Vintage baseball league takes players back to simpler—and grittier—time

 

Welcome to the baseball league where pitchers are hurlers, batters are strikers, umps are sirs—and the uniforms are hot.

“Feel that,” says Skip, a Palmdale Blue Stocking, extending an arm clad in a loose-fitting jersey reminiscent of the Babe Ruth era. “That’s wool.”

Long Beach Oilers player riding the pine during the Vintage Baseball game in Long Beach. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

One other thing—at least for those who are really into this—players only respond to nicknames: Sugar. Kentucky. Sandlot. Ripper.

“It was easier to type up in the newspaper that way,” Skip says of the late 19th century.

This is the inaugural season of the Southern California Vintage Base Ball League, a consortium of ballists (players) who conform to old-time rules from 1886, when America’s pastime was just finding itself.

Long Beach Oilers pitcher Ryan Martin (L) gets ready for the Vintage Baseball game to start as “Sir”  stares off in the distance. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

The tradition—akin to a Civil War reenactment, with period uniforms, rules and mannerisms—is popular on the East Coast and Midwest. The San Francisco Bay Area has an active league, and SoCal is now getting organized.

So far there are five teams, including the Long Beach Oilers, who hosted the Crestline Highlanders on their home turf at Wardlow Park Saturday. Three more teams from the desert are slated to join the league next season.

Long Beach Oilers celebrate after a great catch during the Vintage Baseball game in Long Beach. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

“It’s challenging,” said Joe Gianonne, aka “Corporal,” the captain of the local team. “It takes you back to how these old guys used to play.”

No play is a guarantee, he said: “You have to hustle.”

That’s in part a product of the equipment: The players use bats that are 5 ounces heavier, balls that are larger and softer, and mitts that look like something a gardener would use. (They chose 1886 in part because it’s later in the 19th century, when players at least used something to cover their hands.)

The glove and ball the players use at the Vintage Baseball game in Long Beach. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

Uniforms and caps are handmade by two ladies in Connecticut, and must be special-ordered. The umpire—at least the “sir” at Saturday’s game—wore suspenders, a top hat and a dapper pink dress shirt.

Umpire “Sir” watches the pitch during the game in Long Beach. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

They play by Spaulding Rules, which call for canvas bags as bases and other equipment specifications. Batters get seven balls and three strikes, foul balls aren’t strikes and getting hit by a pitch counts only as a ball.

The players swear there aren’t many injuries, though Gianonne admits he broke his thumb in two places in his first scrimmage game.

And yes, he says, catching the ball hurts: “I tell the guys, ‘If you’re going to get under a ball, it’s better to catch it. Either way it’s going to hurt.’”

Shortstop Drew Winn catches the ball during the Vintage Baseball game in Long Beach. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

The players say they enjoy the challenge, and the nostalgia for earlier times.

“It’s just a new, exciting version of baseball,” Giannone said. “It takes skill to do this. It’s a fun challenge.”

The first season is coming to a close. The Long Beach Oilers and Crestline Highlanders are the two top teams, and will face each other in the playoffs in October.

Learn more about the local team on its Facebook page; learn more about the Southern California Vintage Base Ball Association here.

Umpire “Sir” calling balls and strikes. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

Long Beach Oilers first baseman Brayden Giannone misses the throw as Crestline Highlanders runner rounds first in Long Beach. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

Long Beach Oilers pitcher Ryan Martin brings the heat during the Vintage Baseball game in Long Beach. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

Crestline Highlanders player catches a late throw at first base during the Vintage Baseball game in Long Beach. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

Crestline Highlanders player misses the pitch during the Vintage Baseball game in Long Beach. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

A view of the scoreboard during the Vintage Baseball game in Long Beach. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

Umpire “Sir” uses chalks up the score for the inning during the same in Long Beach. Photo by Kelly Smiley.

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Melissa has been a journalist for over two decades, starting her career as a reporter covering health and religion and moving into local news. She has worked as an editor for eight years, including seven years at the Press Telegram before joining the Long Beach Post in June 2018. She also serves as a part-time lecturer at Cal State Long Beach where she teaches multimedia journalism and writing.
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