OSKALOOSA — Welcome to a baseball game where the batters are “ballists,” runs are “aces,” every ballist has a nickname, baseball is two words, and the uniforms make you sweat.
This past Sunday at Nelson Pioneer Farm in Oskaloosa, Curator Margaret Spiegel hosted “The Last Hurrah of Summer” with three members of the Chicago Salmons Vintage Base Ball Club: Gary “The Professor” Schiappacasse, Paul “Scooter” Zeledon, and Robert “Pipes” Panknin.
Those three men invited the public to play base ball. Two words, not one.
It would be an experience that featured vintage uniforms and playing rules from as far back as 1858, when America’s pastime was in its infancy. Several members of the public who attended volunteered to split into two teams and join the Vintage Base Ball Association (VBBA) players to play a game.
Several other volunteers were on hand, along with Spiegel, to serve up some hot dogs and ice cream and host a drawing for free tickets to an Iowa Cubs game.
It was a perfect summer afternoon for base ball. By the third inning, as the crack of the bat and the sounds of cheers echoed across the field, one mother who was a spectator could be heard singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” with her toddler daughter.
“That’s what it’s all about,” said Shiappacasse.
It’s not the first time that a base ball field was built in the middle of a cornfield so that base ball players from yesteryear could be celebrated against the backdrop of Iowa farmland.
“The purpose of the VBBA is to present the game of base ball as it was actually played in accordance with the rules, equipment, uniforms, field specifications, language, and customs from the 19th century,” said Gary Schiappacasse, president of the Vintage Base Ball Association. “This style of the game is most popular on East Coast and in the Midwest, and it’s just getting more organized out west in the San Francisco Bay area and in southern California.”
Shiappacasse said that the majority of the teams formed in the Midwest come from Ohio, but the VBBA is always looking to expand.
“We’d love to see some teams get organized right here in Oskaloosa, because you have some great places that organized teams could play; and it really doesn’t cost a whole lot to get teams organized to play the game.”
He also said that there are women’s teams that have formed in Minnesota, Ohio and Michigan.
Paul “Scooter” Zeledon serves as the VBBA treasurer. He explained where the biggest tournament events happen for VBBA.
“The Ohio Cup is one of the nation’s largest vintage base ball festivals, and usually at least 30 teams play in that tournament. Another big tournament is also held in Grand Rapids, Michigan.”
Robert “Pipes” Panknin said he earned his nickname from the singing he does as part of his team’s games. He is known as the team’s “Traveling Troubador.” He composed a variety of brief stanzas that capture the character and roles of many of his teammates, and he can be heard most often singing them during the part of the game that we now know as the seventh inning stretch.
The song in tribute to “The Professor” goes like this:
“The Professor is our coach
And balances out our lineup
We strike in the order he puts us in
And forgets when it’s his time up”
Panknin described how so many of the rules we are all familiar with in the modern day game are not part of the 19th century rules. Foul balls are not considered strikes, and a batter is called out even if the ball is caught after one bounce. If a ball is caught, any runner on base gets to return safely to the base he came from without risk of being doubled off the base.
“Runners can’t lead off or steal bases, outfielders have to be positioned in a specific area in the outfield,” said Panknin, “and the shortstop can position himself anywhere on the field — even though the first, second and third basemen have to play only within one step away from the base.”
Perhaps the most intriguing of rules is that the umpire doesn’t have to stand behind the catcher at home plate. In fact, most of the time he may stand off to the side of the plate opposite the batter – and he most often will ask the spectators whether or not they thought the runner was safe or out before he makes a call.
“Sometimes the runner will use the honor system and just call himself out,” said Panknin.
By the end of the game all the spectators who had a chance to play said they had a lot of fun playing together. Panknin lined up both teams on opposite baselines and led a traditional cheer and handshake line to cap off a great afternoon of base base ball.
“We weren’t sure what to expect,” Spiegel said, “but everybody had a great time and we hope to build off this in years to come and have a game every year.”