When they step onto the circular dirt infield, husband and wife Bill and Jo Hale travel back in time.
In their short-bill caps, red-stirrup socks and authentic long-sleeve gray jerseys with precise stitching, the Hales are members of the Houston Babies, a team of local baseball lovers who revive old-time Americana by playing the game by the more gentlemanly 1861 rules.
The Babies are one of five local teams who play six to eight “Vintage Base Ball” games each year at festivals and community gatherings in Katy, Sealy and the George Ranch Historical Park.
“We try to create the old-time atmosphere,” said Babies manager Bob Dorrill, 73, a retired marketing executive. “We’re people who love baseball in any form. And most of us are vintage.”
The games are friendly, sociable and unpaid, but the teams want to win. “I still get a thrill when I put on the uniform,” Dorrill said.
He and general manager Bill “Doc” McCurdy started the team in 2007. They named the team the Babies after Houston’s first professional baseball team, which played in 1888 under modern rules. Houston did have a team in 1861, McCurdy said, formed by residents who had come from the north. But there are no records of the team’s games, and they never had an identifiable name, as far as he can definitively find.
McCurdy grew up in the ’50s, using rocks or shirts as bases at Pecan Park in the East End. “We played all day,” said the 74-year-old semi-retired psychotherapist and family counselor. “I’m very sentimental about that time of my life.”
For some of the players and their “cranks” – fans who cheer for the team – baseball’s story is America’s story. People worked hard and then got together to play ball, the community coming out to watch teams organized by companies, churches and clubs.
“It’s fun to look back at how our grandfathers might have played the game,” said “crank” Marsha Franty.
When Kyle “Third Degree” Burns stretches out for a fly ball, only to have it hit the ground and bounce into his bare hand, it’s still an out, although runners on base can advance without tagging up.
The pitcher throws underhand trying to place the ball where the batter can hit it. “You would think that that would make it a hitter’s game, but because of the one-hop rule, you have to hit it just right to get a base hit,” said Jimmy Disch, a Rice University associate professor of kinesiology and Babies first baseman.
There can be a bit of a learning curve. In one of his first Vintage games, Scott Disch, Jimmy’s son and a teacher and coach at Grady Middle School who played hardball through college, was tagged out after overrunning first base.
They have made a few changes to the old-time rules. Women didn’t play 150 years ago, and, because they have a lot of older players with bad knees or hips, they allow designated runners.
They’re not all old-timers, though. Some are teenagers, and some are in their 20s or 30s. Many belong to the Houston/ Larry Dierker chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, which sponsors the team. The players pay for their uniforms and equipment.
“At first, you get people playing because of the novelty,” McCurdy said. “Then they stay because of the sandlot element. But if there’s no goal to play for, then they start not showing up all the time.”
Of the five teams, only three get enough players to be counted on consistently. They attract small crowds – friends or people who stroll by. The Babies hope to create enough teams for a competitive league.
“It’s just a lot of fun. I’m interested in the difference between now and the game in the 1860s,” said Jo Hale, who plays “behind,” or catcher in modern-day parlance. “And playing it is the best way to learn that.”
Vintage Base Ball rules
No walks or strike outs.
Games are seven innings.
Runners can be tagged out if they run past first base.
No gloves are worn to catch the ball, which is mushier and slightly bigger than a regular baseball.
If a fielder catches the ball after one bounce, the batter is out, but runners don’t have to tag up to advance to the next base.
If the ball lands in fair territory, it’s fair, even if it then rolls into foul territory.