It is a half hour before game time, and the ball field is alive with the ballet of batting practice. Women in bonnets and hoop skirts drift over from a nearby general store and from a pharmacy, which displays such 19th-century nostrums as Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root and Chamberlain's Pain-Balm for rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lame back, lumbago and gout. On a canopied bandstand behind home plate, a five-piece brass band plays Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Here, within the friendly confines of historic Ohio Village in Columbus, the clock has been turned back to the Civil War era—not only on the wooden sidewalks and in the one-room schoolhouse, but also on the village's grassy meadow. Here the game of base ball is about to be played according to the customs and rules of the day. Long before instant replay and AstroTurf and bench-clearing brawls, when base had yet to meet ball in the name of the game, America's budding pastime was the sport of gentlemen. Their goals: to have a bit of fun, take some exercise in the fresh air and, with luck, tally a few more aces than the opposition.
In this genteel brand of ball, circa 1858, players can be fined 25 cents for swearing or spitting. Familiar terms must be unlearned—a run, for example, is an ace. A batter is a striker, a pitcher a hurler. The player who catches the hurler's tosses is called the behind. A foul ball is called a foul tick. Spectators, even ladies, are known as cranks.
Many of the game's rules seem equally quaint. (Not for another 12 years will an umpire call balls and strikes, and then never on the first pitch.) The striker, if he pleases, can point to the spot where he would like the hurler to deliver the ball. The hurler stands with his legs crossed, one hand behind his back, 45 feet from a circular home plate. He throws underhanded. No one's hands are protected in any way. (The first padded glove will not appear for 20 or so years.) There is no stealing (the term itself wasn't used until 1871 and stolen bases won't show up in box scores and the official record until 1886). Balls caught on the fly or on one bounce are outs. A base runner cannot be doubled off a base on a ball caught in the air; he is allowed a free return. But he runs at his own peril on a ball caught on a bounce.
The three fielders manning the bases must begin each play standing on base. The three outfielders cannot change position until the ball is struck. The shortstop can stand where the shortstop usually stands in the late 20th century or play anywhere else on the field.
A good many more rules make playing this bygone version of baseball not unlike driving a car in England. Each crack of the bat is like a trip through a rotary. Often, you've got to fight your instincts. I know, for one day last summer I was an Ohio Village Muffin, penciled in as the leadoff striker and invited to play an inning apiece at all nine positions. ( George Plimpton, eat your heart out.)
Actually, the toughest part of being a Mullin was tying a proper bow in my red cravat, the chief adornment of our uniforms, which were patterned after a design in the 1866 Currier and Ives lithograph The American National Game. Well before batting practice I had buttoned up my pants and slipped on my long-sleeved white shirt bearing an Olde English M on the front shield. My pillbox hat had two horizontal red stripes. And my tie was a mess until I asked the team's backer, Col. Gottlieb Herold, for assistance. Her-old, who answers to Nick in 20th-century conversation, has been associated with the Muffins for seven years as a player and umpire. On this day, nattily attired in boots, a frock coat, a vest and a top hat, he is one of the historical interpreters who stay in character as they chat with the players and also with the cranks on the sidelines.
I ask Herold what he thinks of the idea of a player who would not take the field but only bat.
"A designated hitter in place of the pitcher," I say.
"Balderdash, sir. The game is for exercise. How else to get exercise but on the field?"