By Jonathan Zeller
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- "Smoke has his head up his ass."
Ben "Collector" Levinsohn, an outfielder and team historian for the New York Gothams, is not happy with his teammate, Chip "Smoke" David, who's been picked off of first base.
Collector is in full-on 19th-Century baseball regalia -- engineer cap, heavy long-sleeved shirt, and bib. He's playing on a field that the Gothams and their opponents, the Flemington Neshanock, specifically chose because it's at Fourth Avenue and Third Street, where the Dodgers' Washington Park stood in the late 1800s. He's been able to steal nine bases in the first half of this doubleheader because the old rules put catchers at a severe disadvantage against decent base runners.
At this moment, though, his mouth is definitely in 2013. Is that authentic 1860s slang?
"I haven't read it in any newspaper accounts from the time," he says dryly.
Such is a Saturday afternoon with the Gothams, who do their best to emulate baseball as it was once played.
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If you've seen Late Night with Conan O'Brien, or if you read Smithsonian Magazine 15 years ago, you basically know what vintage baseball entails. Civil War-era uniforms. Outdated rules. The occasional spectator in a big hoop skirt. Following the 1864 rules, fielders don't wear gloves, pitchers toss underhand, and balls caught on one bound are outs. For the rest, you can visit the Gothams' website.
But what motivates otherwise ordinary guys with jobs, families and significant others to spend nearly every weekend from April through October playing this strange brand of baseball?
For one thing, they love history. Take Collector. Despite being just 30 years old and part of a plugged-in generation, Ben doesn't own a smartphone or a tablet. He uses a candy bar-shaped phone he acquired from his best friend's grandma. In his free time, Collector sometimes spins cylinder records on a phonograph in his living room, playing songs like "Over There" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." He also watches the films of Myrna Loy, whose career peaked in the 1930s and '40s in pictures like The Thin Man and The Best Years of Our Lives.
Collector acquired many of his tastes and an affinity for antiques when, after his parents divorced, he spent some time as a young man living with his grandparents. Perhaps as a result, he doesn't share his contemporaries' technological obsessions. "It's ridiculous," he says. "Everyone's walking around with their face in their phone instead of actually having a conversation or looking where they're going."
For Rafael "Wickets" Garcia, who often plays third base for the Gothams, historical accuracy is a big deal. When he represented the Gothams at the Mid-Atlantic Vintage Baseball League's most recent winter meetings at Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia, one hot topic of discussion was which slang terms were in use in 1864. "We came across people who, when we'd go to a game, they'd say things that were out of the era," says Wickets.
Telling an opponent to "put on a skirt" after an "unmanly" play? Fine (or at least not anachronistic). But calling spectators "kranks," as 1864 vintage players were wont to do as recently as last season? Not yet. Newspaper accounts suggest that term wasn't used until the 1870s, and then only to describe a certain breed of overenthusiastic fan. Teams received a list of proper terminology to ensure that they'd give fans an authentic in-game experience. But worry not: "Boodler," a term for an ungentlemanly play, is still very much in-bounds.
While "get the lead out," "very manly," and "well struck" were definitely shouted, full-throated, from the Gothams' dugout on Saturday, you didn't have to look far to find anachronisms: Ed "Scratch" Alexander wore Oakley wraparound sunglasses. Mitch "Tuber" Kaplan got his nickname because he likes to talk about television. And Kip "Hanky" Lubliner, among others, took his equipment out of a Nike duffel bag. "I really want to get a vintage bag, like a rucksack," says Hanky. But even in a league where players will occasionally drink their water from tins on the sidelines, the Gothams aren't quite there yet.
"It's just not totally practical" to stick to the 1860s script, says Amy, Collector's girlfriend. "Like when you have a friend you haven't seen for a long time and you want to talk about Homeland."
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Players also gravitate toward vintage baseball simply because it's a way to connect with other people.
Brad "Brooklyn" Shaw, the grandfatherly figure who founded the Neshanock a dozen years ago, is one vintage player who especially values the chance to share his love of the game. Shaw has made a tradition of performing "Casey at the Bat" during doubleheaders, and launched into the verse in the top of the seventh inning of the first game. Shortly thereafter, he crooned "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
"Now he's singing," Charles "Bugs" Klansman of the Gothams said, smiling. "Brad is scaring me."
All joking aside, Shaw is respected, even among his opponents, as a source of historical knowledge and an energetic advocate for the vintage game. It's easy to see why. During the doubleheader, he was everywhere. He stood beyond the outfield explaining the rules of 1864 baseball to passersby -- many of whom were attending a historic event at the Old Stone House, a reconstruction of a home that had an important role in the Revolutionary War and was once the Dodgers' clubhouse -- before the first pitch, and chatted with other players about the history of the site.
Then the man they call Brooklyn umpired at the start of game one, because no one else had shown up to call balls and strikes. "As soon as I started to umpire," though, he noticed, "people started to leave." So he soon ambled back to the spectator area behind the outfield, gathering another crowd and launching into the Ernest Thayer poem.
Vintage baseball gives the Gothams and others like them a fun group of guys with whom they can play, travel, and talk some serious baseball. What's not to like? And that's not to mention the observers who are inevitably drawn in by the unusual spectacle, and whose questions players like Brad are glad to answer.
During the second game, Brad was helping to keep score when he noticed some more spectators milling around in the outfield. "There are some new people," he said. "I'd better get out there."
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Not to be lost in the strange outfits and archaic rules is another attraction to the vintage variety of America's pastime: it is, after all, baseball. A real, competitive game that is, in some ways, tougher than the modern version.
When participants have to play the field without gloves, injuries are always a risk. "You can't run, stick your hand out, and just make a play with a big leather glove out there," says Bugs. Sometimes players will end up with stitch marks on their chests from getting in the way of the ball to keep it in the infield -- or, as is the case with Collector, worse.
On the bench in Brooklyn, Collector showed me his right pinkie, which won't close all the way when he makes a fist.
The damage came during a July tournament in Gettysburg. "You can catch the ball on a bounce and it results in an out," Collector explains. "But it's seen as unmanly to do so if you can catch it in the air."
"So I went back on a deep fly ball," he continues, "stuck my hands up, and it hit my pinkie. I was able to catch the ball on a bounce -- so it was still an out -- but then, when I got up and walked in, my finger was dangling. One of the guys' fathers popped it."
"This is what it sounded like when he popped that finger back in," says Gabriel "Lightning" Rosenberg, crumpling an empty Poland Spring bottle.
"It turns out he's a plumber," says Collector, "not a doctor. He put a popsicle stick on it, and then I went back out and played -- which was probably stupid. But we had driven out four hours to play ball."
Nineteenth-century baseball, meet 19th-century medicine. "I didn't see a doctor," Collector says, "and I kept playing barehanded baseball. So it's still messed up."
Bugs, too, plays with the toughness of a bygone era. At that same Gettysburg tournament, in what he says was 95-degree heat and 93 percent humidity, he put ice in his cap and pitched back-to-back doubleheaders -- four games in two days, during which he estimates he threw 900 pitches. Underhand, but still. He says his arm wasn't even sore. "It actually takes more out of your legs than your arms" to pitch underhand, he says. "It's two hard steps forward to throw a hard pitch."
The Gothams cover a wide age range. At a Governors Island doubleheader in September, they were as young as 12 (Bugs' son "Cricket") and as old as 55. The players have different skill and experience levels, too -- some of the team's members never played hardball past Little League, while Scratch played professionally in Spain's División de Honor. "We don't turn anyone away," says Ben.
The team's patchwork nature is partly a matter of necessity. About 20 Gothams rotate into the lineup, but the team often has trouble fielding a full nine in any given week. Taking a boat to a home game at Governors Island or driving out to Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or Boston can wear on guys with careers, relationships, and families to take care of. "Girlfriends get mad," says Joe "Sleepy" Soria, when vintage baseball road trips start taking up weekends.
On the bright side, attendance is a fitting obstacle to the Gothams' success: Legend has it that in an early matchup between the New York Knickerbockers and the New York Nine, the Knickerbockers' 23-1 plastering was largely due to the fact that the team had lost players to the opposition because they didn't feel like traveling to Hoboken, NJ for practice.
After the Brooklyn doubleheader, the Gothams stood on the field and discussed the team's future. Bugs encouraged everyone to pay their dues, as the team's coffers were running low. Reducing the number of games in next year's slate, especially road trips, came up as an option for making the schedule more manageable. Collector stressed the need to be reliable: "There's no reason we can't commit a week in advance," he said.
One thing that seemed certain, though, was that the Gothams would be back playing vintage baseball next year. "There's nothing better," Bugs said, "than waking up on Saturday and knowing you have a baseball game."
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The Gothams took both ends of the final doubleheader of their season, and with that they lined up on the field to salute their respected opponents.
"Three cheers for the Flemington Neshanock," said Bugs. His Gothams teammates raised their caps and shouted: "Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!"
Naturally, I wondered if this was a faithful representation of the way games would end in the 1860s, so I asked Brad Shaw. He said it was close, but not flawless.
The Neshanock had toasted the Gothams with "hurrah," and Shaw felt they did so with good reason: "Huzzah is not historically accurate," he said when asked about the end-of-game festivities. "Always hurrah." He contended that, by the 1860s, "huzzah" would be seen as out of date.
Regardless of the precise terminology real 1860s teams would use when congratulating their opponents, Collector was sure of some things: The losing team would present the victors with a gold-painted trophy ball, and then they'd host a big banquet and "get s***faced" with their rivals.
With that, the Gothams headed up the block to a bar.
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