In the 19th century, the name of the game was written as two words: it was “base ball,” and it was a gentleman’s game. Players addressed the lone umpire as Sir, bats had fat handles, and the one ball used for the entire game had “lemon peel” stitching. Uniforms were baggy, outfield gloves were only a little larger than the hand, home plate was 50 feet from the pitcher (who had no pitching mound), and it took seven balls to walk to first.
Poster from last year’s inaugural Vintage Base Ball Federation World Series
Canadians will have a chance to appreciate that nostalgic bygone era of the grand old game when Canada fields a team at the Vintage Base Ball World Series, Aug. 14 to 18 at Bullens Field in Westfield, Mass.
It’s only the second year for the World Series of the Vintage Base Ball Federation (VBBF), and the Canadian team will be getting a “bye” its first year by being allowed to be one of the four final teams in the series.
The final game on Aug. 17 will also be broadcast on ESPN.
The Canadian team is being put together by local baseball veteran Johnny Elias, who for decades ran his Grand Slam Baseball School in Cote St. Luc.
A former southpaw with the Baltimore Orioles who used to throw batting practice for the Montreal Expos, Elias was approached for the task by the federation’s CEO, Jim Bouton, a former pitcher for the New York Yankees maybe best known for penning Ball Four, a revealing and funny tell-all chronicling one of his seasons as a ballplayer.
“In vintage ball,” Bouton has said, “there are no batting gloves, helmets, wrist bands, elbow pads, shin guards, sunglasses, logo shoes, pajama pants, gold chains or earrings.
“No arguing with the umpire, stepping out of the batter’s box, calling time out, charging the pitcher or posing at home plate.
“No curtain calling, trash talking, hot dogging, chest bumping, high-fiving, pointing to the sky or kissing jewelry.
“Just base ball.”
While the games – described in the brochure as “a combination of history, theatre and sports” – will mostly be in good fun, Elias said he is now on the lookout for non-professional but good ballplayers aged about 25 to 40, who could qualify for the final 15 heading down to Massachusetts.
“They can’t ever have played professionally, but they can be junior elite players, from the Quebec provincial general and elite leagues, college players and the like,” he said. “The important thing is that they still play ball.”
In addition, of the 15 guys, “10 will have to be able to pitch too,” because there is a limited number on the roster.
Canada’s first participation, Elias said, reflects the burgeoning popularity of vintage baseball. Bouton’s VBBF was launched only about two years ago, and vintage ball is now played by about 250 clubs in 32 U.S. states, according to the federation’s website, www.vintagefederation.com.
The creation of the federation has also triggered something of a dispute-cum-rivalry with a more established entity in the United States called the Vintage Base Ball Association (VBBA), but Bouton maintains that his federation was created as a business, while the VBBA is an organization.
Whatever the case, the federation’s world series in Westfield, although mostly in good fun, will also also test skills and use equipment and slightly different rules that players will have to become accustomed to.
“Which is why I need to get decent players quickly,” Elias said. “Jim said he will be sending me all the uniforms and equipment ahead so we have time to practise with them,” Elias said.
That includes those teeny tiny gloves. “With the small gloves,” Bouton has said, “there’s no such thing as a routine play. In vintage base ball, the players make the play, not the equipment. A one-handed catch in the outfield is a thing of beauty.”
As for some of the rules, foul balls are not counted as strikes, and the batter is asked what his “strike zone preference” is when he steps into the box – “belt-to-shoulder” or “belt to knees” – so if the pitcher misses one of those specifically chosen zones, there is no strike.
Also, with a fastball coming at you from 50 feet away instead of the current 60 feet, six inches, “you better watch out,” Elias said.
There are no balks, so fake and quick throws are allowed, and if you’re hit by a pitch, you don’t get first base. There is also no infield fly rule, so a player can deliberately drop a pop fly to start a double play.
Elias noted that the atmosphere at the baseball park will also try to conjure up the mood and manners of the time. The teams will come to the field in horse-drawn hay wagons, and entertainment will be provided by barbershop quartets, mimes, jugglers and actors in costume.
Elias said tryouts for the team will take place June 7, 7-10 p.m., June 8, 1-4 p.m., June 21, 3-6 p.m., and June 22, 3-6 p.m., all at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Park.
“[Mount Royal MP] Irwin Cotler’s office even called me because they want to supply a large Canadian flag,” Elias said.
Elias can be reached at 514-482-5695.