Upstate N.Y. recreate sport as in 19th century

Sun, Aug 7
Silver Ball ScoreboardCourtesy Ryan WhirtyTallykeepers stand watch at the Silver Base Ball Park at Genesee Country Village in Mumford, N.Y.

MUMFORD, N.Y. -- Flower City Base Ball Club player Scott Pitoniak surveys the match on Saturday between the Melrose Pondfeilders of Boston and the Victory Base Ball Club of Rochester, N.Y. at the National Silver Base Ball Tournament in upstate New York.

Pitoniak, a Rochester-based freelance journalist by day and an 11-year vintage base ball veteran on nights and weekends, discusses the first thing vintage newbies notice about the rapidly growing pastime -- the fielders don't wear gloves.

Vintage ball aims to recreate the sport as it was played in the mid-to-late 19th century, which is why fielders must perform their duties with their bare hands. A sharp line drive can result in a broken finger or two, as Pitoniak can attest having fractured two digits over the years. One member of his team is currently wearing a finger splint.

But while vintage base ball -- spelled as two words, as it was in the 1800s -- is perhaps a little more dangerous than the modern version of the sport, it's that authenticity that makes the pastime thrilling for both players and fans (or cranks, as spectators were called a century and a half ago).

"It's a gentleman's game," says Melrose crank Melinda Bakke, who made the trip to Mumford from Beantown to watch her husband, Sean Bakke, play in the Silver Ball tournament. "There's no fighting. It's definitely fun to watch how the game used to be played."

Silver Ball Tournament
Courtesy Ryan WhirtyA striker from Boston takes a cut at a pitch on Saturday in the tournament.

Thomas Anovick, a hurler (vintage parlance for pitcher) for the Fair Play Base Ball Club of Talbot County, Md., says that unlike modern sports leagues in which winning is often prized above all else, the purpose of vintage base ball is simply to gather with old friends, meet new ones, get a little outdoor exercise and create a sense of living history.

"It's a chance to get out and have fun," says Anovick, who sports a bushy beard and carries the nickname of "the Vicker." "It's about team spirit and camaraderie."

Those traits are certainly on display at the Silver Ball tournament this weekend. Teams traveled from far-flung locales as Maryland, Ohio and even Ontario, Canada to participate in the ninth edition of the annual event. Set in Genesee Country Village, a living history museum in Mumford, the Silver Ball tourney plays by the 1865 version of the sport's rules.

The pastime differs from modern baseball in several key ways. In addition to the lack of fielding gloves, the hurler must keep both feet on the ground and deliver the ball underhand to the striker (batter). On top of that, pitches must be placed for the striker's benefit, preferably right over home plate. The plate, by the way, is a round metal disk, as it was in 1865.

The Silver Ball tournament has become one of the biggest vintage base ball gatherings in the country, partially because Genesee Country Village boasts Silver Base Ball Park, the nation's only authentic replica of a 19th-century stadium. The diamond is surrounded on each side by a cornfield, but this is not Ray Kinsella's property.

"There are certainly larger tournaments out there, but we're usually regarded as one of the premier tournaments because of the totality of things that go on," says Glenn Drinkwater, a player for the Live Oak Base Ball Club in Rochester who helped spearhead the creation of the Silver Ball event. "Nobody's got anything even remotely like what we have, from a facility standpoint."