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Baseball: It Ain't What It Used To Be

Don't look for a designated hitter-that's a 1973 innovation. And don't look for some of the other moves that are traditionally part of a ball game-no stealing, no bunting, no runners taking leads off the bases. This is 1857 baseball, and it is a different game, even written differently, as two words: base ball.

And base ball is making a comeback at Devitt Field in Deep River, on Sunday, Sept. 21. The historical societies of Essex, Chester, and Deep River are sponsoring a tri-town vintage baseball challenge. In the round robin, each town will play a two- or three-inning game against both the others.

Last year, the Essex Historical Society sponsored a vintage game between a volunteer Essex squad and the Lyme Taverners, an established team that plays in a vintage league. This year Essex Historical Society President Sherry Clark decided to give it an even more local twist by reaching out to the historical societies of Chester and Deep River to organize a contest for the three towns. All three societies are now recruiting team members. According to Jeff Hostetler, president of the Deep River Historical Society, both male and female players are eligible, and age is no barrier to athletic stardom. Former WLIS sportscaster Steve Knauth will announce the game.

Forget about the Red Sox versus the Yankees. Forget about a carefully cultivated 21st-century sports vocabulary. Batters were called strikers, a foul ball was a foul tick, a game was a match, and players who made an out were called dead. So three hands dead was not a dire police report, but simply a statement that the side had been retired.

Even the bat and the ball will look different. Keith Dauer of Chester, who is one of the organizers of this year's Chester squad along with his wife, Sandy Senior-Dauer, reports that the vintage ball is like a lemon with the bottom cut off, and what's more, it's brown. Balls were softer than today's version, a good thing, too, since fielders didn't wear gloves. In some versions of the vintage game, one way to get a runner out was to hit him with a thrown ball.

There was no such thing as a regulation bat. In the early days of baseball, players could even made their own bats from any wood available, and the shape varied with the maker. In general, vintage bats were longer, thinner, and heavier, even though they didn't have as pronounced a knob at the skinny end.

Players in the mid-19th century had an advantage that any modern player would love. The hitter, known as a striker in those bygone days, could tell the pitcher where he wanted the ball to be thrown. And the pitcher had to assume the required posture to make a toss: legs crossed, one hand in front on the ball and the other hand in back of him. The pitcher delivered the ball to the catcher, known 150 years ago far less elegantly as the behind.

Even in vintage baseball, it was three strikes and you're out. But a strike had to be a swinging strike. A ball in foul territory was not called a strike. In addition, no umpire called the pitches. In fact, there was no umpire behind the plate and no umpires at any of the bases. Rather, there was an official called an adjudicator who usually stood along one of the baselines. One thing at least was the same: "The adjudicators word was law," Dauer said.

A hit was a hit even then, though in the earliest days of the game, runs were called aces. A player was out not only if the fielder caught a fly ball, but also if the fielder got the ball on one hop.

There were rules for the spectators as well as the players: no swearing, spitting, scratching, wagering, chewing tobacco, or consuming alcohol.

"It was a gentleman's game," said Skip Hubbard, president of the Chester Historical Society.

Will there be an annual tri-town vintage world series every fall? Clark of the Essex Historical Society, which originated the plan, isn't ready to commit long-term.

"Let's get through this year first," she said, adding that plans were coming along nicely.

So batter up, or striker to the line, as the phrase would have been in 1857. Let's hear huzzahs from the crowd as the tallykeeper records the score. And let's hope there are some aces before the club nine has three hands dead.

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