Jim Stephens. Photo by Robert Anderson.

Is this heaven?

No, it’s Wytheville.

But on a sunny Sunday afternoon in September, the eyes must have been playing tricks.

Who were these ballplayers dressed in mid-nineteenth century baseball uniforms?

Why were bases set up in the middle of an open field?

A close-up of the ball that’s used. Photo by Robert Anderson.

What was this oddly stitched beige-colored ball?

And how on earth were players fielding fly balls, grounders and throws without wearing gloves?

Stalks of corn stood nearby, but this was no field of dreams.

This was a real live game of “Base Ball” played smack in the middle of downtown Wytheville using rules and period equipment and uniforms from the year 1865.

The bucolic surroundings — the barn, the smokehouse, the old farmhouse — gave no hint of 2022.

Except for the towering McDonald’s sign peering over the treetops, that is.

 

The players take the field. Literally, a field. Photo by Robert Anderson.

The game is called Vintage Base Ball or sometimes Base-ball, and there are more than 300 clubs in 20 states and Canada demonstrating how the national pastime was played and what it looked like 157 years ago.

The first club popped up in New York in 1978.

Michael Gillman has brought it to Southwest Virginia in 2018.

Gillman, 37, is the Manager of the Historic Sites/Homestead Museum Operations for the Wytheville Department of Museums.

The 2003 George Wythe High School graduate is a history buff, with family roots in Wythe County that date back nine generations.

He has a side business making gunpowder horns and black powder measurements for hunters, match shooters and Civil War battle re-enactors.

Surfing the internet one day, Gillman noticed a video about a vintage ballgame near the historic Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Inspiration fired like a flash of black powder.

“I have no clue how it came across my YouTube search,” he said. “I clicked on it and thought it was pretty neat. A lot of the communities in Southwest Virginia lost their minor league clubs. My idea was to bring some sort of baseball back to these communities.

“We were looking for some programming for the museum to get out more in sight of the public. My director said, ‘Go for it,’ and here we are.”

Gillman procured financial backing for two local vintage teams, the Bereans, sponsored by Berea Christian Church in Wytheville; and the Deacons, sponsored by the Wythe County Historial Society and named for Rural Retreat native Deacon Phillippe, the county’s most famous baseball player.

Pitching for Pittsburgh in the first World Series game ever in 1903, Phillippe struck out 10 and outdueled Boston Red Sox ace and baseball legend Cy Young in a 7-3 victory. Although the Pirates lost the best-of-nine series, Phillippe pitched five complete games.

Wytheville has a long history of professional baseball.

The town’s first pro team debuted in 1949 and was known as the Statesmen.

The community boasted an off-and-on Appalachian League franchise during a period beginning in 1953 and ending when the Chicago Cubs pulled their Class A short-season affiliate from town in 1989.

Players such as Tony Oliva, Joe Rudi and Charlie Manuel once played at Withers Field as major league teams like the St. Louis Browns, Balitmore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Athletics, Washington Senators, Atlanta Braves and the Cubs called the old park on North 4th Street home.

However, the minor-league baseball in the 20th-century Wytheville looked nothing like the historical version played in town today under rules set down in 1865.

 *Pitchers throw underhand.

 *There is no mound. Tosses are delivered from a designated point 45 to 48 feet from the batter, who is called the “striker.”

 *Fielders do not wear gloves.

 *Home plate is a flat, circular piece of iron placed in the ground.

 *There is one umpire. He is not required to call pitches balls or strikes unless he believes the pitcher or striker is intentionally delaying the game.

 *Foul balls caught on one bounce are considered an out.

 *No swearing or spitting is allowed.

The 1865 rules evolved from an even more unfamiliar set of early regulations.

Prior to 1865, a fair ball caught on one bounce resulted in an out.

In the 1850s, it was legal for a fielder to record an out by hitting a baserunner with a throw, a ploy called “soaking” or “plugging.”

Games were not necessarily played to nine innings. Often, the first team to score 21 runs was declared the winner.

The scoreboard. Photo by Robert Anderson.

According to the Vintage Base Ball Association website, the pastime grew out of the sport of cricket and was first played by clubs in New York State as far back as 1839.

Gillman said “Base Ball” made its debut in Virginia shortly after the end of the Civil War.

“A bunch of Union guys got out there after Richmond fell and put a game together,” Gillman said.

The Wytheville team is the first VBBA-affiliated team in Virginia, but baseball was played in Southwest Virginia more than 150 years ago.

“Abingdon and Emory had clubs in 1867,” Gillman said. “I actually found one of the scores. It was 77 to 28, Abingdon. The first reference in Wythe County was 1874.”

Umpire Eric Laudenbacher and musician Jim Lloyd (in black). Photo by Robert Anderson.

Eric “Red” Laudenbacher is a bona fide historian of 19th-century baseball.

Laudenbacher conducts estate sales in Kernersville, North Carolina, as a day job. As a hobby, he dives back into the past as a Vintage Base Ball umpire.

Laudenbacher was in Wytheville on Sept. 18, serving as the umpire for an unofficial game between the Bereans and the Deacons. When the two clubs play teams from outside the area, they merge their rosters and play under the name “Statesmen,” as an homage to Wytheville’s first pro team.

The Statesmen were scheduled to play a start-up club from Abingdon, but the Washington County team could not make the trip. The two Wytheville clubs took the open field adjacent to the Homestead Museum with a suspenders-wearing Laudenbacher pitching for both sides.

Laudenbacher has umpired or played at venues big and small throughout the Midwest and East Coast.

“We’ve played in cornfields, pastures, historic sites, movie sites,” he said. “I’ve played at Three Rivers Stadium, Jacobs Field the day it opened and Riverfront Stadium.

“We had Bobby Thomson come out and watch us in New Jersey. I’ve had Negro League players come out. One actually played with us and he was 98 years old. And he got a base hit.

“We were playing in Washington, D.C., and we had a bus full of Japanese tourists. They all had their cameras. They interrupted our game to take pictures of everybody. Stuff like this is fun when it happens.”

The 55-year-old can rattle off historical details about early baseball:

 *Gloves were first used in the 1880s, beginning with a catcher’s mitt that was akin to a fingerless work glove.

 *Overhand pitching wasn’t used until 1884.

 *Famed Western author Zane Gray once played for a team in Columbus, Ohio.

Laudenbacher said there is one major aspect driving the popularity of vintage baseball.

“Probably 95 percent, nostalgia,” he said. “You have the history of the game, the love of the game.”

That’s why 28-year-old Casey Hardin, a 2012 Rural Retreat High School graduate, spent his Sunday afternoon in September playing shortstop on a makeshift field.

 “I just love to play baseball,” he said. “If I could back to high school, that would be the reason I went back, just to play baseball.”

Hardin is in his second season of vintage baseball. How much did he know about this version of the sport when he signed up?

“Nothing,” he said. “I knew it was around and they were playing, but as far as the rules and officials go, I had no idea.

“I was kind of scared at first. The balls are made a little differently. They’re not made like the baseballs are now, a little softer but not super-soft. I’ve become accustomed to it you could say.”

Hardin and the other players must contend with some interesting features of the Homestead field in Wytheville

A shallow creek lies outside each “foul line.” There are no fences, but a barn sits in center field, and a smaller structure in right field creates an interesting power alley.

There is no “Green Monster” unless it’s the big tree in left-center. Balls that bounce off the barn roof or the branches of the tree are in play.

In Sunday’s game, Hardin scrambled to retrieve a blast by former George Wythe High and Emory & Henry College player Hunter Gamble that shot back out of the tree branches.

Hardin’s father, George Wythe High varsity baseball coach Donnie Hardin, tests his joints and tendons in the vintage league.

So does 61-year-old Michael Stephens, whose day job is serving as the Wytheville town treasurer.

But on this afternoon, Stephens was just another ballplayer.

“Our sermon this morning was on the tax collector, and everybody was looking at me,” he laughed. “I’ve always liked baseball. I didn’t actually play much, though.”

Josh Yates played for George Wythe’s 2002 Virginia High School League Division 2 football state championship team. Twenty years later, Yates sported an 1860s-style beard and enough athleticism to leave the site uninjured, with his three children in tow.

“It’s awesome,” Yates said. “It gives us older, and not-so-into-it guys a chance now to get out and do something. It’s fun to get everybody together on a Sunday afternoon and play baseball.”

The bats. Photo by Robert Anderson.

Gillman has bigger plans next year for the Wytheville nines, who joined the VBBA this year.

The Statesmen already are scheduled to play games in Kentucky and Ohio. They are playing a team from Florida at a neutral location. The club will hold an eight-team tournament at Wytheville Community College, and the Statesmen are on the waiting list for the Ohio Cup in Columbus.

“The first four years was seeing if I had guys that would stick it out,” Gillman said. “Basically everybody got together and said, ‘We’re tired of playing each other.’ When we joined, it just kind of took off.”

So just how competitive will these friendly games of “Base Ball” get?

“All the Vintage understand it’s a gentleman’s game, but I do expect the competitiveness to amp up once teams start coming here from other states,” he said. “When we went to Kentucky we drove 5 and a half hours. We didn’t want to come home with two losses.”

Gillman said 154 curious spectators showed up for Wytheville’s first vintage game in 2018.

Around 40 people came out in the recent Sunday game, including local barber and musician Jim Lloyd, who arrived in a 1931 Model A Ford and sported period clothing while playing old-time tunes on his banjo and fiddle.

Gillman nearly put out one of the Ford’s headlights with a mammoth home run to center field that piqued his competitive curiosity.

“I couldn’t help myself,” Gillman said. “I had the little measuring roller. I rolled to about where they said it stopped. It was about a 348-foot shot.”

Today’s feats are tomorrow’s nostalgia.

Vintage Base Ball, which began in New York in 1978, might have a future.

“I don’t look for it to end any time soon,” Gillman said. 

Robert Anderson

Robert Anderson worked for 44 years in Virginia as a sports writer, most recently as the high school sports editor at The Roanoke Times. before retiring in June. He has won multiple Virginia Press Association...