ALTON — Lightly dusty bleachers. Chatter back and forth across the baseball diamond. The smell of popcorn wafting through the air.
Those who want to relive yesteryear’s version of America’s favorite pastime will have the chance this Sunday at Rock Spring Park, 2116 College Ave., during the Vintage Base Ball Festival.
The trip back in time begins at 1 p.m. Oct. 18, into an era of no gloves, wooden bats, and nothing but “gentlemanly conduct” as the Springfield Long Nine battles the St. Louis Brown Stockings.
“It’s a bit like vaudeville meets war re-enactment,” says Greg Gelzinnis, Rock Spring 2020 chairman and event organizer.
Gelzinnis has held an interest in both baseball and Rock Spring Park most of his life, beginning with tee ball in 1968, and later coaching the Main Street Church League softball team (for the past 14 years).
The contemporary game we know as baseball has changed dramatically over the past 150 years. According to the Rock Spring 2020 Committee, the original game of Base Ball (specified with two words until the late 1880s) evolved from the U.S. Cricket Clubs of the early 19th century. The first set of commonly followed rules established a nine-person team with a “hurler” (pitcher) standing on an iron bar 45 feet from a “striker” (batter) standing at the home line.
“One of the biggest differences is the language of the game,” Gelzinnis explains.
While some terms might be self-explanatory, others are much more at home in the 1850s lexicon. For instance, the catcher is known as the “behind,” the shortstop is known as the “rover” and outfielders are known as “scouts.” Even more fascinating are the bygone phrases of encouragement, such as “that’s the ginger!” (“well done”) and “put the ash on the onion” (“get a hit”). Players also are often addressed by their nicknames, which include Tom “Jelly Legs” Baker, Mike “Skillet Hands” Briggs and Kevin “Creaky Knees” Williams for the Springfield Long Nine.
The Vintage Base Ball Festival will adhere to rules adopted by the National Association of Base Ball Clubs for the 1859 season. “Balls are pitched underhand, and to where the striker requests it,” Gelzinnis says.
Balls and strikes are also not called in vintage base ball. Only sportsmanlike and “gentlemanly conduct” is tolerated, and offenses of “spitting, cussing and hooliganism” — as decreed by the highly respected arbiter — are punishable by a fine of the day’s wage (a whopping 25 cents).
“Players can make an out in two different ways,” Gelzinnis says. “The ball is either caught live in the air or caught on one bounce. Visually, it’s a very similar game; strategically, it’s quite different.”
Chris Bruce and Jim Vambaketes, respective head coaches of 13U and 12U for Bluff City Athletics, agree. While coaching a vintage base ball practice at Rock Spring Park on Sunday, Oct. 11, Bruce discusses the experience.
“I think it’s a huge change for the boys,” he says. “This game is more about placement than pitching. The team practices to ‘challenge the ballists’ following the headline game on Oct. 18.
“Using no gloves is a big change for them, but it’s important to know your history and where the game came from.”
Why is Rock Spring Park the ideal spot for the festival?
“There is at least a reasonable probability that the Illinois Regiments encamped in Rock Spring Park played the original game in 1845,” Gelzinnis says. “It also serves as a perfect opportunity to showcase the new park and the great strides the Rock Spring 2020 committee has made in the last year-and-a-half. People who haven’t been to the park in a while will be pleasantly surprised.”
In fact, Rock Spring Park has the potential to host a regional Vintage Base Ball Tournament in 2016 and to possibly make a run at hosting the Vintage Base Ball World Series in 2017 or 2018.
“There are a couple hundred teams that currently play vintage base ball, with a major concentration in the Midwest,” Gelzinnis says.
Following the headline game at 1 p.m. and the Bluff City Baseball Middle School Team All-Star game at 3 p.m. is another All-Star game featuring the Bluff City Ballists — a team made up of local celebrities, according to the Rock Spring 2020 Committee. Admission is free and concessions such as hot dogs, popcorn and non-alcoholic beverages will be available, with proceeds going to the Rock Spring 2020 Committee’s ongoing restoration of the park.
“It’s a great family atmosphere that both the young and old can enjoy,” Gelzinnis says. “It’s the perfect opportunity for an outing as a family in a more relaxed and less-hurried environment.”
Attendees are encouraged to bring lawn chairs to the event for seating and parking will be available in the park’s central upper parking lot.
The Rock Spring 2020 Committee, a subcommittee of the Drug-Free Alton Coalition, meets at 7 p.m. the first Monday of each month at the Main Street United Methodist Church, 1400 Main St. in Alton. Everyone is welcome to attend.
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