Ran across a story today about former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton, who attained fame with his irreverent tell-all book, “Ball Four,” in 1970. Bouton, it seems, has founded the Vintage Base Ball Federation, which held its first World Series in Westfield, Mass.
The VBBF is like a Civil War reenactment for washed-up jocks. The league, real baseball through and through, adheres to the rudimentary rules of the 1880s and immerses visitors like they just stepped out of the Wayback Machine.
Those paying (a thoroughly modern) $10 will pass by Keystone cops walking the beat, through wrought-iron gates, past newsboys hawking the day’s paper, and even primly dressed ladies demanding their right to vote.
Games are played during the day – no electricity, of course – and players’ equipment is as throwback as it gets. Fielding gloves about the size of an oven mitt. Bats with handles nearly as thick as the barrels. And uniforms with collars.
If you’re a baseball fan, you gotta love this. Eat your heart out, Ray Kinsella!
Milwaukee even has a team (though it’s in the VBBF’s rival league, the Vintage Base Ball Association); the Cream Citys.
The oldest professional base ball team in Milwaukee is the Grays, who played one season (1878) in the National League. After that, Milwaukee began fielding its first incarnations of the Brewers, a one-season wonder in 1884 (Union Association), and another in 1891 (American Association). The Brewers came about again in 1901, before they moved to St. Louis and became the Browns. (They moved again in 1954, becoming the Baltimore Orioles.)
One last historical footnote; one that brings up an interesting point. Moses “Fleetwood” Walker was the first black professional baseball player. He took the field for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884, their only season.
Which brings me to this: As cool as I think these vintage leagues are, I’d be curious to know how they would handle any black players wanting to play with them. With the exception of Walker (and his brother Welday, who joined Fleet on the Blue Stockings), blacks were largely shut out of the game during the era the Vintage leagues represent. And blacks were completely shut out with the dawn of the Negro Leagues in the late 19th century.
It’s not unlike women wanting to join men in Civil War reenactments. Women fighting would’ve been unheard-of at the time, but several have expressed an interest in joining men for these exercises now.
Part of me says authenticity is authenticity and should be left alone. But another part of me thinks we should throw it open to whoever would want to indulge in the experience. Especially blacks and women, who never would’ve had that opportunity back then. (There IS a Vintage league strictly for women.)
Anyway, in thinking about it, I’d love to see something like this start up for Negro League teams. It seems like a fine way to honor the men who were relegated to those leagues. And the most beautiful part of it would be knowing that the men on the field are there because they chose to be, not because it was the only avenue our society allowed them.