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The old ballgame

• 'Cranks' Ñ no 'muffins' Ñ turn out for vintage version of national pastime

Sometimes gaining a true understanding of the past requires watching a few innings of it.

Or so goes the proposition that draws onlookers to the parade ground of the Vancouver Barracks at Fort Vancouver, Wash., twice a year. There, they see a baseball game played under the rules, and with all the trappings, of the 1860s.

Nobody flashes leather, because players didn't wear gloves back then. No player lays down a bunt, because the gambit hadn't been invented. And it's hard for pitchers to be too crafty, since batters were allowed to request a pitch of their liking.

On Saturday, the Vancouver Occidentals, a group made up primarily of park rangers from the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, brought the 1860s version of baseball to life, defeating the First Oregon Volunteer Infantry 12-6.

More than baseball games, what the teams re-create is a small swatch of a different American fabric.

'What we are trying to do is give a glimpse of the past,' said Jon Burpee, park ranger and organizer of the event, which has included at least two games a summer for three years. 'Once you breathe in that history, only then do you get this wider appreciation of it. It's a big connection with our past.

'As much as I love modern ball, it's nice to sit back and take a look at the roots of it and what made the game special.'

'We get to teach history,' said Bob 'Burly Man' Cromwell, another ranger who plays with the Occidentals. 'We're having fun while interpreting to the public.'

Burpee said there might just be a future for this thing of the past.

'It's really kind of taken hold,' he said. 'On the East Coast, I would say there's probably 40 teams. As far as I know, we're the only ones doing it out here.'

That could change. He's trying to generate interest in reviving other 19th century town teams: the Portland Pioneers, the Clackamas Nine and others.

The Occidentals and the First Oregon Volunteer Infantry, which also participate in several military re-enactments around the Northwest each year, will play again at 6 p.m. Aug. 16 at the same location.

Some 'cranks' don costumes

Though heat kept attendance at Saturday's game well below that of past events, the atmosphere was festive. An eight-piece brass band played period music, and a number of people sported vintage costumes.

Before the end of the first inning, more than 200 'cranks,' or fans, had arrived, although dozens parked themselves in the shade of two giant oak trees well off the left field line. The temperature hovered near 90 degrees.

What fans saw was 'base ball,' in its earliest recognizable form.

Though the job of the 'hurler' was to deliver hittable pitches, the tape-measure home run was an uncommon feature, not surprising given the equipment of the day. The 'dead ball' of the time would not be replaced until the introduction of cork into the baseball around the turn of the century. And the long, heavy bats, turned from ash and maple, carried half again the weight of the modern version.

Apart from the rudimentary tools, other rules limited scoring. Balls struck well into the deepest parts of the outfield could be turned into outs if caught on the first bounce. And players could not speed through first base to beat out a ground ball, needing instead to stop at the base, which slowed their approach.

Umpires get powered up

Umpire Bill DeBerry, an authority figure in a straw stovepipe hat, his beard equal parts red and gray, called the teams together to review ground rules. 'There is no chafing the umpire,' he said. 'Fines will be issued.'

'Umpires had the power to fine the players or the cranks,' said Burly Man Cromwell. 'Umpires were usually the local sheriff.'

Though many of Saturday's 'ballists' were unseasoned, they played well on the rough grass where soldiers disported nearly a century and a half earlier.

In the first inning, the Occidentals struck first. Following a single and a double, two runs scored on an infield single and a fielder's choice. After crossing the plate, each runner rang a heavy brass bell and reported to the scorer, as required.

Burpee said baseball was initially confined to small corners of polite society. It spread to the wider public partly because of its popularity among soldiers who sometimes found themselves with ample free time at remote posts.

'It was boring here,' said park ranger Burpee of mid-19th century life for soldiers at Fort Vancouver. 'They needed some diversion.' In his research, he said, 'Baseball came up again and again.'

As the game moved into the population, efforts to police itself arose. The origins of the called strike are evident in Section 37 of Rules and Regulations of the Game of Baseball, adopted in March 1860. Pioneering baseball historian Henry Chadwick denounced the passing up of perfectly good pitches by hitters. 'In every respect it is preferable to play the game manfully and without resorting to É trickery,' he said.

Likewise, allowing a catchable ball to hit the ground threatened more than just an errant bounce. 'You ran the risk of being called a 'muffin',' said Doug 'Digger' Wilson of the Occidentals.

Rogues roam the field

Vancouver resident Roger Duncan, watching from a folding chair down the third-base line, wondered how modern players would fare under the old rules. 'They'd hurt themselves, then they'd cry and whine,' he said. 'And ask for money,' said his wife, Corki.

Characters of low repute plagued the game in the early days. On Saturday, one top-hatted Irish fop was seen lingering between home plate and the scorer's table, but he defended his reputation.

'I am an Irishman of some substance,' he said. He was actually Nick Peck, a Clark County resident and frequent volunteer at Fort Vancouver. The official scorer, also in period finery, was his wife, Rebecca.

Gambling was a scourge that culminated in the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, when eight players were banned for life for conspiring to lose the World Series. But U.S. Rep. Brian Baird had seen none of it while playing for the Occidentals. 'No bribes that I would tell you about,' he said. Still in character, the Democrat from Washington's 3rd District said he'd be taking the train back to the nation's capital following the game.

Down 3-0, the Volunteers came from behind to tie the game in the second inning. But they would fall back again and eventually lose 12-6.

Behind home plate stood the shaded, stately mansions along Officers Row. Beyond the outfield, past the row of tents making up the volunteer infantry's bivouac, are the old headquarters building and barracks, circa 1904.

'In all the hubbub,' Burpee said, 'there are still these moments when you can get the picture of the past.'

Contact Eric Bartels at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..