It’s still one, two, three strikes, you’re out, but beyond that, you’ll have to get used to a few new rules at Cantigny’s Red Oak Vintage Baseball Festival on July 31. Or perhaps it’s better to say old rules.
The event brings together several teams to play baseball by the original 1858 rules, considered the first standardized rules of the game. They are the rules that were most used during the Civil War when the game gained in popularity around the country.
“Before the rules were codified, there were several versions of baseball being played,” said Will Buhlig, operations director at Cantigny Park, who helps organize the tournament. “During the Civil War, there were lots of opportunities to play baseball during downtime for soldiers, and we see baseball being played in a lot of the camps.
“Once the war ended, everyone went back home, and these rules were the ones that ended up being adopted, at least for some time,” he said.
Those rules have some significant differences from the game we see today, but it’s still familiar enough for a baseball fan to understand it and easily pick it up.
“There are just some little differences that make it exciting,” Buhlig said. “Like when a batter hits a fly ball, the outfielder has a choice. He can catch in on the fly, and the batter’s out, and no one can advance. Or he can catch it on one bounce, and the batter is still out, but runners can advance.”
There are no gloves, no infield, no sliding and runners can’t overrun first base. The pitcher — or hurler, in 1858 parlance — is also expected to deliver the ball in accordance with the batter’s wishes.
“The hurler’s job is to put it where the batter wants it,” Buhlig said. “He can ask for it a little higher or to the right or left. You can only be called out on strikes if you swing and miss three times.”
The pitches are underhanded, and unlike in today’s game, the goal is to put the ball in play as much as possible.
“I think it looks more like snow-pitch softball compared to the game today,” Buhlig said. “But we’re playing barehanded and with a ball that pretty closely resembles a baseball from today.”
Part of the appeal of 1858 rules is going back in time to that era, as the teams wear appropriate uniforms for the 1860s and try to replicate the game as much as possible as it was played then. For the Red Oak Vintage Baseball Festival, four to six teams are expected to compete.
“Everybody has a 19th-century-ish type of nickname, and they play in the period-specific uniforms,” Buhlig said. “We allow people to wear modern spikes to avoid hurting themselves.”
For the tournament, Buhlig expects to have a couple of games going at once between noon and 3 pm, and while teams are competitive, that’s only one aspect of the game.
“It’s for fun and to teach people about the game as it was played then,” he said. “When they’re not in the field you’ll have the players interacting with the crowd and explaining the game. There’s a big historical element to this, and that’s part of the fun.”
Vintage baseball games have been played at Cantigny since 2007, and it has become a regular part of their summer schedule.
“We were doing research and found that they were playing baseball here at Cantigny around the turn of the (20th) century,” Buhlig said. “There’s a precedent that old-style baseball, maybe not exactly like the 1858 rules but something similar what played here. So we thought it would be fun to bring it back.”
With 1858 rules, the game is played at a quicker pace, and most games are either seven innings or an hour, whichever comes first. Nearly every batter puts the ball in play, giving the game more action.
“It’s a lot of fun to play and fun to watch,” Buhlig said. “It transports you to a different time, and that’s a big part of the appeal. But it’s also just an exciting sport. I think that’s why people enjoy playing it this way.”
Cantigny Red Oak Vintage Baseball Festival
When: noon to 3 pm July 31
Where: Parade Field at Cantigny Park, 1S151 Winfield Road, Wheaton
Tickets: $10 parking fee per car
Information: 630-668-5161; cantigny.org
Jeff Banowetz is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.