Vintage 'base ball' brings history of the national pastime alive

·5 min read

Sep. 2—Even before professional baseball officially started in 1869, New England and much of the northeast was "base ball" crazy.

Teams sprang up in towns and cities across northeast as the fledging sport took root and took off. Some clubs barnstormed, traveling to take on all-comers while others moved to organized, league play.

Vintage "base ball" — complete with 1860s rules, equipment and uniforms — is reborn almost every weekend in the summer at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury.

On any given game day, the Newburyport Clamdiggers could be battling the Lynn Live Oaks or the Rockinghams of Portsmouth taking on the always dangerous Lowell Nine in the Essex Base Ball Club's four-team league.

The Newbury farm has hosted Essex Base Ball Organization for the past 10 years or so, according to Brian Sheehy, president of the club, although the group formed in Danvers in 2002.

"I started when I was still in college and a young man. Now, I'm old," said Sheehy, who teaches and serves as the history department coordinator at North Andover High.

"We were traveling all over playing 19th century baseball, playing teams in Connecticut, Rhode Island and we helped spread vintage base ball all over New England. About 10 years ago, when all of us who were in our 20s started to get into our 30s and started to have families, the farm reached out to us," he said

Before that, the farm was a regular stop for a couple of games every year, he said. "It's a historic farm, there's corn in the outfield. ... it really has turned — in the 10 years plus — into a really great place to come and enjoy the game,"

"We used to ... travel 2 1/2 hours to play in front of a bunch of guys' wives. Now, we show up at the farm and even on a 100-degree day, we'll still have a couple of hundred people there, which is kind of cool."

Anchoring club play to the farm, he said, gave the organization a platform and fixed location.

Although this version of the game may have trappings of a slower, simpler time, in reality, it's a fast, action-packed sport with tons of strategy, Sheehy said. In fact, vintage baseball can often squeeze a double-header in just under three hours, he said.

"With our rules, we don't wear gloves, you can catch a ball on one bounce. The game is quick. You see some really great plays. It's fast-paced, it's fun."

Diving bare-handed catches are part of the draw, Sheehy said, but the historical value this vintage version of the national pastime shouldn't be underestimated.

"We do that balance — we're trying to be historically accurate, bring some history and history of the game to fans, but we're also playing a competitive game," he said. "With the historic piece, all of our teams are teams that played in the 19th century," he said. His team, the Lowell Nine, actually was based out of Boston in the 1860s.

Another of the club's teams, the Lynn Live Oaks, played in an International League in the 1870s and featured, at one time, Bud Fowler, first Black professional player and 2022 inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He pitched a couple of games for the Live Oaks.

The farm setting, the club's field, provides a perfect locale for presenting the bygone sport, Sheehy said.

"It's kind of like this beautiful path. If you go into Spencer-Little Farm, there's this long driveway ... and if you follow the path as far as you can go, it leads to our fields. It's wide open, there's two sidelines you can sit along. You have families show up, you have people who bring picnics, they bring chairs, they bring blankets. People line up on each baseline."

With Ipswich Ale and an occasional hot dog vendor on hand, game day at the farm just off Route 1-A features some creature comforts today's fans might expect.

"It's kind of a throwback; it's a really cheap alternative to going to a game. If you try to go to a Red Sox game you're paying $1,000 for a family of five. Here you can go, it's $5 admission, get a beer and a hotdog and enjoy the game," he said.

The organization takes special pains to make sure the earlier version of the game is accessible to youngsters and those with an interest.

"At some of our larger events, we'll let kids play between games, we'll line 'em up, let them take a couple swings. Typically, throughout the game, somebody will walk through the crowd, pass out postcards, rules and answer any question people might have. We really try to make it as interactive and fan-friendly as we can," Sheehy said.

To educate the region's baseball fans, the league often set up vintage baseball displays at minor league baseball stadiums, he said. This summer, the group was on hand at the Red Sox's Triple-A affiliate in Worcester.

"It's really fun when kids come up to you and say 'This is cool — what is this glove? What is that glove?' You can talk about the history of the game, how it changed. Kind of spreading the history to the next generation," he said.

IF YOU GO

ESSEX BASE BALL CLUB

Spencer-Peirce- Little Farm

5 Littles Lane, Newbury

Donations/$5 per person

https://essexbaseball.wordpress.com/

Remaining Games

Saturday, Sept. 10, 11 a.m. — Ipswich Ale Cup Triple header Lowell Nine vs Lynn Live Oaks and Newburyport Clamdiggers vs Rockinghams of Portsmouth

Sunday, Sept. 18, noon — Lowell Nine vs. Rockinghams of Portsmouth

Sunday, Sept. 25, noon — Lynn Live Oaks vs. Newburyport Clamdiggers

Sunday, Oct. 2, 11 a.m. — Jan's Pitch Championship