Vintage Baseball: The 1875 St. Louis Brown Stockings

 
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If you enjoy learning new things, you might want to take a step back in time to something really old: Vintage Baseball. Exit velo? Spin rate? OPS? Not a chance — life and the game were simpler in the 19th century

There are 10 vintage teams in Missouri and Illinois that play by the 1860 baseball rules. Baseball’s rules date to 1845 and the New York Knickerbockers, evolving throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

One of those teams is the St. Louis Brown Stockings. With their uniforms modeled after the 1875 National Association ballclub by the same name and the first professional baseball team in St. Louis, the vintage version was founded 10 years ago by Tony Wicker and his wife, Tracy, both of whom play for the team.

“We founded the Brown Stockings to see what the game was all about in 1860,” Wicker told me between games of a doubleheader in Lafayette Square Park in St. Louis. The rules were different. Gloves were not used, and if you caught the ball on the fly or on a bounce, the batter was out.

The Brown Stockings roster has 20 players who rotate in and out of the nine positions throughout the games. More than half of the players are in their 50s, with the rest in their 30s and 40s. They have men and women who work in warehouses and IT, are marketing executives and accountants, or serve as nurses or EMTs.

“We play the game as if it was 1860, but unlike those times, we are inclusive,” said Wicker. “We have white players and black players. Men and women. Latino and Asian players. We’re more interested in sharing HOW the game was played, not WHO played the game.”

The teams play every other Saturday from St. Patrick’s Day weekend until the final Saturday in October. The season starts and ends with “Good Will” matches, where the players mix up the teams and play games for two hours. Both events include potluck dinners for the families.

When they meet on Saturdays, teams play two seven-inning games. With many teams traveling three-to-four hours to play in festivals, tournaments and away games, organizers want to make sure they play a lot of baseball. And when they do, it’s a lot of fun.

As Wicker told me, EVERYONE has a nickname. He’s called “Lightning” because of his quick hands and speed. His wife Tracy is “Thunder” and son Trent is “Twister,” of course. Then there’s a father and his son who are called “Tater” and “Tot.” “Sticks” and “Rocks” are married and play on the team. Their two children? “Twig” and Pebbles.”

“We have a ‘Flo’ and ‘Spoof,’” said Wicker. Spoof? “Flo’s a nurse and named after ‘Florence Nightengale,’ and Spoof was in a skiing accident, died, and was resuscitated three times. We started calling him ‘Spoof’ as a result, and now we affectionately call him ‘Mulligan.’”

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On that Saturday afternoon, the Brown Stockings played games against the St. Louis Perfectos and the Lafayette Square Cyclone, the home field for both teams. A large crowd of fans gathered along third base line. Known as “cranks” in the 19th century, the fans are the arbiters if the two teams on the field cannot determine the outcome of a play. And if that fails, the umpire makes the call.

The atmosphere at the games is relaxed and fans are encouraged to give the game a try. “We have fun, we showcase the game and display the gentle spirit of the times,” said Wicker.

While the players on the teams are either reliving the competitive spirt of their youth or trying something new, the mission of the games is to give fans a glimpse into the code of ethics from a game played 180 years ago.

“We want fans to understand the gentlemanly way that the game was played,” said Wicker. “You won’t see sliding, spitting or swearing. After a good play, you’ll see hands being shaken, not fist bumps or high fives. A team will applaud when the other team makes a great play. We want people to go home understanding that the gentlemanly spirit of the game prevailed.”

And that they did, on a pleasant Saturday afternoon in St. Louis. Huzzah!

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Jeff IdelsonComment