Professional baseball is celebrating its 150th anniversary this summer, and the pro game has its roots here in Southwest Ohio.
In 1869, The Cincinnati Red Stockings were America’s first and only pro team. They toured the country playing amateur clubs. Baseball was different then, and tougher. It was played barehanded. There were no gloves, no stadiums, no peanuts and cracker jacks.
Dayton has what’s known as a vintage baseball team, The Carillon Clodbusters. They still play the game old style, and this weekend, they’re playing a Cincinnati Red Stockings vintage team. It's a blend of historical reenactment and amateur athletics.
John Everett is an attorney, a prosecutor for the City of Kettering. But on this summer day, he’s serving as a judge, presiding over a vintage baseball game. Judge was the common term for the umpire in 1869.
Everett is also dressed to the nines, wearing a full suit, top hat, and bow tie, despite the summer heatwave. He’s outfitted like this so he can accurately play the part.
“A lot of it is the theatre,” he says. “It’s learning the language. It’s learning the rules and how to interpret them. It’s learning the dress and how you would act.”
Everett says his job is to engage the crowd and interact with them.
When a player catches a line drive barehanded, Everettt turns to the audience and yells, “Striker is dead on a manly catch! As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, it pays to catch a ball on the fly.”
The players and Everett have some routines prepared for the audience, too.
For example, players weren’t allowed to spit 150 years ago. When one of them does, Everett calls him on it, shouting to the crowd: “As you know, I am the moral arbiter of today's match. My job is to make sure there is no spatting upon the ground!”
The fine for “spatting upon the ground” is a quarter and a public apology.
The fellow who has to apologize for his “ungentlemanly behaviour” is Mark Willis of the Clodbusters. He’s one of the older players here. This is his 27th year.
“I came because I liked the sport, but now I’ve stayed all these years because of the sportsmanship,” he says.
Willis says he loves the meals after ever game. The home team always provides for the visitors, and win or lose, old friends reconnect.
He’s also quick to point out what baseball means to American culture, especially how it’s been ahead of the curve on integration and understanding.
“Look at what Jackie Robinson meant,” Willis says. “Look at David Ortiz and the Red Sox after The Boston Marathon bombing. Baseball is part of our DNA. It’s part of our history. It’s part of everything. And the sport has grown and changed as our nation has, but it’s always led us just a little bit.”
Other players, like Nate Buckner, feel a very personal connection to the past when they play.
“I’ve played baseball since I was five or six years old. My dad was my coach. He’s no longer with me. He died back in early 2000. So, keeping that alive is for his legacy. Maybe he’s looking down from the heavens and putting a blessing on me,” says Buckner.
That feeling goes for guys on both sides today. Shaun O’Mara plays for the Hall of Fame 1869 Red Stockings. He’s a descendant of Calvin McVay, who hit a home run in the first pro game ever.
“He’s my great-great uncle,” O’Mara says. “So, it’s an honor to wear this uniform 150 years later.”
O’Mara is excited to play for these Red Stockings. They’re the only vintage team associated with a current MLB team, and that gives them some perks. They’ve got to play on the Reds home field for a demonstration before a major league game, and they’ve even been sent out to California to play vintage teams out there, in much the same way the real 1869 Red Stockings toured the country.
Back then, the Red Stockings were a bit like the Harlem Globetrotters in basketball. They toured America, beating the pants off amaetuer clubs in every town.
They didn’t lose a game that first season, but in 2019, at today’s game, the Clodbusters got the best of these vintage Red Stockings. And as the game comes to a close, the players line up and give three cheers to their opponents and to the crowd.
They all shout, “Hip-Hip-Huzzah! Hip-Hip-Huzzah! Hip-Hip-Huzzah!”
This game was played at 10 Wilmington Place, a senior living center in Dayton, and it was a big hit with residents like Vondy Miller.
“Oh, I love it!” She says. “I like the umpire. I like that they catch with their hands. I quit following baseball, but I like this!”
On the other end of the age spectrum, the Clodbusters also teach vintage baseball to kids who go to summer camp at Carillon Historical Park. That’s what they did almost every Friday last month.
One of the campers, Alex, who is in the 8 to 12 year old camp, granted us an interview. He said it “hurts a lot” to catch the ball without a glove, but that it was “very fun” once he got the hang of it.
Despite the pain that comes with making what they call a “manly catch,” Alex says he’d like to play the game again...and again.
And so, at 150 years of age, baseball seems to be in surprisingly good health.
The Carillon Clodbusters will play again this Sunday, August 25, at 1PM at Carillon Historical Park. It’s the Clodbusters last home game of 2019.