By Dave Dyer
---- — NEWBURY — Methuen’s Brian Sheehy was smiling even more than usual.
The sun was shining brightly, there was a cool breeze and he was in his glory, combining two of his greatest loves on one field, at the Spencer Peirce Little Farm.
Here, as the captain of the Essex Base Ball club in the 19th Century Base Ball Association (yes, baseball used to be two words), the North Andover High history teacher was combining baseball with history.
“It’s a lot of fun and I’ve always been interested in the history of the sport,” said Sheehy, a 1999 graduate of Central Catholic. “This brings it to life.”
Sheehy, as one of the founders of Vintage baseball as it’s called in New England, is in his 12th year playing baseball by 1864 rules and showing anyone even remotely interested all about it.
“It’s a competitive game, but it’s a thinking man’s game,” said Sheehy. “There’s a lot to it if you want to be successful.”
Some of the unique rules force players to think before acting rather than just relying on instinct.
One of the biggest differences with today’s game is that outs back in the 19th century could be recorded by catching the ball on one hop, even in foul territory.
Thus, with runners on base, if the batter hits one to the outfield that might be caught one way or the other, they must delay. If it’s caught in the air, they can be doubled up, but not on balls caught on one hop.
Runners must judge not only the trajectory and how far away the fielder is from the ball, but how hard it’s hit. After all, none of the fielders wore gloves in 1864.
Some of the unique rules get some getting used to. They include:
Fielders weren’t allowed to wear gloves.
Pitchers must throw underhand.
There is no strike zone and there are rarely walks. The umpire could issue a walk but only after a warning and it would usually take at least seven pitches. Similarly, there are no called strikes.
There are no balks. Fake throws and quick pitches are allowed and common.
Batters aren’t allowed to overrun first base.
Any foul tip caught by the catcher, even on one bounce, is an out.
A fair ball is determined by where it first strikes the ground. Thus, some batters strike down on the ball causing the ball to hit fair and spin foul.
There can only be one umpire and his decision is final with no arguing allowed. Umpires would sometimes ask the spectators their opinion before making a call.
There are also no ground rule doubles or automatic home runs. Thus, one ball hit recently by an Essex player against Elkton at the Spencer Peirce Little Farm, which has a field location reminiscent of “Field of Dreams,” rolled into the corn in right field and got lost. That allowed the batter to circle the bases for an easy home run.
Most of the players in the league are 30-something former high school players who can’t get baseball out of their system and have grown to love the old fashioned game. Chris Sheehy, 27, started playing in high school shortly after older brother Brian got involved.
“I started tagging along with my brother and one day they needed an extra player and I suited up,” said Chris, a 2004 Central grad who is the North Andover High freshman coach. “The more I played, the more I liked it.”
Chris is also an avid player of slow-pitch softball, which has some things in common with the 1864 brand of baseball. But he prefers the old time baseball.
“You have to think more in baseball and it’s a little harder, especially when you first start out,” he said. “You’re used to playing with a glove so you really have to learn how to catch the ball without ruining your fingers. It can be challenging.”
Others Central grads on the Essex team are Rob Michaud (2002), who coaches the Andover JV team, Pat Wadland (2003), Drew Murphy (2003) and Eric Gosselin (2004).
Love of the game
They are drawn to 19th century baseball by curiosity, various degrees of interest in history and a general love of the game.
“And it’s also a lot of fun to travel and play in unique places,” said Brian Sheehy. “We’ve played in Philly, Cooperstown, Connecticut, Long Island, Maryland ... and I’ve been to California and Ireland. You also get to meet some great people.”
The players have to pay for travel and their uniforms, which can approach $200. Fortunately, most players keep playing for at least several years, so the uniform is a one-time expense.
But you can’t put a price on an endeavor which mixes education, sports and downright fun. Opposing players are more colleagues than rivals and the teams often socialize before, during and after games.
But that’s not to say there’s not a strong desire to win.
Before facing Elkton, Brian Sheehy recalled facing the Maryland team last year.
“We’re looking forward to this,” said Sheehy. “We went down there last year and they beat us in the ninth inning. We remember that.”
19th century baseball facts
Until 1884, pitchers threw underhand
Players did not wear gloves until the mid-1870s
The original shape of home plate was round, which may explain why it is referred to as home plate
There is no strike zone and batters can generally take as many pitches as they see fit.
Outs can be recorded if the ball is caught on one bounce in addition to in the air.
Teams in the Essex County Base ball Organization
Essex Baseball Association
Rockinghams of Portsmouth
Lynn Live Oaks
Note: There are also other teams from around New England, including Melrose and Mudville (Holliston), which play local teams
Aug. 25 — Rockinghams vs. Live Oaks
Sept. 8 — Lowell vs. Clamdiggers
Sept. 14 — Lowell vs. Rockinghams; Live Oaks vs. Clamdiggers
Sept. 22 — Clamdiggers vs. Rockinghams; Live Oaks vs. Lowell
Sept. 29 — Essex vs. Melrose
Oct. 5 — Essex Baseball Association championship
* All games at Spencer Peirce Little Farm, 5 Little Lane in Newbury, beginning at noon