Deadball era not dead

Updated: August 24, 2006, 8:18 PM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Talk about turning back the clock.

Former major league pitcher Jim Bouton announced Thursday the launch of an organization that will play by 19th century rules: The Vintage Base Ball Federation. Yup, back then baseball was two words.

It will be six balls for a walk, and a foul ball won't count as a strike -- unless it's caught, in which case the batter will be out. A foul ball caught on a bounce counts for an out, and a hit batter is only a ball, with no base awarded.

Gloves will be tiny, bat handles will be thick and the ball -- that's right, one ball will be used per game unless it falls apart or is lost -- will be dead. There aren't any pitcher's mounds, and there's no such thing as a balk on pickoff attempts.

In a mixture of sport and theater, umpires must be addressed as "sir." Fans -- called "cranks" -- will be encouraged to wear period costumes, so ladies get out those flowered hats and gentlemen doff your straw boaters.

Amateur baseball and softball teams are invited to join the VBBF.

Chris Moran, who plays for the Hartford Senators, said fans look at these games the same way as the spectators viewed old-time ballplayers in the movie "Field of Dreams."

"Where did these guys come from?" he said was the reaction.

Teams will play about a dozen games during the season. A six-team, double-elimination Vintage World Series is planned for Aug. 15-19 next summer at a site that hasn't been determined.

"The game the way it was meant to be played," Bouton said during a news conference at Delmonico's, a restaurant that opened in 1836. "No batting gloves, helmets, wristbands, elbow pads, shin guards, sunglasses. No arguing with the umpire. No stepping out of the batter's box. No charging the pitcher or posing at home plate. No curtain-calling, chest-thumping or high-fiving. Just baseball."

There will be some allowances for modern times, such as protective gear inside uniforms for catchers and lining under the short-billed caps when players bat. There will be relief pitchers, and uniforms will have polyester, because flannel isn't durable enough.

"A night game is not forbidden, even though it's pushing the envelope," said Greg Martin, the VBBF vice president and owner of a company that produces vintage gear.

While the Hartford Senators have a team spittoon, gambling will be prohibited -- 19th century baseball was marked by alleged fixed games.

"The 1880s and '90s were characterized by very rough play and ill-mannered conduct toward umpires and opponents and spectators," said John Thorn, a board member who serves on the 19th Century research committee of the Society for American Baseball Research.

Wearing a brown derby and a vest, Bouton said Vintage Base Ball already was played by 225 teams in 32 states. In 2004, ESPN Classic televised a vintage game between the Hartford Senators and the Pittsfield Hillies at Wahconah Park.

The rules will be a mixture of those in use from 1860-90, with an emphasis on the 1880s. The ball will have seams in the lemon-peel style, which was replaced by the current seam pattern designed by Albert Spalding, adopted by the major leagues in 1877. Pitching will be overhand, and games will average about 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Before each plate appearance, a batter will declare his "desired strike zone preference" -- belt to knee or belt to armpits. If the umpire misses a call because his view is blocked, a team captain can ask for a "gentleman's ruling," in which players involved in the play are to truthfully say what occurred. If a dispute remains, the umpire may ask the cranks for their opinion.

"I'm intrigued by the concept of people playing baseball for fun," said former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, a member of the VBBF board. "Someone said this will be an effort where the strike will be something that goes over the plate and doesn't involve a labor dispute."

Because catcher's gloves are tiny and don't have much padding, most pitchers throw about 70 mph to avoid passed balls.

"The pitching game is less a power game and it's more a skill game: changing speeds, moving the ball around, deception," Bouton said.

It's certainly different than 21st century baseball.

"What irks me about the modern game is the enlarging ballplayers and shrinking ballparks," Thorn said. "A home run at one point in baseball's history actually involved a run -- running around the bases. There weren't very many home runs hit out of the park where you could stand at home plate, watch the thing soaring over the fence, cast a menacing glance at the opposing dugout and then take your time around the bases."


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Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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