Hey, sports fans: Here’s what baseball was like before it was great

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Baseball is an old-fashioned game, but not usually quite as old-fashioned as it was on Sunday, when the Brooklyn Atlantics — the spiritual heirs to New York’s original diamond dynasty — met the New York Gothams in Washington Park and played the game as it would have been played in 1864.

The Dodgers this ain’t. It took most onlookers a while to figure out what was going on, given that the pitchers throw underhand; fielders don’t wear gloves; players can catch the ball on one bounce yet still record an out; and the uniforms look weird — just as in 1864.

“No, these aren’t capri pants,” vintage baseball player Brad Shaw told a crowd amused by his short pants, bib-front uniform, and newsboy cap.

Vintage baseball players also tone down their heckling, as a way to recreate the gentlemanly courtesy of the 19th-century game. That said, there’s still 1860s-style trash-talking.

“It’s not very manly to catch the ball on a bounce for an out,” he told the crowd. “So if you see somebody do that, even on the Brooklyn team, please yell out, ‘Not manly!”

There are about 200 vintage baseball teams in the United States. The Atlantics play a full season, with games almost every weekend from April to October.

“We play by 1864 rules because the original Atlantics were champions that year,” said Elmore.

The old Brooklyn Atlantics were indeed champions in 1864. And in ’59, ’60, ’61, ’65, and ’66, making them baseball’s first dynasty. The 1860s were a golden age for Brooklyn baseball, a time when the look and style of the modern game was being established.

“Brooklyn teams went on tours in the 1860s, and when teams from Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia saw how the Brooklyn teams were playing, they gave up their local styles,” said baseball historian Tom Gilbert, author of “Elysian Fields: The Birth of Baseball.”

Shaw wasn’t as definitive as Gilbert.

“They have bat-and-ball games on hieroglyphics in Egypt,” he said. “Nobody invented baseball. History invented baseball.”

That said, Washington Park figures prominently in the history of Brooklyn baseball. The park’s location on Fifth Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets was the site of the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers before Ebbets Field opened in 1912.

One big difference between old Washington Park and the new one: fake turf.

“These vintage teams don’t usually play on synthetic turf, but they made a special dispensation because of the history of the field,” said Kim Maier, executive director of the Old Stone House, the restored 17th-century Dutch farmhouse whose history as a Revolutionary War battleground pre-dates even baseball.

Updated 5:14 pm, July 9, 2018
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