URBANA — The old-timers are emerging from the cornfields to try to get a base ball team started here.
It’s very different game from baseball, one word.
Chewing tobacco would not have gone over well in base ball.
The precursor to what was once our national pastime could not have been more gentlemanly.
In the 1850s, the rules were strict, and they have been brought back in a new wave of interest in the original game.
“You can be fined a day’s pay of 25 cents for swearing or spitting,” said Vermilion Voles player Mike “Rail Splitter” Griffin, the base ball fanatic who wants to create a new team in Urbana.
“It makes for interesting play and a very colorful game. It’s difficult not being fined a day’s pay,” he added.
The Voles Vintage Base Ball Club is out of Kennekuk County Park, and the closest team now is Decatur.
There will be three exhibition games played Saturday at Riggs Beer Company, 1901 S. High Cross Road, U. The first game is at 12:30 p.m. Griffin will be holding sign-ups for the team at the time.
Besides being gentlemanly, 1858 base ball is not terribly draining.
The co-founder and captain of the Voles, Jim Knoblauch of Danville, said the team skews to the older set.
“We kind of take the stance, the more the merrier,” he said. “This allows us to still play when we are 64” — which he is.
He played Little League and sandlot ball, but his career ended after eighth grade, and then some slow pitch for several years.
“This is an interesting challenge, played in a gentlemanly manner, more to entertain guests and teach them a little history,” Knoblauch added.
Thus players dress in uniforms appropriate to the time period, and try to speak in Civil War-era idioms. What can be most entertaining is the rules, whatever they may be that day.
“I’ve played three tournaments so far, and not once by the same rules,” Griffin said. “The players, called ballists, must play within a step of the base they play. Strikers (batters) may be allowed a gentleman’s lead of one step, but mostly may not lead off."
The rules can be generous at times: There are no balls or strikes called by the arbitor (umpire), but he can strongly suggest you swing at good pitches. He also does not call balls fair, but does call foul balls.
Bert Rawlings of Tolono, also a member of the Voles, is a relative youngster at 53.
“We have a group of older gentlemen, so I’m probably right in the middle,” he said.
The small-town high school he went to didn’t have enough guys for a baseball team, but in summer ball he was a catcher.
In base ball, the catcher is most similar to — yes, this is really what it is called — a behind.
Rawlings said a behind stands 10 feet behind the plate, retrieving balls.
“There was no stealing in 1858,” he noted.
And there were no diamonds.
A park district employee once offered the new team a selection of them, but typically there aren’t even fences. Base ball is mostly played in fields and green space, as in the Riggs experience.
“I had to tell him we didn’t really want a diamond,” Griffin said.
No gloves, either.
Rawlings said that in 1858, “it was a great feat to catch a fly ball without a glove, a ‘celebration of a manly catch.’”
“They can sting,” he added. “The ball is heavier; after about the fourth inning, it has a little bit of give, and takes the form of an egg. You can get a broken finger; you see the ball coming, and when it hits the ground, it can go in different directions.”
Some other rules Griffin can quote:
A striker (batter) is out on fly balls or a boundout, which is a ball caught on one bounce, whether it’s a foul tip to the catcher or a line drive to the outfield.
“If a ball is hit fair then goes foul, even before first or third base, it’s still a fair ball,” he said.
“If first base is occupied and a striker bounds out, the runner does not have to advance to second base. That can hang runners up if the ballist drops the ball after it bounces. The striker is then safe and runner must advance, but is often thrown out at second.”
If you hit a ball down the line fair, then it goes foul, the arbitor will say nothing.
“Striker and ballist must pay close attention to that. A ballist can chase a ball a long way into foul territory and that is fair by the rules," Griffin said. "You can find yourself among the fans retrieving a fair ball that isn’t past third base."