OUT OF THE HISTORY BOOKS The Essex Base Ball Club.
With the Boston Red Sox sitting in fourth place and virtually all their players struggling or injured, it really couldn't be a finer time for baseball fans to rediscover what we actually love about the sport.
On Saturday, the Maine Historical Society is staging a unique take on the sport on the Parade Grounds at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, where the Essex Base Ball Club play two nine-inning games against the Dirigo Base Ball Club of Augusta, according to rules and traditions in effect in 1860.
The Essex Base Ball Club are the flagship squad from the anachronistic four-team league called Essex Base Ball Organization — half 19th-century baseball league, half nonprofit educational organization — based in Newbury, Massachusetts. Their love of baseball is just as distilled as any beer league softball player or Sunday twilight leaguer, but involves an awareness for the cultural impact and historical importance of the sport.
It's the first such event the Maine Historical Society has put on, but if all goes well, it might not be the last. "We get a lot of queries from re-enactors, but these guys have a strong, proven program behind them," says Steve Bromage, executive director of the MHS, who hopes the Essex team's interest in outreach, education, and performance can make the games an annually recurring event. While participation for the games is restricted to the teams themselves, Bromage says Essex players are willing to stick around, answer questions, and play some scrimmages with kids.
How was the game different 150 years ago? For starters, there were no called balls and strikes, though the umpire could issue a "striker warning" if he felt the batter was filibustering in the box. The pitcher delivered the ball underhanded, from 45 feet (instead of the 60-feet, 6-inch mounds of today), and perhaps most crucially, baseball gloves weren't widely accepted until the 1890s, so Saturday's game will be played barehanded.
The language of the sport was also profoundly different. Runs were called "aces" and fly balls "cloud hunters." Hitters of lesser talent were called "muffins" (the Sox's famously scrappy Nick Punto comes to mind), errors were "muffs," and players themselves were called "ballists," which has a weird, steampunky ring to it. So if you're interested in being a "crank" (or in today's parlance, a fan), head to Fort Williams before the first hurl of the free doubleheader at 11 am. Your Sox allegiances notwithstanding, it could be nice to cheer for a different team for a day.
"19th-Century Base Ball," with Essex Base Ball Organization & Dirigo Base Ball Club of Augusta | Parade Grounds, Fort Williams Park, Cape Elizabeth | 11 am-3 pm | free | 207.774.1822 | mainehistory.org