Seaport's Vintage Ball Team Needs A Revival

Few traditions die harder than baseball's, which brings to mind a perennial bit of hardball wisdom:

What's the difference between a Fenway Frank and a Yankee Stadium hotdog? You can buy a Yankee Stadium hotdog in October.

But this is about the passing of a baseball tradition, one that honored the game historically and aesthetically in our backyard for the last decade, with little fanfare and, alas, even fewer fans. Let us pause in memory of the lately disbanded Mystic Seaport Oceanics.

The Mystic nine, with their dark blue pants, white shirts emblazoned with a big red anchor and blue pillbox caps with red stripes, played in the Southern New England Vintage Base Ball League, part of the Vintage Base Ball Association. Way back when, in the country days, it was base ball, two words. The Mystic Oceanics was the name of a ball club organized here in 1868.

Last year, alas, was the reincarnated Oceanics' final season of challenging the likes of the Middletown Mansfields, Bristol Blues and Providence Greys. Founded at Mystic Seaport in 1993, the Oceanics played by 1861 rules — no gloves, no catcher's mask or other protection, no fences, no pitching overhand and, if at all possible, no called strikes.

For the Oceanics, the primary obstacle to survival in a time when vintage baseball is flourishing was no home field. Edward Baker, one of the original players and secretary of the ball club, says had the Oceanics been able to play on the Seaport grounds or nearby, their success was virtually assured. But the green on the Seaport grounds was too small — balls hit the windows of the museum's village variety store on the fly — and Rossie Field, where the Mystic Little League plays, conforms to Little League dimensions, not Major League.

Instead, the Oceanics played behind a church in Old Mystic and at various other fields, most of them removed from ready public exposure.

Baker, who lives in Ashaway, R.I., no longer works at the Seaport, where he'd been associate director of interpretation. Apparently no one is willing to carry on the tradition.

“Historic base ball for me was a way to make a connection between past and present,” says Baker, “The Seaport is kind of like a museum of work, about the work people did in coastal communities. But play was also an important part of what people did in the 19th century as leisure time became more available due to industrialization.”

Back in the late 1860s, the Oceanics played against the Live Oaks of Noank and the Lively Fleas of Stonington. The teams tended to be associated with fire departments, though there was an Oceanic Woolen Mill in Mystic. The Pequots of New London were game rivals.

One chance of revival of the Oceanics rests with Robert Farwell, head of reference at the Otis Library in Norwich and once a utility player on the Mystic team. Farwell now plays for a new Rhode Island vintage club, the Coventry Citizens, which just took on a new Connecticut club in Columbia.

The Seaport has the uniform tops, and the bats — no more than 2.5-inches in diameter — were handcrafted at the shipyard. The balls were made from a single piece of leather, unlike the two pieces stitched to make contemporary balls, and were not as tightly wound. Farwell says the equipment and uniforms are available. Should anyone want to field the Oceanics again, Farwell's e-mail is: rdf@riconnect.com.

Hartford Vintage Base Ball games were just televised on ESPN, and that national association has nearly 50 member clubs in the Northeast, Midwest, South and Canada.

Throwback ball is back, and what better place for a team than at a 19th-century-vintage museum.

This is the opinion of Steven Slosberg.
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