On a sunny Sunday afternoon at Engel Stadium, four baseball teams brought the “past” back to America’s pastime.
Spectators watched from the stands of the historic 84-year-old stadium as athletes from across the state clad in Civil War-era baseball attire demonstrated the game that ultimately evolved into the modern sport seen today.
“You would still recognize it as baseball, but there are a few rule variations that make it exciting for us to play and for fans to see,” says Trapper Haskins, vice president of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Baseball and team captain of the Franklin Farriers.
“We are playing bare-handed Civil War-era baseball,” he says. “This is baseball before gloves were invented.” Not even the catcher wears a glove, and the league uses 1864 rules which state that fly balls may be caught “on the bound,” or after a single bounce, to get a batter, called a striker, out.
As a consequence of playing without gloves, players often hop the ball to make long throws, such as a throw from third to first base, without risking injury to fielders’ hands. There are no strikes or balls, so the pitcher, who pitches underhanded from ahead of where a modern pitcher’s mound would be placed, has a duty to offer hittable balls to the striker to avoid unnecessarily slowing the game.
The bats are differently shaped and custom made, and the exterior of the ball, called a “lemon-peel,” is made of a single piece of leather instead of two. One team in the day’s two exhibition games, the Highland Rim Distillers, is clad in work overalls and farm attire because that is what their community players would have worn to play ball after coming in from the fields of their rural town.
Apart from the excitement of showing spectators the origins of modern baseball, the league’s goal is to promote good sportsmanship and friendliness among the players and fans. “The general attitude on the field is different from today’s game,” said Haskins. It is more gentlemanly. Cries of “Huzzah!” and congratulations ring across the field as good plays are made or strikers hit the ball, and it is not uncommon to see fielders patting the opposing team’s runners on the back as they reach a base.
“We have a saying in the Tennessee Association that we all play for the same team except on Sundays,” says Haskins. “It’s only on Sunday, and it’s only for nine innings, when we’re playing against each other.”