2004. June 12

Grand Rapids Press, June 12, 2004

Old-time baseball featured today

When these baseball players are at bat, they toss around nicknames such as “Steam Train” and “Afterburner.” They hit sandlots across the state wearing blouse-like shirts, pillbox-style hats and blue bow ties. Most do not wear gloves, and swearing can earn them a 25-cent fine.

Such are the standards for Kent Base Ball Club members as they play in the sixth Silas K. Pierce Cup, a vintage baseball tournament scheduled for today at John Ball Park.

The 10-team tournament follows the same guidelines as the local club, which takes its name and techniques from a city league formed in 1867. The tournament is named after Civil War veteran Silas K. Pierce, the club’s founding member and first president.

“This teaches people about the history of our city,” said Gordon Olson, former city historian and the club’s organizer.

Olson was inspired to create a league after he came across the Kent Base Ball Club’s original constitution in the Grand Rapids Public Library. After seeing other vintage-themed teams play in Ohio, Olson rounded up local fans and relaunched the club, which disbanded after two years, in 1990.

The club since helped other teams form in Ludington, Fallasburg and Douglas.

The teams belong to the Vintage Base Ball Association, which includes more than 40 national clubs that play the sport as it was in 1860s, less than 20 years after the first recorded baseball match took place in Hoboken, N.J.

Back then, the sport was known as “base ball.” Pitchers were called “hurlers.” Batters were “strikers,” and fans were “cranks.” Only wooden bats were used, and balls were hand-sewn.

All of this will be demonstrated during today’s tournament, and teams will play in two brackets based on the National Base Ball Association guidelines set in 1860 and 1867, Olson said.

More than 100 spectators are expected to watch the teams vie for the Pierce cup, said John “Too Sweet” Roels, a 14-year Kent Base Ball Club member.

“People like the idea of a throwback,” he said. “Some come to our games and say, ‘Wow, it looks just like a game from 150 years ago!'”

The event will follow the rules of early baseball contests, including the 25-cent fines imposed for players engaging in “ungentlemanly conduct,” such as swearing, betting, batting out of turn and stealing bases, Olson said.

The rules have been known to trip up some players, said David “Wiffleball” Ringler, who recently joined the Kent Base Ball Club.

“In one game, someone had an outstanding play at first base,” he recalled. “The crowd went crazy. The umpire congratulated him, then fined him 25 cents for dirtying his uniform.”

Even as modern baseball competes with the rising popularity of other sports, Olson said the cup represents the history of an American pastime.

“We want people to understand how it caught on, what it once was,” he said.

Reproduced courtesy The Grand Rapids Press. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

Kent Base Ball Club, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA