playing.”

For vintage players – who may be history buffs, teachers, coaches – the game has a whole new set of rules. Several versions of game rules are posted by VBBA, and each team chooses which rules to follow. Most teams – including Minerva – follow the 1864 rules. Players don’t wear gloves, but they may catch fly balls after one bounce for an out. They can’t overrun first base without risking being tagged out. And the pitching is underhanded.

The Minerva team is only in its second season, so the rules aren’t as ingrained in its players’ minds as their competitors. Players who spend too much time rooting for the Phillies may be at a disadvantage, because they’re immersed in the rules of today’s game.

“You learn by watching your mistakes as you go, and there are plenty of mistakes,” says Minerva team captain Adam Lamanteer, who played baseball under coach Jeff Trout (father of Los Angeles Angels All-Star Mike Trout) at both Millville Senior High School and the University of Delaware.

Most vintage teams have only male players, but a few, including Minerva, welcome women. Christie Willoughby played softball during high school and after college before becoming a vintage ballist.

“I thought, ‘If I can play softball, I can do this,’” she says. “We have a couple of regular players who are women and have not encountered anything but mutual respect.”

Although Vintage games don’t draw the same crowds that Major League games do, there is a small, loyal fan base. “When we have home games, employees come out and root for us,” Ritter says. “Some companies have a company softball team; we just have a vintage 1864 baseball team.”

September 2014
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