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Vintage 'Base Ball'

All around the country, people pass the dog days of summer playing baseball. Whether it’s catch in the backyard or an inter-office softball league, the pace of the game seems to go well with hot weather, cold beer and out-of-shape athletes. But for those who play "vintage base ball," even that pace may not be slow enough.

For NPR, Lars Hoel recently attended a game, set up on the grass in the middle of New York's Central Park. The hometown team, the New York Gotham base ball club, faced off against the Akron Black Stockings.

Both teams look like they’ve stepped out of a portal in time, Hoel reports. Their uniforms have no names, no numbers, just a big letter A or G on a bib in front of each long-sleeved jersey. The Gothams sport a patriotic mix of blue trousers, white jerseys and red piping. The visiting players look equally striking in their monochromatic white jerseys, black knee pants and trademark black stockings. Hats are old-fashioned pillboxes. And no one has a baseball glove.

"Some people question our intelligence, playing without gloves," says John Flaherty, Gotham's center fielder. He realized how hard it is to play without a glove when he broke his finger. But now, he says, "I can't imagine wearing a glove. It just seems like it would be so easy."

Most ballplayers felt that way until about 1875, according to the Gothams' captain, Drew Frady. That's when catchers and first basemen decided that wearing a glove might be a good idea. But until then, playing without gloves called for rules much different from today's baseball.

"The biggest one that people would recognize," says Frady, "is that any ball caught on one bounce is an out."

Other rules no longer in play are that a batter cannot overrun first base; a ball that hits in fair territory first and then rolls foul is still a fair ball; and pitchers throw underhand, from 45 feet instead of 60 feet.

Also, the game had a much more genteel feel, says Hoel.

Umpires would warn a player before he was actually penalized. And, says vintage base ball umpire Chris King, "a good umpire will always defer to the player. If you're calling the runner, you'll say, 'Sir, were you out?' and if he says he's safe, if you're a good umpire, you'll say he's safe."

Vintage base ball players say the game in the 19th century was a far cry from today's game. Today, the game is about money, says Mark Hepner, captain of the Akron Black Stockings. But once upon a time, says Hepner, it was about "being a good sportsman. Winning is important, but it is also about having fun."

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