Baseball season has begun, and all over the country, every day, you can hear that iconic crack of the bat that has become so synonymous with the sport. Not so long ago, however, it would have sounded more like a dull thump — a very different sound produced by a vintage-style "base ball" being hit with a wooden bat.
Vintage base ball is what is being played by a relatively new club up in Lewes, Del. The members play a game where gloves are nonexistent, batters are called "strikers," and pitchers are called "hurlers." It's a game that looks both very familiar, and very different, from what we know as America's favorite pastime.
"The ball is a little softer; it's all hand-wound. You use the same ball during the entire course of the game. As it gets hit, it gets a little lopsided, it gets a little softer, it gets harder to hit further," says Mike Depaulo, the executive director of the Lewes Historical Society and founder of the Lewes Vintage Base Ball Club, explaining the differences in the game. "That's the biggest difference about the ball. Of course, you're not using a glove — you're fielding everything barehanded, so if one of those hot line-drives comes toward you, you have to decide whether it's worth catching or not. You're not playing on a manicured field, you're playing on a bumpy field, and you just don't know which way the ball is going to bounce."
The rules are also different. There's no bunting allowed, says Depaulo, so the emphasis is on stealing bases and hitting hard grounders to advance teammates on base, because they're really hard to field. One of the biggest differences as well, is that players can catch the ball in one hop for an out.
"When you're on defense, it's a great thing, but when you're at bat it's really frustrating, because you hit a great one into the gap and suddenly you're out," says Depaulo.
Each team in the league likes to pattern itself or pay homage to another team that existed in history, and Lewes has its own checkered baseball history from which to draw inspiration.
"One of the most infamous episodes in Lewes' 20th century history was when our postmaster was shot and killed in an argument over baseball. His name was Ebe Lynch, and he was the manager of the Lewes club in the 1916 season," says Depaulo. "He was shot dead on Second Street because he did not play somebody's nephew as catcher in that game. It was a huge scandal, it was the front page of the newspaper the next day. A murder in a small town always will be, but especially a prominent person like Ebe Lynch."
For fans, vintage base ball is more fun to watch, Depaulo says. Unlike modern baseball, fans aren't relegated to stands far away from the game. Fans end up as close as 20 feet from the action, which makes it more interesting for kids.
"There's a lot of laughter, and that's because of what's happening on the field," says Depaulo. "They're just having a good time. It's a great way to spend an afternoon, the game moves along really quick. It's a great way to learn the game."
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