We all have our own special baseball memories, a personal highlight film of events both significant and trivial that flash through our minds with just a little prompting. On my reel Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle sign a scuffed ball for a 10-year-old at a 1951 spring exhibition game; Sandy Koufax outduels Whitey Ford 2-1 in the final game of the 1963 World Series; Clyde Wright of the California Angels throws a no-hitter against the Oakland A's in July 1970, and I go home with a foul-ball souvenir; and then there's the unique triple play I witnessed late last summer. Nothing quite like it has been seen for at least a century.
It was over in an instant. Dave Lieb to Tom Wildman to Brian Burley. They are, respectively, the shortstop, catcher and third baseman of the Ohio Village Muffins, a baseball team that plays the game by rules originally drawn up in the 1840s and '50s.
The Muffins were assembled by the Ohio Historical Society's Ohio Village, a mid-19th-century re-creation of a small town set in the heart of Columbus. According to Amos Loveday, the Historical Society's chief curator, the team was founded in 1981 to show baseball's role as a popular social and recreational pastime of the 19th century.
The Muffins took the field only after painstaking research was conducted to be sure the game they were playing was authentic. At the time, they were the only team in the country playing the grand old game according to its grand old rules, though in recent years other historical groups in New York have organized a few other teams.
The Muffins' games are governed by a slim booklet containing just 33 rules, which are based on those used by some New York teams of the mid-1800s. They can be slightly confusing to opponents and fans schooled in present-day baseball.
Take that triple play, the first one the Muffins ever executed. By today's rules the Muffins would have been fortunate to get a double play and might have had to settle for a single out at home plate. There were runners on second and third in the top of the sixth when the batter sent a sharp one-bouncer to Lieb at shortstop. Lieb scooped up the ball for the first out, because the old rules say a batter is out if a fielder catches the ball on the fly or one hop. Meanwhile the runner on third broke for home, and Lieb fired the ball to catcher Wildman, who stepped on the plate for the second out. The runner on second, after hesitating, headed for third. Base runners, according to these rules, must advance to the next base if they leave the one they occupy by more than a stride. Wildman's throw to Burley at third arrived a split second ahead of the runner to complete the triple play. No tag was necessary. A runner is out at any base and in any situation if a fielder catches the ball and touches the base before the runner gets there.
But don't simply dismiss the triple play as an anachronistic fluke. Consider that the Muffins play bare-handed with a ball that often takes erratic and incomprehensible bounces.
There are several other significant differences in how the Muffins play the game. Base runners may not lead off a base, slide or steal. Batters are not permitted to bunt. Foul tips caught by the catcher on the fly or on one bounce are outs. A ball that first strikes fair territory and then goes foul is a fair ball; any ball that starts off foul and rolls fair is still a foul ball. Defensively, the first, second and third basemen must be positioned within three feet of their bases. The shortstop is a floater who can play anywhere.
The action still starts with the pitched ball but, again, the differences are significant. In Muffin ball, the pitcher tosses underhand from 45 feet away without benefit of a mound. According to the old rules, the pitcher must throw the ball in the general area that the batter dictates, and it only takes three balls to draw a walk.
Before a Muffins game begins, the umpire warns the teams that no swearing or unruly conduct will be tolerated on the field. Baseball in the 1850s was a gentleman's game, and the Muffins strive to keep it that way. Violators must pay a 25-cent fine on the spot for any transgressions. The Muffins have turned down requests from several women to join the team because ladies were not permitted to play in the mid-19th century. However, the Muffins are not entirely chauvinistic and have competed against teams that have women.