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Talk pitches story of vintage baseball

Staff Writer

OCEAN TOWNSHIP — It’s the spring season and that means America’s favorite pastime is underway.

As residents root for the home team and enjoy the sport of baseball, one local historian and baseball aficionado took residents back in time, sharing stories of the origin of the game and how it was played in the late 19th century around the Monmouth County area and detailing what he is doing to keep that old-time spirit alive.

“Three years ago I decided that I wanted to explore my passion for history and got involved with Allaire Village and became involved in the reenactment and interpretation there,” said Russ McIver, sports guild master at The Historic Village at Allaire, at a June 7 talk that was held by the Township of Ocean Historical Museum.

Seeing many younger individuals and volunteers playing games, McIver thought it would be interesting to have something adults could get involved in as well.

“I started doing some research and discovered … 1831 Philadelphia-style Townball,” he said. “They let me set that up in the Village and it actually became quite popular.”

It wasn’t long until McIver said he was asked to expand his idea and look into early baseball.

“From that I was introduced to the vintage baseball community,” he said. “I really had no idea that it existed.

“I was asked to put together a game and got in touch with the Mid Atlantic Vintage Baseball Association and got together with a couple of their teams and reached out to guys that I have played with and coached with and [since 2013] have had a team.”

The Monmouth Furnace Baseball Club, formerly Bog Iron Boys, travels throughout the region, playing exhibition games with other clubs whose mission is to keep baseball alive as it was played during its formative years in the 19th century.

“It is pretty active in other parts of the state and other parts of the Northeast, but for some reason in Monmouth and Ocean counties there’s very few people interested,” he said.

“We play by 1864 rules [and] part of the fun with this is that we get to travel all over the place.

“The scholarship of historic baseball is a growing [field] and … there’s just so much stuff that is just buried under the surface that if you bring it out, you’ll see it is not just about baseball. It gets you to think about what life was like back then.”

The first competitive baseball game was played at Elysian Fields in Hoboken in 1846 — no masks, no gloves and a different set of rules.

“In the 1840s, 1850’s baseball was considered a recreational activity, a club activity and you didn’t really have sporting goods as we know it,” McIver said. “Uniforms looked more like regular clothes … and pants were generally just trousers — hats were very plain.”

McIver said pitching was also different.

“The pitching is underhand and that’s the way the rules were and you were not supposed to bring your hand above your waist,” he said. “Eventually over time, it went from underhand to sidearm, and about 1883 they decided a pitcher can throw the ball any way he wanted.

“They also actually moved the pitcher’s plate from 45 feet to 60 feet so pitchers were closer than they are today.”

The number of players out in the field also helped shaped the game to today’s standards.

“Back in the 1840s, 1850s there was actually no limit,” he said. “Typically, the teams would go out there with [sometimes] 12 guys and eventually the number was settled on eight.

“What happened was you had the basemen, the three outfielders and your pitcher and basically they realized that they wanted to try to make the game more attractive to watch and also make it more elegant so they decided to add the shortstop.”

McIver said one of the reasons Monmouth Furnace and vintage baseball clubs play by 1864 rules is on a fly ball you are allowed to let it bounce once and it is an out.

“In 1865 they made it so you had to catch the ball on the fly,” he said.

“We play whatever the rules were — there are no restrictions — and we want to try to include as many people as we can.

The teams are constructed with people who are pure athletes [and] pure historians and there’s a bunch of people in the middle, and so you want to try to include everybody [and] … it adds kind of a quirky feature to the game that people seem to like.”

A recreation softball player, McIver said he has had to change his style of playing as well due to the 1864 rules.

“My bread and butter was always a line drive over the shortstop’s head, but in vintage baseball, that’s an out every time, so I’ve had to change the way I do things,” he said.

Other rules that did not change until the 1870s and 1880s include not being allowed to overrun first base, foul territory being defined a little differently and fair ball being defined as when the ball hits the ground the first time.

“I do believe that the history of baseball in this area — and just as a whole —  in the 19th century, is kind of reflection of the culture and kind of defines what America and society was about, and for some reason no one has really pursued it as much as I see in some other places,” he said. “There’s a big community of people who plays these games.

“It’s really a fun activity and it’s not as aggressive as hard ball, but not slow-pitch softball either. It’s real baseball, it’s the real deal, and you get involved with so many interesting people.”

“I did have an opportunity to attend a vintage baseball game … and it’s fantastic,” said Lois Kiely, program chair for the Township of Ocean Historical Museum. “It is a wonderful trip back through history.”

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