Vintage Baseball

The arbiter indicates the Skippers tallied an ace.

By Steve Raymond
News Report Staff
When the final striker hit a sky ball for the third hand in the bottom of the seventh round Sunday, it clinched a two-ace victory for the Effingham Skippers, much to the delight of the cranks.
That is the verbiage a sports reporter would have used if covering a baseball game back in the 1860s.
It was also used Sunday afternoon during the three vintage baseball games played at Sacred Heart School as part of the Chamber’s Summer Celebration in recognition of its 100th anniversary.
The St. Louis Unions and Vandalia Old Capitols, actual vintage baseball teams that compete in leagues, made the trip to Effingham. Their players ranged in age from early 20s to late 50s. They played each other, plus they each faced a group of local coaches and players, called the Effingham Skippers.
For those familiar with the modern game, some of the vintage rules – and vocabulary – were quite different. And it took a while to get accustomed to it all.
For example, the pitches were thrown underhanded; the first, second and third basemen had to be one step from the bag, but the shortstop – called the rover – could play anywhere he wanted; and no gloves were used.
When a fly ball is hit, the fielder can either catch it on the fly or let it hit and catch it on the first bounce. Either way, the batter is out.
The pitcher is called the hurler and the catcher is the behind. (As you might imagine, that resulted in a few humorous comments.) The bat was called a willow; a batter was a striker; a run is an ace; an out is a hand; and a fan is a crank. There is no sliding, cussing, spitting or arguing. And the umpire is called the arbiter.
Oh, and one other thing. No sunglasses are allowed.
“The rules were quite different,” said Chris Fleener, who served as the coach and pitcher for the Skippers. “The guys weren’t real sure just what to do at first, but it was a lot of fun.”
In the opener, the Unions beat the Old Capitols 13-7.
Then it was time for the Skippers to take the field and face the Unions. The local team consisted of a couple players, but primarily coaches from Effingham County – Tony Kreke, John Niebrugge, Tim Pezan, Jared Chesnut, Eric Splechter, Steve Boswell, Rod Wiethop, Kent Niebrugge, Ted Westendorf, Tim Hecht and Fleener.
The Unions scored six aces in the second inning and went on to beat the local team, 10-2. Even though the local squad included two ministers – Chesnut and Splecther – not even divine intervention could help.
Both the St. Louis and Vandalia teams went by nicknames only. So in that first game, players by the name of Mayhem, Klinger, Lightning and Scoops combined for 10 hits, while Pebbles was held hitless.
The Skippers weren’t nearly as potent. Facing underhand pitching and seeing short fences, the local boys tried the power approach. It didn’t work.
“At first, it was more like slow pitch softball,” Fleener said. “We all saw those short fences and tried to hit it a long ways. We took some big cuts, but mainly popped the ball up a lot.”
The bats for vintage baseball are much slimmer than the bats today. And, the baseballs are softer.
“I thought I had one pitch squared up,” Fleener explained. “I fouled it off, the catcher (or the behind) caught it on the first bounce and I was out.”
The Skippers did much better in their second game against the Old Capitols. The local guys hit the ball all over the field. Kent Niebrugge had four hits, while Boswell, Westendorf, John Niebrugge, Pezan, Hecht and Splechter each had two – according to the highly unofficial scorekeeper.
That hitting, plus the pitching of Fleener (thankfully there was no pitch count rule in effect) helped the Effingham team post an 11-9 win. They scored five aces in the third inning and then used a three-ace sixth to account for the winning talliles.
The Skippers did have some injuries. Kreke hurt an ankle, Chesnut broke a finger and both Kent Niebrugge and Wiethop tweaked hamstrings.
“Before we played, we had intentions to go stretch and loosen up,” Fleener said. “But once we got into the dugout, that didn’t happen. I hope everybody is okay.”
All in all, it was a fun day. The Unions, Old Capitols and the arbiter were very friendly and understanding as the Skippers learned the new rules and vocabulary. It was also fun to hear the announcer — Greg Sapp – learn and use that new verbiage as well.
Baseball in the 1860s was considered a gentleman’s game. Failure to act in an appropriate manner resulted in a fine. None of that was necessary Sunday afternoon. It was simply men playing a great game and enjoying themselves.
There was also some encouragement for Effingham to form a vintage baseball team.
“I appreciate the guys coming out for this,” Fleener said. “I knew all the guys, but I hadn’t played baseball with them before. It was neat that people came out to watch and, hopefully, everybody had fun. I know we did.”