19th-Century Baseball Lives On In Bay Area Parks
Bay Area Vintage Baseball — a game devoted to playing by 19th-century rules, with uniforms and equipment from the same era — attracts players seeking a sport that looks beyond wins and losses.
It’s a gorgeous sunny Sunday afternoon at Big Rec Field in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. A small crowd is watching as the San Francisco Pelicans play the Barbary Coasters. It’s the bottom of the third inning. The Pelicans just got a hit, putting a man on first base.
From afar, this looks like most baseball games. But it’s really not. The players’ uniforms come from a different era. They wear pants that stop at the knees, knee-high socks with stripes, and short-billed caps without any logos.
This is a game of the Bay Area Vintage Baseball League. There are more than 200 vintage teams across the country, from the Menomenie Blue Caps in Wisconsin to the Allegheny Ironsides in Pennsylvania. The teams in the Bay Area league use rules from 1886, and they are different from today’s game.
The person you and I might call the “pitcher” is referred to in this game as the “hurler.”
Hurlers can’t take the full wind up that modern pitchers do. They are allowed seven balls before being charged with a walk, but they can’t intentionally walk a batter.
It still takes three strikes to get a batter out, but “outs” are called “hands” in this league. Whatever you call them, you still need three to get the side out.
The Coasters get the third hand. Still, they’re down 13-4 to the Pelicans. But Coaster’s infielder Wesley Goodman Levy is not too bummed out by that. He’s cheering for his fellow Coasters to rally.
“Yeah, Peaches!” he yells.
Peaches happens to be one of Goodman Levy’s teammates. Nicknames are the norm in the vintage league; everybody’s going to get one sooner or later. Wesley Goodman Levy’s is Dread Pirate, a nickname given him by his teammates for the character in the movie “The Princess Bride.” Dread Pirate says you really can’t tell who the players are even with a scorecard. The collared, button-down jerseys don’t have numbers or names on them. Nicknames are how players come to know one another.
“For the first two months of playing with these guys, I really didn't know anyone's real name,” he says. “It was just Juice and Butcher and Peterson and Reverend. It was pretty hilarious like trying to discern everyone's real name.”
By the start of the start of the seventh and final inning, the Pelicans are ahead 18 to 9, and the Coasters have their last at bat. By the way, if that score seems a little high for a baseball game, consider that the players use a mitt that looks more like a gardening glove. If you play baseball — or at least a game of catch — think for a moment how much you rely on the longer fingers and webbing of your mitt to catch a ball.
The Coaster’s Matthew “Milkman” Peterson says players in the vintage league don’t have that advantage.
“The old timey equipment is a bit of an equalizer,” he says, “so people that have a lot more experience and normally would be making great plays with modern equipment are equally handicapped by the tiny glove.”
That means plays such as a fly ball to the outfield are not automatic outs.
The Coasters fail to score, ending the game. The teams gather at their respective dugouts to talk and enjoy the sunshine. Meanwhile, players in the next contest, between the San Francisco Sea Lions and the San Francisco Eagles, start to warm up under the watchful eye of umpire Carl Gibbs.
“I’m simply referred to as ‘the Sir,’” Gibbs says. He says that’s what the umpire was called in the 1880s. “There’s a certain reverence they hold their umpires, or at least they did in 1886.”
Gibbs stands along the first baseline and takes a sip from a tall can of ale. Players and Sirs often partake during games. Gibbs notes that it’s a friendly contest. In fact, players aren’t allowed to challenge his calls, so there is no yelling or showing up the sir at all.
“It’s a gentleman’s game,” he says. “That’s the joy of old time baseball. It’s competitive but not alpha-male competitive. Most of the teams know each other for a long period of time. It’s a wonderful thing: Baseball without jerks.”
Gibbs wears a top hat, tie, and suit that make him look a little like the Monopoly guy, only Gibbs has a goatee and more hair. He has played the Sir in league games for seven years. He joined after someone saw him officiate a trivia night at a Scottish bar in the Tenderloin.
“So I put together a simple costume,” he says. “Bought a derby hat and wore a black suit. I got caught up in it. It was great fun.”
As the wind kicks up, bringing in some clouds, the Eagles are up to bat in the top of the first. The team is in its first year in the league, and they have yet to win a game. For these guys, the vintage league is about being a part of living history. For instance, the Sea Lions took their name as a tribute to the team from the West Coast Negro League Baseball Association, which folded after one season. Thor “Wrangler” Aagaard says his team, the San Francisco Eagles, go way back, too.
“We are a recreation of actually the very first organized baseball team in California,” he says. “The San Francisco Eagles formed in 1859 and played their first game on February 22, President's Day, 1860.”
The game Wrangler refers to was reportedly the very first baseball game played in California. The San Francisco Eagles played the Red Rovers at 16th and Harrison in the Mission. It was quite a spectacle, as Anita Day Hubbard wrote in the San Francisco Call Bulletin back in the day.
“After nine innings,” she wrote, “the score was tied 33-33, and the Red Rovers accused the Eagles of unfair pitching. Matt McCloskey, the umpire decided that the play was fair, which so incensed the Red Rovers that they refused to finish the game.”
Back to the present
After three innings, the Sea Lions lead fourteen to zero. In the Eagle’s dugout, Dominic “Pops” Altieri rubs his left elbow. “I just got tattooed by the ball on the elbow,” he says.
There is a raised red lump with stitch marks where the ball hit him. The players don’t wear batting helmets or much in the way of protective gear. And that makes for lots of ways to hurt, according to Chris “Bullseye” McNeill.
“I broke a rib, broke my ankle, dislocated my finger — that was an open dislocation,” he says. “The ball always finds me. So I’m the bullseye. Lucky me.”
Despite the damage, Bullseye, like most of the players here, sees this game as one he can keep playing well into middle age.
“It’s just the sound, and the feel, and it makes you feel like a kid again,” he says. “So it’s worth it. I’m 40. I got about 10 more years of this thing, if 10, you know. So do it while I can until I break.”
In their last at bat, down nine runs, the Eagles hitter gets out at first. The other Eagles meet him near first base; the sea lions gather at third base. Each team cheers the other in a chorus of huzzahs. Then the teams come together at home plate to salute the crowd and the sir. The Sir salutes the players, and with that the players, along with the small group of onlookers that include some of their children, friends, and the curious, retreat to the grassy hills of Big Rec field to visit and pack up their gear. The results of both games — lopsided affairs — remain etched in chalk on the green wall behind home plate. The Coaster’s Dread Pirate says the scores aren’t what really matter.
“I look up at the beauty of this field surrounded by eucalyptus and Redwood and pine trees,” he says. “Such a beautiful grass infield. I’ve played on enough terrible fields to know that even to come out here and lose with these guys is a fantastic afternoon.”
To find out more about Bay Area Vintage Baseball go to bavbb.com.