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For the Love of Historic Base Ball

August 11, 2014 Think THF

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In the classic baseball movie, The Natural, one of Roy Hobbs’ (played by Robert Redford) most memorable lines comes as he is sitting in a hospital bed, realizing that his final game is just days away.

“God, I love baseball,” Hobbs declares softly with a tilt of his head and a sincere look in his eyes that tells you how much he really means it. Watching that scene, you know Hobbs doesn’t care about the money that can be made playing baseball. He only cares about the pure joy of playing.

Well, Roy Hobbs would certainly fit right in with those who play Historic Base Ball at Greenfield Village.

This past weekend, the Village hosted the 12th annual World Tournament of Historic Baseball, which featured 16 teams from Michigan, Indiana, New York and Ohio. Among the clubs were Greenfield Village’s home teams – the Lah-De-Dah’s and Nationals.

The tournament pays homage to the original event in 1867, when the Detroit area hosted the World’s Base Ball Tournament, featuring 24 clubs from the United States and Canada.

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The Champion Class title went to for the fourth straight year (and fifth in six years) the Saginaw Old Golds, who defeated their close rival Bay City Independents 7-4 in a well-played, exciting contest that took a little less than two hours to play.

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For those who have never seen Historic Base Ball, the games are played under 1867 rules, with “strikers” and “hurlers” and fielders without gloves.

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If one had been to Sunday’s final game, the casual baseball fan would certainly have been impressed with the level of play, with sliding one-hand catches of fly balls to the outfield (remember, no gloves!), quick, shortstop-to-second base force outs, and hard hit balls up the gap to the far-reaches of the outfield (and in the case at Walnut Grove field, sometimes out among the trees and the railroad tracks).

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Historic base balls are tightly wound with a stitch design different from today’s balls, and players use special, thick-handled bats reminiscent of the early days of the game, and now made by companies like Phoenix Bat in Columbus, Ohio.

The players from both sides took the game seriously … but very gentlemanly, as was expected … with nicknames like “Scoops,” “Tree Trunk,” “Lumberjack,” “Whiskers,” “Griz” and “Booze” being called out from the benches, along with shouts of “Huzzah!” and applause from players and the crowd alike for good plays by both teammates and opponents.

“We definitely play for the love of the game,” said Bay City centerfielder Jason "Buttons" McInerney, who is in his eighth season with the club, and was one of the players making an outstanding catch in the outfield. “These guys (pointing toward his bench) are like my brothers and we just like being together as part of this.

“I got involved through a friend and I think that’s how most people get here. But once you’re here, they become part of your family. We want to win, but it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as much as the chance to be with the guys and play.”

Ironically, the Bay City club – which has been around 10 years - helped out when Saginaw was forming its first team in 2007.

“We only played one game that first year we got a team, and Bay City beat us 22-2,” said Saginaw pitcher Chuck “Ducky” Mahan with a smile. “But they helped us when we got going."

Mahan may not seem like your typical Base Ball player. After all, he never played high school baseball. He knocked around playing intramural slow pitch softball in college and in recreation leagues.

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Oh, and he’s 62 years old with grey sideburns.

“I can still play because it is, after all, a gentlemanly game,” Mahan said. “And I am going to keep playing as long as I physically am able to play. That’s for sure.

“There’s definitely a sense of camaraderie among the players, both on our team, but also among all the teams. We get to know a lot of the Michigan players and teams, but you also make friends with teams five states away when you play in tournaments. ”

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The Old Golds, like most of the teams in this tournament, have played across the Midwest, and are three-time champions of the Gettysburg, PA tournament. Many of these teams will play 25 to 30 games per season, from May through September.

“We don’t play for the money,” said Mahan with a big laugh. “In fact, it actually costs us money. When we travel to places for tournaments, there’s costs for hotels, and families and such. But it’s worth it. We just love playing.”

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And that’s something Roy Hobbs would understand.

By Kevin "The Widow-Maker" Kennedy. Kevin is a guest writer to The Henry Ford. Photos by Kristina Sikora of KMS Photography.

Historic Base Ball

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