Vintage Baseball Brings The Sport's Past To The Present

Aug 15, 2014

Ryan "Muggins" Riordan, of the Knoxville Holstons Vintage Base Ball Club.
Credit Dan MacDonald

It’s a little after three o’clock on a breezy Sunday afternoon, and on a rolling green field at Ramsey House in Knox County, baseball practice is underway.

At first glance, this match may be the strangest baseball game you’ve ever seen. The uniforms include suspenders. There’s no pitcher’s mound. There are no baselines, no concession stands. If you listen closely, you can even hear a different kind of language being spoken: an umpire is an "arbiter" here. The batter is a "striker." Your team's star hitter is a "muckle."

If all that sounds like a page from a long-gone era, well, that’s the point. The men on the field at Ramsey House represent the Knoxville Holstons and the Roane County Dry Town Boys, two of the teams in the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball. These guys epitomize old-school.

“We’re playing bare-handed 1864 Civil War-era baseball," Holstons team captain Adam Alfrey says. "It looks a lot like the modern game, but it has a couple of nuances that make it different.”

Different is one way to put it. Boiling vintage base ball down into a single description is a short path to the fainting couch. It’s equal parts historical re-enactment, sporting event and period performance art. It's often compared to a Civil War re-enactment, except in this case, the outcome isn't already determined.

“Like, in a Civil War battle, you already know who’s won. In this, it’s a game. Whoever wins, wins. That’s why I enjoy it," Shawn Fox, captain of the Roane County Dry Town Boys, says.

As measured by television contracts, ad revenues and ticket sales, football is the dominant sport in the U.S. today. The Holstons, the Dry Town Boys and other vintage teams across the country are interested in re-creating the era when baseball was king, when nearly any activity could get put on hold to make way for the sport.

Playing baseball in nineteenth-century style started gaining traction less than thirty years ago. In the last five years, vintage clubs have been established in many of Tennessee's neighbors, including North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. In 2012, the concept came to Nashville, leading to the establishment of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball. The Knoxville and Roane County teams are the seventh and eighth to join the league.

The players' day jobs have little in common.

“We’ve got park rangers, we got nuclear physicists, we got biomedical engineers, so our background is real…varied," Fox says.

What is common is a love of both history and baseball. Mark Aubrey spends his time researching the history of baseball in East Tennessee. He says that love of the past might appeal to fans, too. The experience links past and present in a surreal but comfortable way.

"The spectators are lined up down the first- and third-base sides. And you see all sorts of gaudy, touristy-type clothes they’re wearing," Aubrey says. "Then you look into the baseball field, and you see gentlemen with beards and mustaches, with long-sleeved shirts that are slightly rolled up. If it’s really warm, maybe they’ll roll them up to their elbows. And it’s almost a time travel, depending which way you turn your head."

The Holstons and the Dry Town Boys keep a foot in the present and one in the past, but it’s the future that will soon occupy their attention. The next few weeks will see the regular season winding down. And in September, the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball will hold a championship tournament at the antebellum Carnton Plantation outside Nashville.