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Pitching Like It's 1860, Teams Play Ball With Vintage Flair

The Essex Base Ball Organization, a vintage baseball league, holds its games on a farm in Newburyport, Mass. (Edgar B. Herwick III for NPR)

The Red Sox square off against the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park on Saturday in Game Six of the American League Championship Series. Forty miles north, another league is putting the finishing touches on its season.

This particular brand of baseball comes with a curious twist.

On the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newburyport, Mass., mud-speckled pigs forage for food in their pen, and feather-tousled chickens peck at each other in their coop.

There's also a ball game. The Lynn Live Oaks battle the Lowell Base Ball Nine in the final regular season game of the Essex Base Ball Organization.

Note "base ball" — the way they spelled it back in the 1860s. That's the way they play it here, too: This is a four-team league for enthusiasts of vintage baseball.

While the game is played to the 1865 rule book, this is no reenactment, says Brian Sheehy, who founded the league 12 years ago.

"We have guys who played in high school, college, even a couple guys who played in the minors," says Sheehy, a history teacher who plays for Lowell. "It's a lot different than modern baseball. You have to adjust the way you think."

The way you play is different, too. Gloves didn't enter the game until the 1870s, so that means players are fielding with their bare hands. Mercifully, the "lemon peel" baseball is softer, but Sheehy says you "can still definitely break some fingers."

The pitcher tosses underhand; there's no mound, no rubber. And home plate is an actual iron plate.

The biggest difference? Catching the ball on one bounce is the same as catching it on the fly. When that happens, the batter is "out on the bound."

Keeping the competition on the straight and narrow in a smart, mid-century suit and a top hat is Jeff "Gray Beard" Peart. He's the league's umpire, promoter and emcee — all rolled into one.

"We all love baseball, and we all appreciate the history of the times, so we want to get it right and show people good, quality baseball," he says.

And boy do they get it right — from the loose-fitting vintage uniforms to the silver cups and pewter mugs that take the place of modern water bottles. To top it off, they use plenty of old-time terminology.

"Today's batter would be called a striker back then, and the pitcher was called a hurler," Peart says.

But nothing does more to evoke the spirit of the game's pastoral early years than their field of dreams, tucked into a corner of this still-working, 230-acre farm. It's a history-lover's dream, complete with a cornfield fence and a 17th-century farmhouse that is open for tours while the game goes on.

The atmosphere is tailor-made for families, with grandparents cheering from lawn chairs and an eager teenager manning the weathered old scoreboard.

Then there's the Newburyport Clammdiggers' dynamic duo: Player-manager Drew Murphy and his dad, second baseman Kevin Murphy.

"It's a time we get together on weekends, what it used to be like on a Sunday ... when stores were not open and all the families would get together," Kevin Murphy says. "It's just very comforting and it's a great time."

While friendly atmosphere has its appeal, the real draw — for the players and the fans — is the game itself.

"We're pretty gentlemanly, and that was kind of the theme back then," league founder Sheehy says. "But everybody still wants to win, and when there's close play and it's a tight game, people kind of get fired up."

That is until the last out — today a big win for Lowell — when the players line up along the foul lines for a rousing "thank you" to the opposing team.

A bit of old time gentility that still looks pretty stylish, even in the modern age.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

And if baseball is more your game, then you know the Red Sox square off against the Detroit Tigers today in game six of the American League Championship Series. But 40 miles north of Fenway Park, another league is putting the finishing touches on its season. And this particular brand of baseball comes with a curious twist. Edgar B. Herwick III from member station WGBH has the story.

EDGAR B. HERWICK III, BYLINE: It's a typical fall Saturday afternoon here on the Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Mud-speckled pigs forage for food in their pen, feather-tousled chickens peck at each other in their coop. And there's a ballgame going on with the Lynn Live Oaks battling the Lowell Base Ball Nine in the final regular season game for the Essex Base Ball Organization. Oh, and that's base ball, two words, the way they spelled it back in the 1860s. That's the way they play it here too. This is a four-team league for enthusiasts of vintage baseball.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Run tally.

III: Now, while the game is played to the 1865 rulebook, make no mistake, this is no reenactment.

BRIAN SHEEHY: We have guys who played in high school, college, even a couple guys who played in, like, in the minors.

III: That's Brian Sheehy, a history teacher who plays for Lowell, and started the league 12 years ago.

BRIAN SHERYL: It's a lot different than modern baseball. You have to, like, think.

III: And the way you play. Gloves wouldn't enter the game until the 1870s, so that means players are fielding with their bare hands. Mercifully, the ball is a little different too.

SHEEHY: So this is a lemon peel baseball.

III: It's softer.

SHEEHY: It is softer.

III: Definitely. But it's hard enough that if you get that right there, I believe that that's stays...

SHEEHY: You could still definitely break some fingers and things like that.

III: The pitcher tosses underhand, no mound, no rubber. And home plate is, well, an actual iron plate. But the biggest difference...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You got (unintelligible).

III: ...catching the ball on one bounce is the same as catching it on the fly. When that happens, the batter is out on the bound.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He's out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Nice play. Nice play.

III: Keeping the competition on the straight and narrow in a smart, mid-century suit and a top hat is Jeff Gray Beard Peart. He's the league's umpire, promoter and emcee all rolled into one.

JEFF PEART: We all love baseball, and we all appreciate the history of the times. So we want to get it right and show people good, quality baseball.

III: And boy, do they get it right, from the loose-fitting vintage uniforms to the silver cups and pewter mugs that take the place of modern water bottles. And to top it all off, plenty of old-time terminology.

PEART: Well, the batter - today's batter would be called a striker back then, and the pitcher was called a hurler.

III: But nothing does more to evoke the spirit of the game's pastoral early years than this field of dreams, tucked into a corner of a still-working, 230-acre farm. It's a history-lover's dream, complete with a cornfield fence and a 17th-century farmhouse that is open for tours while the game goes on. The atmosphere is tailor-made for families, with grandparents cheering from lawn chairs and an eager teenager manning the weathered old scoreboard.

Then there's the Newburyport Clammdiggers' dynamic duo: Player-manager Drew Murphy and his dad, second baseman, Kevin Murphy.

KEVIN MURPHY: It's a time we can get together on the weekends, what used to be like on a Sunday, you know, when stores were not open and, you know, all the families would get together. It's just very comforting and it's a great time. It's a great time.

III: And you get to manage your father for it.

DREW MURPHY. PLAYER: That's right. I get to tell him what to do. That's a good changeover, right?

III: Yeah, how easy is that anyway?

PLAYER: Not easy.

III: And while the friendly atmosphere has its appeal, the real draw for the players and for the fans is the game itself.

SHEEHY: We're pretty gentlemanly, and that was kind of the theme back then. But everybody still wants to win. And if there's a close play, and it's a tight game, people kind of get fired up, I guess.

III: That is until the last out - today, a big win for Lowell - when the players line up along the foul lines for a rousing thank you to the opposing team.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Three cheers for the whole baseball club. Hip, hip.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Huzzah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Huzzah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN#4: Hip, hip.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Huzzah.

III: A little bit of old-time gentility that still looks pretty stylish, even in the modern age. For NPR News, I'm Edgar B. Herwick III. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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