The Muffin Man: A Look at Vintage "Base Ball"

Scott MilesSenior Analyst IJune 29, 2008

I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass of the press box of Ohio Wesleyan’s Littick Field this afternoon.

Outfitted in a red long-sleeved shirt, a plain white painter’s cap, and white baseball pants yanked high to show off red socks, I, and the eight other individuals who were dressed the same way, looked absolutely ridiculous.

It’s a good thing none of us were overly self-conscious. (I gave up on that after two summers interning with the Lake County Captains, having spent time both in fish suits and as the furry green mascot Skipper.)

Why were we dressed this way, though? What could possibly make nine grown men give up their Sunday afternoons to look like something out of the 1870s?

Uhh, actually, that was exactly it—we were playing a vintage baseball (or “base ball”, as it was back then) game as members of the Delaware Lenapes versus the Ohio Village Muffins.

The rules of the game, as we learned quickly, have changed quite a lot over 130 years. Here’s a sampling of some of the differences:

1.  You can’t overrun first base—this one could not be stressed enough to us before the game.

2.  Any ball fielded on one hop is an out. You could smoke a liner to the outfield, but if it was fielded on one hop, the hitter is out. (Should probably mention here that there were no gloves back then. The balls were a little softer—kind of like a hard rubber—but it took a lot of getting used to; standing in the field with two bare hands).

3.  Pitches were thrown underhand, like in slow-pitch softball. There were no balls or strikes called, but pitchers (“hurlers”) were trusted to make good pitches and batters (“strikers”) were trusted to swing at them.

4.  No swearing or spitting allowed—the two aspects of baseball that I was actually decent at when I played.

(There were quite a few more differences, but I was so excited to play that I kind of zoned out for a few minutes while these were being explained.)

The home team was determined by—and I kid you not—a stone toss. The umpire, or “arbiter”, had a stone and spit on one side for “wet”, while the other side was “dry”, then tossed it like a coin. We won the toss and opted to be the home team.

We went down quickly and took the field. I played center field, because our captain, Jason, thought I was “fleet of foot”—his words, not mine.

As members of Capital’s baseball team can attest, my skills in the outfield are somewhat limited, although it was a cloudy day so the chances of me losing a fly ball in the sun and catching it with my forehead, leaving me concussed and with 20-plus stitches in my forehead, were minimal.

(Not that that, uhh, ever happened to me. You know what, forget I said anything. Let’s just move on.)

We got out of the first with a beautiful double play—apparently those were rare in the 1870s because the Muffins were very appreciative—and came to bat in the second. I was due third and stepped to the plate after the first two hitters were retired.

I took a few practice cuts with the wood bat and stepped to the “line”—not a batters box, just a line that marked where you could stand next to the plate. A lot of the Delaware Cows players were there, and I was chatting with them while I waited on-deck. “Hey, rip one Scott,” “Take it to right field,” “Come on, get a hole of one,” they shouted at me.

“I just want to warn you guys that I could barely hit my weight in high school,” I told them.

I had vowed to take the first pitch so I could get comfortable up there. But the pitcher lobbed a perfect one right down the middle and, overanxious, I took a big rip at it, hitting a little dribbler in front of the plate. I was thrown out by a mile.

Then, as has been the theme of the weekend in central Ohio, the rains came. The Cows had games washed away on both Friday and Saturday, and both teams were forced to take shelter in their dugouts as puddles formed on the infield. It appeared our afternoon was over, which had all of us bummed out.

Thankfully, the rain passed after a 15 or 20-minute delay, and we were able to resume our game on the practice football field adjacent to the baseball field. We tore up some cardboard boxes and put them down as bases and resumed play.

Maybe it was the change of scenery, maybe it was finally learning the rules, or maybe it was the fact that the Muffins—average age of probably about 55, to ours of about 25—stiffened up during the delay, but we caught fire in the third, fourth, and fifth innings.

We had been down 2-0, and we ended up winning 15-3. Every time a run scored—or an “ace was tallied”—the runner would go to the scorekeeper (“tallymarker”) and give his name, then loudly ring a bell that was set up next to the tallymarker to officially signal that he had scored.

The game ended with both teams lining up next to each other behind home plate, saluting one another with three rousing "Hip Hip Huzzahs!" before dispersing, each thanking one another for the opportunity to play. (The Muffins play upwards of 60 games a summer, we were told.)

Personally, I smacked three line-drive singles in my next three at-bats, realizing to just treat it as a slow-pitch softball game and keep my weight back, not lunge and try to kill the ball. My final hitting-mark stood at 3-4, with two “aces” and two RBI, which wasn’t an actual stat back then, but I’m crediting myself with them anyway.

(Unfortunately, by this point, none of the Cows players were around to see the clinic I put on at the plate. It also has made me contemplate if I could have been a Hall of Fame hitter had I been born 150 years earlier. And yes, I am basing that solely on my success in one game against men who get discounts at Bob Evans with their Golden Buckeye cards.)

I’m also proud to say that I had a perfect fielding percentage. Only one ball was hit to me in the air, which I played perfectly on the first hop for the putout.

(It is considered a “manly catch” to snag the ball in the air, but I was not about to take any chances. I haven’t injured myself in a month-and-a-half, and I wasn’t about to be the guy who got hurt playing in a vintage base ball game.)

All in all, it was a great time and a great experience. Apparently, we had lost the last two years to the Muffins, including a bad beating last summer, so to break that streak, and actually having helped to contribute to the victory, was a rewarding feeling.

The best news of the day, though? We got to keep the red shirt and the painter’s hat. Yup, it couldn’t get much better than that....