Play ball: Returning to the roots of America’s pastime

Three huzzahs from the Blue Caps PAGE

The Menomonie Blue Caps are a vintage “base ball” team // Photo courtesy of Dunn County Historical Society

Across the northlands each summer people flock to ballparks big and small to revel in the American tradition and pastime of the game we call baseball. They set up their folding chairs along grassy third-base lines, settle into cushioned seats under flashy jumbotrons, or relax on rickety bleachers behind home plate. This tradition dates as far back as 1860 and the Civil War, and in recent years many baseball enthusiasts across the nation honor this heritage by playing the game as it was played 150 years ago. These men and women are champions of the game of vintage “base ball,” and you do not have to go far to find them across Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Dustyn %22Mad Dog%22 Dubuque :: Photo courtesy of Dunn County Historical Society

Dustyn “Mad Dog” Dubuque // Photo courtesy of Dunn County Historical Society

Vintage base ball (spelled as two words, instead of one as it is today) is played by over 200 teams across the nation. These teams play the original American pastime according to the actual 1860s rules, or minor variations of these original guidelines. In Minnesota, there are 13 such teams, with names like the Quicksteps of Minneapolis, the Lanesboro Excelsiors, Afton Red Socks, St. Croix Base Ball Club of Stillwater, and the Menomonie Blue Caps.

Dustyn Dubuque, local historian and captain of the Menomonie Blue Caps, explains that his club is almost more of an educational endeavor than a sporting one. They play to demonstrate to spectators not only where the modern game of baseball came from, but also to preserve part of our nation’s history.

The Blue Caps play wherever they can find the space. Wearing their 1860s uniforms, Dustyn and his teammates have trotted out to play their brand of baseball on the uneven fields of historic museums, cornfields, fairgrounds, and once even on to the seemingly heavenly “field of dreams” in Dyersville, Iowa. There are no age limits or restrictions based on gender in vintage base ball; the only thing that Dustyn stresses from his volunteer squad is a desire to learn and enjoy how the game is played.

Vintage base ball is at once familiar and strange. From the stands, it seems to share many of the basic elements of modern day baseball. It’s played with three bases and a home plate, wooden bats are used, and the ball has laces. There are three outs to an inning and nine innings in a match (game), with extra innings if the game is tied in the ninth. However, a closer look at a vintage base ball game reveals its many anachronisms. The ball cannot weigh less than 5 ¾ ounces or more than 6 ounces (modern baseballs are between 5 and 5 ¼ ounces), and must be composed of “India rubber and yarn” and covered in leather. In addition, base ball games circa 1860 weren’t played on perfectly kempt clay dirt infields like today’s modern diamonds, but rather in open fields or wherever teams could find the space.

Arbiter Kevin %22Doc%22 Tharp :: Photo courtesy of Dunn County Historical Society

Arbiter (umpire) Kevin “Doc” Tharp // Photo courtesy of Dunn County Historical Society

Mike %22Hound Dog%22 Kurschner :: Photo courtesy of Dunn County Historical Society

Mike “Hound Dog” Kurschner // Photo courtesy of Dunn County Historical Society

On the field, the hurler (pitcher) delivers underhand pitches. The strikers (batters) are out if their “strike” (hit) is caught in the air or off the first bounce. Strikers who run through first base can be tagged out. There are no gloves worn by fielders (they had not been invented by 1860), no designated hitters, no advanced sabermetrics statistical analysis, and no instant replay. The only stats that mattered in the 1860s game of base ball were runs, outs, and hits.

The 1860 Beadles Rules, used by the Menomonie Blue Caps, also specifically outline policies that forbid gambling; prohibit the participation of professional, paid players; and allow the arbiter (umpire) to levy fines in the event of any “ungentlemanly acts”—sweating, spitting, arguing—by the players. At each of their games, the Blue Caps encourage spectator participation and work hard to answer any questions regarding the nuances of the sport.

The Blue Caps’ season began in mid-May with matches taking place through September. In addition to playing in the Menomonie Base Ball Festival on July 30, the team will travel and participate in matches around Wisconsin, Minnesota, and at the Field of Dreams field in Dyersville, Iowa, on August 27. All are welcome to watch, to participate in, to enjoy, and to reconnect with America’s pastime as it is played in its original and perhaps purest form. See their full schedule here.

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