East Fallser George Grigonis helps recreate 19th century baseball in Fairmount Park.
I’m standing next to an open field with no discernable basepaths, batter’s box, or pitching mound, yet I’m told by a man with a handlebar mustache and a newsboy cap that I’m looking at a baseball diamond.
Men in wool uniforms and neckties wave thick bats over their heads and an arbiter (aka umpire) in a straw boater, watch chain, and long overcoat prepares the chalk scoreboard.
The game is vintage baseball, played by 1864 rules.
I’d been invited by an East Falls neighbor, George Grigonis, who sports thick sideburns and has the nickname of “Clothesline” (for keeping his uniform really clean when he slides into base.) Like his teammates, he loves the history of the game and insists on wearing exact replicas of the 19th century uniform, down to the last detail.
In fact, all the players love the gear almost as much as playing the game. Like geeks everywhere, they’re passionate about their hobby and will gladly talk your ear off if you let them.
I’ll admit right at the start that I’m a history geek, so I can’t make fun of these guys for the mustache wax, or the reproduction eyeglasses, or the $250 firemen belts. (There are some easy penny farthing jokes I just had to pass up.) I appreciate their attention to detail but, like many geeks, they’re not exactly athletes.
Dan “Victory” Gordon, the president of the Athletic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia, readily admits that he took swimming lessons as a kid because he was no good at sports and could never catch up to a fastball.
When he saw a pitcher throwing underhanded at a vintage baseball exhibition at the Navy Yard, he fell in love with the game.
So what’s the game like? Yes, there is a plate, three bases, and nine men in the field, but that’s where most of the similarity with the modern game ends. There’s a “bat toss” for choosing who bats first:
If you’re gonna enjoy it, or at least understand it, it helps to know about the lingo, the attire, and the history.
What’s a muffin?
Long Trousers and Red Stockings
Ryan Burly, the club’s resident equipment historian, explains the uniform.
Get in the Game
To catch all the vintage action yourself, the next game’ll be June 27th at the Berks County Vintage Base Ball Festival where different clubs’ll be demonstrating the sport in the 1860’s, 70’s and 80’s so fans will be able to witness Base Ball’s evolution.
Vendors’ll be selling period treats & displaying equipment from the time period, plus — the best part — it’s a giant costume party for everyone! Attendees are encouraged to strut their Victorian finery with the rest of the re-enactors.
Closer to home, there’ll be two games in Philadelphia this August: the 9th and the 29th. The second at the Navy Yard will be another exhibition featuring audience participation. Victorian re-enactors will do their best to recreate the gambling (fans bet on everything at the time, from pitch count to where the ball might be hit) and the loud, rowdy atmosphere that sometimes made 19th century baseball crowds seem more appropriate for a cockfight than a day in the park.