Merely for the love of the game
Jan 07, 2015 06:48PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt
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By Richard L. Gaw
At the corner of One East 161st Street and Rivera Avenue in the South Bronx section of New York City, there is a patch of well-sodded and manicured grass, on which millionaires ply their trade of hitting, catching and throwing baseballs. Its location is the new Yankee Stadium, and like the two stadiums of the same name that become before it, its purpose is to house its primary tenant. Unlike these previous incarnations, however, the new stadium is there for commerce as well – to make a lot of money – and one need not look any further than its ticket prices to understand the back story of its intention.
The price of a Yankee game has become the ugly stepchild of the modern-day blemish of the National Pastime, the residue of impeccable marketing and ultimate pluck. Field level MVP club suite seats are $300 per a ticket. A regular field level seat begins at $175, and a terrace level seat comes in at a slightly more reasonably $33. At its cheapest, a Yankee game will set the fan back $23 and entitle him or her to sit in the bleacher section, next to crazy people who scream players' names all game long. A family of four attending a Yankee game who choose to sit in the highest reaches of the stadium can still anticipate plunking down at least $200 for the “privilege” of rooting for the most successful – and richest, mind you – franchise in the history of American professional sports.
On Sunday, May 18, the Yankees entertained the Pittsburgh Pirates in a rare doubleheader, rare because a doubleheader – two games for the price of one – has become a financial money pit for owners. On the same day, at the same time, a little more than two hundred miles away from the Bronx, another doubleheader occurred at a vineyard in Elkton, Maryland, when the Eclipse Base Ball Team took the field – a rudimentary thatch of a diamond on the edge of the Terrapin Station Winery – to face the Mohican Base Ball Club of Kennett Square.
Rather than a team of professional landscapers, the field was plowed by a push mower moments before the game by Tom “Schoolboy” Duffy of the Eclipse, who would go on to pitch for the home team. Rather than fetch top dollar for tickets along the first base side, fans paid nothing but the price of sitting in folding chairs on a gorgeous, sometimes chilly Sunday afternoon. No, there was no one of the field named Sabathia or Ellsbury or Jeter, and the players who were there are not a part of any great baseball legacy, and to humanize them even more, they work other jobs during the week.
"Guys are out here to play the game the way it used to be played, not with the politics and multi-million-dollar contracts of today's game, but the way it was 150 years ago," said Ryan “Spark” Minsker, who is a welder in Elkton. "Growing up, I played baseball every day, and after a while, it became so competitive and the older I got, the more I lost the fun of the game. Here, we just have a ball. That's what we present to the fans in the community, that it's a few guys in the backyard, playing ball."
The Eclipse Base Ball Club of Elkton is one of 22 19th Century ball teams that make up the Mid Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League, whose territory stretches from southern Virginia to Rhode Island. Each club is a not for profit organization that plays between 25 and 30 games each season, which are played according to rules adopted in 1864, which means that if a batter lines a shot to left and the ball is picked up the first bounce by an outfielder, the batter is out. Pitches are tossed from the mound under-handed, and where the ball hits the ground first establishes whether it's a fair or foul ball. Most tellingly, the game is played without baseball mitts.
The origins of the club trace back to 1866, the year after the conclusion of the Civil War. Small towns like Elkton began to see barnstorming units of men traveling from town to town as members of base ball teams, including several teams on Maryland's Eastern Shore, but the game was at its most popular in Cecil County, with clubs like the Rising Sun Club, the Bohemia Club and the Eureka Club of West Nottingham routinely playing full schedules.
In the spring of 1866, 40 men from Elkton, many of the Civil War veterans, started an athletic and social club called the Elkton Base Ball Club. The club played their games on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 5 p.m.
"The top nine guys on the team were all Civil War surgeons for the Union army, who had graduated from the Elkton Academy and the Newark Academy, and then attended the University of Pennsylvania's medical school," said Club president Bruce Leith. "They learned baseball from watching the game being played at camps during the war."
The first inter club base ball match in Elkton took place on July 17, 1866 and drew a large, curious crowd for the match between Elkton and the visiting St George's Base Ball Club of Delaware. The match took over six hours to complete and the home town club won 62-37. After the match, Elkton treated the St Georges' club to dinner at the Howard House. After four months, the club changed its name to the Eclipse Base Ball Club of Elkton in November of 1866, and its president was Charles W. Maxwell.
In 2006, Leith was serving on a local historical association, he and his fellow members considered what events they could develop that would document the history of Cecil County. They thought about re-enactments, but events of this kind were held all over. Then one day he read a newspaper article about vintage baseball leagues sprouting up in towns and cities along the Northeast Corridor.
"I thought, 'Why don't we do this?'" he said.
For as many Eclipse players who join the club for the purity of the sport, there are just as many who suit up 30 times a year to embrace the history of baseball in the 19th Century. Tim "Ones" Bower knows that at the age of 42, the practical thing for him now would be to just play slow-pitch softball for some beer league. He played college ball at Frostburg State and then in some amateur leagues after college, but after his children were born, he realized it may be the right time to hang up his spikes for good. When the Eclipse began in 2006, he saw it as something that could ignite his two passions -- baseball and history. He's been on the team ever since.
"There's people who want to rekindle their baseball days, but I've always had a wonder about what I may have been doing were I to live back in the Civil War," said Bower, who teaches history at Rising Sun Middle School. "I wonder about that no longer, because I know what it's like to at least play baseball back those days.
"More importantly, I saw that this is a kid-friendly environment. I'm more relaxed here and enjoy it more. I used to play to win and have it end as soon as possible. Here, I enjoy the inning-in and inning-out more than ever."
By day, Lee "Brew" Donelson teaches English Literature at a community college in Baltimore County, but for nearly every Sunday of the Eclipse season, he drives 45 minutes from Fallston to Elkton nearly every Sunday during the club's season, just to be able to suit up in his vintage uniform and play ball. While he speaks, his toddler son, wearing an Eclipse cap, plays near the single-beam bench that serves as the home team's dugout.
"I had an interest in the history of the game, and had seen a special on television years ago about this type of ball playing," Donelson said. "I thought if I could get the opportunity, I would like to do it myself. In 2007, I asked if I could join, and they said 'Sure.' I've been here since 2007."
Leith put his job as the director of concession development for the Philadelphia Phillies aside for the afternoon to come to Elkton. He watched the members of the Eclipse warm up, and then glanced across the field to the Mohican Base Ball Club of Kennett Square, who were doing the same.
"Like all of these guys, I love the history of the game, and so do the guys on the other side of the field," Leith said, pointing. "Meeting guys from all over the country who share this same love...it's so much different, and so much more fun, than just playing slow-pitch softball for Joe's Bar."
Save for the dozen cars parked behind the third base line, there is absolutely nothing as far as the eye can see that suggests even the smallest traces of modernity at an Eclipse home game, and appropriate to the feeling of baseball the way it used to be, the players answer to names like “Cabbie” and “Early” and “Shaggy” and “Pants” and "Freak" and “Irish Mike.” The pastoral landscape is the setting for a history lesson splashed with the sepia tones of a Ken Burns documentary, and as the game began, under a blue sky laced with pillowy clouds, these men, who range in age from their early 30s to their early 60s, played baseball with the exuberance of children on Christmas morning, unleashed onto a carved-out piece of paradise.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eclipse Ball Club of Elkton
Remaining 2014 schedule
Wed., June 18 Rising Sun BBC (home) 7 p.m.
Sun., June 22 Brandywine BBC of West Chester (home)
Sun., June 29 At Excelsior BBC of Milford
Sun., July 6 Rising Sun BBC (home)
Sun., July 13 At Chesapeake & Potomac BBC
Sat./Sun., July 19-20 At Gettysburg National 19th Century BB Festival
Sat., July 26 At Berks Base Ball Festival
Sun., August 10 Lewes BBC (home)
Sat., August 16 At Keystone BBC of Harrisburg
Sat., August 23 At Mohican BBC of Kennett Square
Sat., September 6 At Philadelphia BB Festival
Sun., September 7 At Rising Sun BBC
Sun., September 14 Excelsior BBC of Milford (home)
Sun., September 28 MD. State Tournament at Rising Sun
Sun., October 12 At Strasburg Rail Road Tournament
Sun., October 19 Flemington Neshanock (home)
All home games are played at the Terrapin Station Winery, 80 Ricketts Mill Road, Elkton, Md. Home games begin at 1 p.m. unless otherwise noted. For more information about the Eclipse, visit www.elktonbbc.com.