Diamonds Are Forever

Dave Travers is feeling the heat and it’s not because of his heavy gray wool uniform and light blue socks. He’s down two strikes and worried. The balls have come in hard and sharp, and Travers feels he should have been able to keep up with the velocity. He hasn’t. It’s only the first inning, but Travers and his Providence Grays need a hit. There are already two outs. Infielder Scott Olson is on first, having walked on six balls. A small crowd of about twenty perches on metal bleachers. They’re quiet.

Travers peers at the pitcher for the opposing Elizabeth Athletic Club and sees that the player, without a glove, can’t hide whether he’s throwing a curve or a fastball. The fastball hurtles in, surprisingly fast. Travers swings, and misses. Strike three.

Nineteenth-century baseball is more than Travers expected. The Providence Grays, named after a similar major league team in existence from 1878 to 1885, play what they call vintage base ball (baseball was two words in those days). It’s a zany combination of sports and history, mingled with a touch of bravado and danger.

Consider the ball. The Grays use the major league baseball rules of 1884, which means that the ball is about as hard as today’s baseball, but only the catcher is allowed to use a glove, and even that one is miniscule. Broken fingers and blood are not unusual.

“It sounds extremely dangerous, and sometimes we brag about how tough we are,” says Rick Stattler, one of the team veterans. “But catching the ball is not that hard.”

It becomes easier later in the game; the ball is never replaced, and it becomes increasingly mushy. Still, there are no batting helmets, and the ball is pitched from a pitcher’s box — not a mound — that is ten feet closer to home plate than today’s sixty feet, six inches. It takes six balls, not four, to walk. Foul balls do not count as strikes. Batters designate whether the strike zone will be high, above the waist, or low, below the waist. The bats are heavy, and the authentic wool uniforms are hot and heavy during summer doubleheaders. And because these guys love to play ball, doubleheaders are common.

The players marvel about how much tougher ballplayers were 125 years ago than the pampered and rich athletes of today.

The Grays say they play nineteenth-century ball with its idiosyncrasies because they love both baseball and history. “Most of our players are truly amateur historians,” says Tim Norton, who organized the team ten years ago. They have a deep-rooted love of history. We’re all fascinated by a sport that we know so well and yet was so dramatically different in the nineteenth century.”

Team captain Charles Dryer says that when he began playing ten years ago, “I didn’t give a damn about the history of the game. As the years have gone on, the history portion has become the most important part of being on the team. It’s not just about playing ball; it’s about playing ball the way it was done in those days.”

The players marvel about how much tougher ballplayers were 125 years ago than the pampered and rich athletes of today. In the nineteenth century, pitchers tossed almost everyday, and substitutions at other positions were rarely permitted. Today’s starting pitchers play only every fifth game, often pitch only five innings and even have a designated hitter to bat for them. Substitutions are common, and injured players often litter the disabled list of major league baseball. Salaries are astronomical, and many fans are disheartened by reports of illegal use of steroid drugs and cheating by players who often refuse to grant interviews or sign autographs. “Modern baseball is a joke compared to what we do,” says Dryer.

To replicate nineteenth-century ball, many on the team use the Burlingame, a reproduction of a vintage bat made by a carpenter in Providence’s West End. Their catcher’s mask is authentic, from 1890, the oldest the Grays could find, while the chest protector is original from 1910.

Norton cautions that the quest for accuracy can be taken to extremes at times. He remembers when then-team captain Kevin Faria sent an e-mail to teammates asking that they not wear deodorant to the games because it did not exist in the nineteenth century. “To this day, I still don’t know if he was joking,” says Norton.

For years Faria was the linchpin that drove the Grays because of his fanaticism for the sport and the history. He left the team after helping his wife get a job in Cooperstown, New York, with the Baseball Hall of Fame (he would have liked it, but she had better academic qualifications). Faria’s commitment toward the Grays still runs so strong that last year when the couple had a daughter, they gave her the middle name of Gray.
He doesn’t remember the deodorant memo, but he agrees it sounds like something he would write. “To play vintage base ball, you have to go all out,” he says. “It’s always been all or nothing for me.”

Travers had been hearing about the team for several years from his older brother, Brian, whose commitment to the Grays also runs deep. When Brian Travers finished his doctorate in Rhode Island and became a math professor at Salem State College, he still commuted the ninety minutes to home games at Mello Field in East Providence.

Photograph by Jared Leeds

“This is the best way to play baseball, and this team is my very dysfunctional family,” Brian Travers explains. “We travel together, we bleed together and we bond.”

That’s why one day, last September, Travers’ little brother was batting in the first inning against the Elizabeth Club.

The Grays can only go so far in returning to the nineteenth century. Before the game, they warm up on the outfield grass, wearing their distinctive uniforms with gray caps featuring a series of light blue stripes. Beyond the field, neighborhood kids play basketball on an asphalt court and cars whiz by on a busy street.
As the ballplayers practice, Travers listens as other Grays explain how to catch a hardball barehanded. They explain how he needs to carefully watch the flight of the ball. When it nears, he’s told to cup his hands.

Closing the fingers too early is the easiest way to fracture a bone. Some let the ball settle in, catching it almost like a football, using the body to help the hands capture it. The key is not letting it pop out, a common occurrence.

“Catching the ball is intimidating,” says Tom Hoffman, who has a home-based Internet business in Providence. “After you have been playing for awhile, you realize everyone makes errors. Unless you make about four in a row, no one even notices.”

Elizabeth scores two runs in the first inning, including a close play where the runner slides hard into home plate, kicking up dust. He just beats the throw that comes in to Gray’s catcher, Gil Faria, Kevin’s brother. Faria misses the ball, and it smashes hard into the metal backstop.

Teams follow nineteenth-century rules, but they also play to win. Sometimes that can create a conflict between the need to play by the book and the urge to be the victor. In such situations modern features such as gloves can become tempting. Yet the Grays will only go so far in yielding to temptation.

“Most of our guys take pride in playing barehanded,” says Norton. “They say that guys who do use gloves are cheating.” It has been a rough season for the Grays, who entered the game with a record of ten wins and fourteen losses.

The idea of grown men playing ball in nineteenth-century attire is growing in popularity as the revival of the 1800s version of the sport is becoming more common. It began with a group of teams twenty years ago on Long Island, and now the concept has spread to other states, like Ohio, Colorado, Texas and California. There are four teams in Rhode Island, including the Grays.

Norton, an East Providence freelance wri-ter and teacher, is the club’s president and founder. He came up with the idea of creating the Grays in 1998 after reading about a vintage base ball team in Boston. Originally he thought the team would just play one exhibition game. That changed when the costs mounted. The gray uniforms cost $150 apiece. Balls are $15 to $25 each, bats $55.

It’s the bottom of the third, with one out, when Dave Travers is tested again. The score is three to one when a towering fly ball is hit to center field where Travers is stationed. He opens both hands, cups them, allows it to nestle in, and then he holds it.

Out.

The twenty spectators clap appreciatively. They’re a combination of family members, friends and a few newcomers curious about this strange but familiar sport. The team rarely draws big crowds. A few minutes later Travers strikes out again, but reaches base when the catcher misses the ball, and throws wild to first. Travers steals second — steals are far more common than home runs — and scores on a single.

Elizabeth three, Providence two.

The Grays range in age from around twenty-two to thirty-eight, and they have a mixture of athletes and players who are perhaps stronger in their historical knowledge than their athletic prowess.

Rick Stattler usually bats last in the lineup and plays right field, traditionally the weakest spots in the lineup. Formerly with the Rhode Island Historical Society, and now an archivist at Harvard, he began researching the original Grays when he joined the modern team. The 1884 team was famous for winning the National League pennant and then a three-game playoff with the New York Metropolitans of the American Association. Some call that the first unofficial World Series. The Grays’ star pitcher that year was Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn, who pitched nearly every day and set a record by winning an amazing fifty-nine games.

The Grays also had one of the few black players, a Hispanic player, and a player who was so deaf he asked the umpires to make signs with their hands instead of just calling out their decision. The team played in ramshackle Messer Field in Providence’s Olneyville section until it was sold and disbanded after 1885.
History has also helped Stattler become a better player. He holds the bat upright with hands gripped apart, unusual in the modern game but fairly typical for the 1800s. That allows him to chop at the ball, sacrificing power for a short grounder that, with his speed, he sometimes has been able to beat out. Except that now, in his mid-thirties, that is more difficult. The team needs younger players such as Dave Travers.

By the seventh inning, when Travers comes in to pitch, it appears the game is over. Elizabeth has taken a seven to three lead, sparked by some timely hitting. Travers hasn’t pitched overhand in years, although he has kept active playing in two softball leagues. But with the pitcher’s box, he’s discovered why he had been striking out. His pitches hum into the plate, and all three outs are by strike-outs. Unfortunately, he also allows two singles, and both runners score, making the lead even more commanding.

Elizabeth nine, Providence three.

Vintage base ball is now becoming so popular that many players’ commitment to historical accuracy is being tested. Last summer former baseball pitcher Jim Bouton and Greg Martin, a Hartford businessman who sells vintage baseball equipment, announced plans to create a new Vintage Baseball Federation. The organization would standardize rules and schedule competitions that would lead to televised games and possibly a World Series. Some teams were intrigued. Others such as the Grays were aghast. “Everyone is mortified by it,” says the Grays’ Tom Hoffman.

The problem is that baseball rules in the nineteenth century changed almost by the year. The new federation wants to take pieces of those rules from each era, creating the spirit of the 1800s without its historical accuracy. “It’s a watered down version of vintage base ball,” says Patrick Reilly of the Providence Game Hens. In response, Kevin Faria and a few others began discussing a rival organization that would require teams to be as accurate as possible.

As the top of the ninth inning begins, the fortunes of the Grays are improving. They’ve scored three runs in the eighth and are now down nine to six. When Dave Travers comes to the plate there are two outs, but a runner on second. He needs to get on base. He’s enjoyed the game, he’d like to come back, but he knows the season is ending and his time is short. Perhaps he’ll be back next year.

The count goes to three balls, one strike. He feels he’s finally adjusting to the velocity of the pitching. The ball comes in, Travers swings and his bat tips the ball. It hangs in the air for a moment between him and the catcher. Under today’s rules the tip, even if caught, is only strike two. But in 1884 any caught foul tip is an out.

A moment later the catcher catches the ball.