First published in my Substack newsletter, Unsorted but Significant, August 2023.
The scratchy old pictures of 19th-century baseball have always felt like time portals to me — smudgy windows into the early childhood of a game I love, almost but not quite real. They are at once familiar and utterly alien. I sometimes gaze at them in books and lose myself in another world.
Last Saturday, my baseball-loving 20-year-old son and I rose early, drove out to a patch of land near the Pennsylvania-West Virginia Border and got to open that smudgy window and, for a couple hours, we climbed right through.
On a green at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village, site of one of western Pennsylvania’s earliest settlements, we settled in under a blistering Saturday morning sun and watched a hearty and friendly round of baseball — sorry, base ball, two words — as it was played in the years after the Civil War.
In this ballgame, the pitcher pitched underhand and players fielded barehanded, per the traditions of the era. This ballgame featured wooden bats thinner than those we’re familiar with and a ball stitched very differently from today’s.
And during this ballgame, in which many hits got caught in the trees, if you caught the ball on one bounce, the runner was out. So said the “arbiter,” a somewhat historically hazy term for umpire, who on this day was an affable chap sporting muttonchops that would have put President Chester Arthur (1881–85) to shame.
We and about 100 other people sat at picnic tables and on lawn chairs and watched this annual trip through time, which was interrupted only by the occasional player swigging from a Hydroflask or slathering on some sunscreen from a brightly colored plastic bottle. Other than that and the welcome presence of female players (and perhaps the utter lack of profanity), it felt like 1867 might have. As I said to my son, this was the baseball version of a Civil War re-enactment.
To capture images of the game between the Somerset Frosty Sons of Thunder and the Addison Mountain Stars (both from some miles east in Somerset County), I thought at first of bringing my full-on digital SLR camera and zoom lens. Then it occurred to me: The “Tintype” app I have on my phone, which filters and frames images to make them resemble wet collodion prints from the 1800s, was perfect for this odd moment.
So here, through the eyes of a pocket-sized 21st-century computer in the form of a smartphone, are some glimpses of base ball as it was played in the 19th century — my own smudgy and subjective window to yesterday.
Ted Anthony, a journalist based in Pittsburgh and New York, has reported from more than 25 countries. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.
Further reading by Ted Anthony:
No. 23 is missing.
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