Yesterday’s Baseball Today: Ivoryton Nine Play Lyme Taverners

The hurler throws the pill to the striker, who makes a banjo hit as the cranks cheer. Maybe more aces for their club nine! But alas, the pill is caught on one bounce, and the striker is dead.

No, it's not murder; it's not mayhem; it's vintage base ball-that's right, base ball, two words back then. And it is coming to Comstock Field in Ivoryton on Saturday, Sept. 7, when the Ivoryton Nine play the Lyme Taverners. In the baseball of yore, aces were runs, the Club Nine was the team, and a striker was a hitter. A dead striker had not lost his life; instead he had made an out. The hurler was the pitcher, the pill the ball, and a banjo hit a weak fly. The cranks were (and some would argue still are) the fans-and potential cranks who wish to attend the Sept. 7 event should take important note: There is no charge for the upcoming vintage game.

The Lyme Taverners, led by Pete Reynolds, are an established team that plays in a league of vintage teams. Ivoryton resident Doug Senn is putting together the Ivoryton Nine. He is looking for hitters and fielders with accurate arms, potent bats, and family histories that trace back to the time a century ago when there was a regular Ivoryton team, made up of workers at the Comstock factory. The factor later became Comstock Cheney & Company and then Comstock Cheney team.

In those days, the Comstock Cheney factory squad was one with which to be reckoned. According to State Rep. Philip Miller, a former Essex first selectman and baseball history buff, 100 years ago baseball was the premier sport in the Northeast.

"It saturated everything," he said.

There were town teams, city teams, and, like the Comstock Cheney squad, workplace teams. In fact, employers hired ringers from other areas to work at their businesses just so they could play on their squads.

"They gave them menial jobs just to have a good contender," Miller said.

And the Comstock Cheney team was indeed a good contender. In 1899, the New Era, a newspaper published in Deep River from 1882 to 1938, noted that "since earlier days of the national game Essex has always been in the front rank with a team able to hold its own against all comers." In 1917, in fact, the team won the state championship with an overall record of 16 wins, 7 losses, and 2 ties. As many as 3,000 fans turned out in the stands in those days to cheer for the local nine. Senn can still remember the remnants of the old grandstand standing when he was a child. The last vestiges of the structure were washed away in the flood of 1982.

On the day of the upcoming game, the Ivoryton side will wear a shirt that features the original design of the elephant on the Comstock Cheney team uniforms. The elephant, of course, symbolized the firm's preeminent position in making small combs and other personal goods from ivory, and later ivory piano keys and movements.

With the aid of a computer, was able to enlarge the elephant image from the old uniforms for the new shirts. That image is the centerpiece of the current logo.

"We brainstormed the idea," Senn said of the design.

The elephant might look familiar, but much about the game will not, starting with the bat and the ball. Before the era of factory standardization, balls were often less than perfect spheres, and they were always softer. That was fortunate, since fielders did not wear gloves. Bats, always made of wood, were less uniform in size and shape.

Under the 1860s rules, which will govern the Ivoryton Nine-Lyme Taverners contest, the game did not have to be played on an elegantly manicured diamond, simply a suitable piece of ground. Instead of today's 90 feet, the distance between bases was 60 feet, and rather than 60 feet, 5 inches, the pitcher stood 50 feet, 5 inches from the batter. A fly ball was an out, but so was a ball caught on one bounce. There was an umpire, but balls and strikes were not yet called. The umpire could, nonetheless, warn a batter if he was letting too many good pitches go by. A strike was called only for swinging and missing the ball.

The idea for staging a vintage game originated with the Ivoryton Library, which was looking for an event that could be an effective fundraiser. It invited the Essex Historical Society to participate. When the library decided the game wouldn't meet its fundraising needs, the historical society decided to go ahead with the event in conjunction with the Essex Department of Parks & Recreation.

Going Back in Time

Vintage baseball, in fact, has grown popular enough that Conan O'Brien did a recent segment on an 1864-rules game on his show. A YouTube clips catches the spirit of the contest (visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Aax2V7a3S4).

Essex Town Historian Chris Pagliuco researched the history of local baseball and was instrumental in getting the ball-make that the baseball-rolling, according to Essex Historical Society President Sherry Clark. Senn, who had worked with the historical society in a program about the 1982 flood, knew there was a Connecticut league of vintage teams and contacted the Lyme Taverners about setting up a game.

"Doug has been amazing in his enthusiasm for pulling it together," said Clark.

On the day of the game itself, Pagliuco will act as master of ceremonies, explaining some of the intricacies of vintage baseball. Miller will talk about how the changing game of baseball is a way to chart the county's history-but it is not a day about talk. It is a day to celebrate the way things were.

Along with a vintage game, there will be vintage treats to buy, like roasted peanuts from an old-fashioned peanut cart, along with ball-game staples like hot dogs.

"I hope we capture the old-time atmosphere, instead of big stadiums. We would like to have the sights, the sounds, even the smells of a previous time," Pagliuco said.

He envisions the afternoon as a family event, with spectators bringing a picnic along with a blanket or chairs to sit on as they enjoy the proceedings.

"This is really family friendly," he pointed out. "When do you get a free event like this?"

And this game might not be the end of the story. This year's contest celebrates the 100th anniversary of the construction of Comstock Field. The following year, 2014, will be the 100th anniversary of the first game played there.

"Yes, we could do this again next year," Senn said.

Vintage Baseball: The Ivoryton Nine Versus the Lyme Taverners

Saturday, Sept. 7 at 4 p.m., Comstock Park, Ivoryton.

Comstock Field in Ivoryton is off Main Street. Make a left onto Walnut Street and then the first right onto Park Road and follow until the end for Comstock Park. There is some parking at the site and there is off-site parking at the Ivoryton Congregational Church at 57 Main Street in Ivoryton. A free trolley will shuttle people to the ball field.

For more information, call 860-767-5011.

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