Kalamazoo was a baseball town well before the Kalamazoo Growlers came to Mayors’ Riverfront Park and local players Charlie Maxwell, Mike Squires and Derek Jeter went on to the big leagues. It was a baseball town back before there were even mitts, when players caught the ball in their bare hands and played in open fields with handmade bats and balls and the sport was referred to by two words: base ball.
Thanks to one man, a local team still plays the sport as it was played in the mid-1800s and this month will host 13 other clubs in the first Portage Vintage Base Ball Festival, set for July 15 at Ramona Park.
The Continental Base Ball Club of Kalamazoo (Continental BBC) is a vintage base ball club that has played old-time base ball in the area for nearly a decade. It was formed on the initiative of Chris Fusciardi, 39, who discovered vintage base ball while living in Kalkaska and playing with the Hartwick Pines club. When he moved to Kalamazoo in 2010, Fusciardi says, he “was disappointed to find out that Kalamazoo did not have a vintage base ball club. That was the point when the idea of starting a club first came up.”
There was a club in Paw Paw — the Paw Paw Corkers, with whom Fusciardi played in 2011 and 2012. “In those first two years, I played clubs from large and small cities across Michigan, and I didn’t understand why Kalamazoo should be any different,” he says. “After that (2011) season I was determined to start a club. I gave it a go, but unfortunately the interest fell apart when it came time to invest funds. I rejoined Paw Paw for 2012 but was determined to try again after that season to get a Kalamazoo club off the ground.
“That offseason we had a bit more interest in joining the club and, despite being short a few players, played our first game in June 2013 with our friends from the South Haven Bark Peelers. That game marked the first time in roughly 145 years that the Continental Base Ball Club of Kalamazoo took the field, and we have been playing every year since.” (See “Base Ball In Kalamazoo: A Short History” below.)
Now, a decade later, the Continental Base Ball Club of Kalamazoo has 12 members and is part of the national Vintage Base Ball Association, which has 15 other teams in Michigan and more than 100 across the country. Many other clubs not affiliated with the VBBA also exist and play by various vintage rules, and Fusciardi says that vintage base ball games are regular occurrences throughout the country, especially at historic sites like Greenfield Village in Dearborn and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Look, Ma, no mitts
Vintage base ball is definitely old school. First off, as mentioned, it’s written with a space between “base” and “ball,” unlike today’s baseball. With no designated ballparks in the mid-1800s, games were played on open fields, as is vintage base ball today.
In the vintage game, the bases are smaller and flatter than those used in modern baseball and are placed approximately 90 feet apart, a dimension that has changed only slightly over time.
Ground rules, a term that has carried over into modern baseball, are determined by the home team, according to physical objects in the field of play, such as trees, a mound of dirt or a barn. The teams discuss these rules before a game begins. Fusciardi says he played a game in Northville, Michigan, where there were tiers of bushes in the outfield. A ball hit over the first tier was a single; over the second, a double; and over the third, a triple.
The balls used in vintage games are made by players themselves — as was the case in the 1860s — or by a few small manufacturers. Compared to a modern hardball, vintage balls are a little larger, slightly more supple, covered with one piece of leather rather than two, and have a different stitching pattern, called a “lemon peel stitch.”
The bats are a little larger and heavier than bats used in modern leagues. Many are hand-turned, some by players themselves, and the bats are made from hickory, oak, ash, maple and even balsa — unlike modern bats, which are exclusively made from ash by established bat-making companies.
The players then and vintage ball players now do not wear gloves when on the field. Mitts did not come on the base ball scene until the late 1800s.
Dirk Westbury, 44, who has been playing vintage base ball for 20 years, says catching a flyball with bare hands “isn’t a problem … if you catch it right. If you don’t cradle it, it can sting a bit.”
John Hadder, who is in his second season of vintage ball, says, “Like with martial arts, you do hand-hardening drills and get yourself used to it.”
The scores in a vintage ball game are high compared to the modern game — 20 or 30 runs per team are common, with some teams scoring 50 or more.
Strikeouts are rare, and walks do not exist in vintage base ball. Rather, the pitcher lobs the ball underhand with the intention of letting the batter put the ball in play. Defense is the key to winning the game.
The Continental Base Ball Club of Kalamazoo is a multi-generational team, and the players have nicknames, as was common back in the day.
Fusciardi’s son, Logan (nickname “Danger Zone”) Fusciardi, 19, went with his dad to practices as a youngster. He played his first vintage game at age 14. “Catching a batted ball barehanded is hard on your hands,” Logan says. “Dad didn’t want me getting hurt as a kid.”
Westbury (“Mac”) played his first vintage games with the Mighty River Hogs Base Ball Club of Midland. He was drawn to the sport by his love of baseball and his wife’s involvement with the Midland County Historical Society. This is his fifth year with the Continentals. “I like the history aspect of it,” he says.
Hadder (“Mad,” to go with his last name), 54, played Little League and collegiate intramural softball and joined the Continentals because “Chris (Fusciardi) talked me into it last summer. Now I’m hooked.”
First local festival
Ramona Park, the site of this month’s Portage Vintage Base Ball Festival, is an ideal old-time setting, with its open fields, trees and nearby beach where people go for rest and recreation.
The atmosphere of the festival will also be old-timey, says Fusciardi, as in casual, fun, idyllic. The role of the umpire will be traditional — calling only foul balls or baulks (how balks were spelled in the 1860s) by the pitcher. Players will call their own outs on the honor system. With the absence of bleachers, fans will sit in foul territory on chairs or blankets.
Hadder says the festival will be “a reenactment, with players in uniforms of that period.” It will be like visiting an outdoor museum, he says, with historical figures moving about in authentic uniforms using authentic equipment. But, unlike in a Civil War reenactment, the outcome of these games will not be known in advance.
“It’s still a game,” says Fusciardi. “You still have competition.”
The 14 teams playing will come from Chicago; Elkhart, Indiana; and several Michigan locations: the Detroit area, Chelsea, Douglas, Flint, Hillsdale, Saginaw and Sidney (near Greenville). A total of 21 games will be played, each lasting about 75 minutes, and three games will be in progress at any given time, with teams playing by 1860 rules, 1864 rules and 1867 rules. There is no admission fee; spectators need only bring a desire to step back in time and a blanket or chair to sit on.
Fusciardi (“Schoolboy”) emphasizes that the festival isn’t a tournament. “No one’s playing for a trophy. We’ll celebrate 1860s baseball, educate, entertain and see if anyone expresses an interest in trying it. We’re always willing to answer questions.”
He invites any healthy person interested in playing 1860s base ball to contact him, either via the team’s website or Facebook page or on the day of the game. “Just come and say you want to play, and we’ll try to get you in,” he says, and that includes women.
“There’s a lot of baseball passion here,” he says of Kalamazoo, noting that the area’s modern baseball scene includes Little League, middle school, high school and collegiate teams; the former Kings and the current Growlers professional teams; and adult softball leagues.
“And we have this vintage team — the Continentals — that is closely aligned with how the game was traditionally played.”
Base Ball in Kalamazoo: A Short History
The game of “base ball” has evolved from the earliest days of civilization, when humans found some purpose or pleasure in using a stick to propel a stone or hard, round object. In the 1700s and 1800s, the British played a ball-and-bat game called “rounders” that immigrants brought to the Americas. Sometimes called “town ball” and played with pegs stuck in the ground instead of bases, the game grew in popularity in eastern U.S. cities in the 1830s and 1840s.
The National Association of Base Ball Players established a set of rules in 1858.
During the Civil War, base ball spread across the country as Union soldiers introduced the game to Confederate prisoners. By the end of the war, the sport was commonly known as “our national game.”
The first documented game in Kalamazoo was played in 1859. The Champion Base Ball Club of Kalamazoo formed a year later and changed its name three times: to Continental Base Ball Club of Kalamazoo in 1861, Una Base Ball Club in 1868, and The Kalamazoos in 1875.
Other teams in the city during the 1860s were the Burr Oaks, the Excelsior Base Ball Club, and the Gymnastic Club (later called Mount Carmel).
The Continentals were undefeated in 1866, scoring 232 runs in five games. The Unas, playing in open lots at the west end of Cedar Street and off Portage Road in the Edison neighborhood, drew large crowds and soundly beat teams from Plainwell to Chicago.