1993. August 9

Grand Rapids Press, August 9, 1993

Baseball history lives in 1800-style games
Kent Base Ball Club wins pair of exhibition games

Bill Cunningham of Grand Rapids is a child of the ’60s, with the century in question.

Cunningham, 46, grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and once his chores were done, he would head to the meadow with his friends carrying his father’s old baseball glove. There were no coaches, dugouts or groomed basepaths, just cow manure and apple trees to avoid. But the kids had a blast anyway.

Sunday’s second annual Grand Rapids’ Field of Dreams: A Midsummer Day’s Celebration brought back memories for Cunningham. The game was played in 1867-style uniforms and rules were also taken from the year, including no gloves and underhanded pitches.

Cunningham is an outfielder on the Kent Base Ball Club, which won both games Sunday. Cunningham has discovered that baseball in the 1860s isn’t too much different from the games he played as a child. The rules were simple, players used little equipment and games could last all afternoon and no one would complain.

The games were played on the South Grounds of John Ball Park Sunday in the grass, without a pitchers’ mound or batters’ box. But once again, Cunningham had a blast anyway.

“There was no such thing as a nice flat field when I played as a kid, and there were no fancy helmets and equipment,” Cunningham said. “We all had our fathers’ gloves from the 1940s. But I think the game was more natural when I was a kid, and the 1860s too. It had no danger. It was just for the fun of it.”

Gordon Olson, a city historian and the manager of the Kent Base Ball Club, estimated that 750 spectators attended Sunday’s games. He said the event likely raised up to $1,500, and all proceeds will be donated to the Ryerson Library Foundation.

Olson said curiosity and a sunny day brought the crowd out Sunday. Fans were interested to learn how the country’s national pastime was played when players didn’t even wear gloves.

“Someone once said that to understand the history of our country, you should learn baseball,” Olson said. “Abraham Lincoln was playing baseball when he was first told that he was elected President in 1860.”

Lincoln likely wasn’t fortunate enough to be playing against an opponent like the Valley City All-Stars. The Kent Base Ball Club rocked Valley City 16-3 in the main event after beating the Manistee Salt City Base Ball Team 7-3 in the opener.

Valley City consisted of local media celebrities, including Grand Rapids Press sports writer Howie Beardsley. Beardsley dropped a lazy fly ball in right field in the second inning that would earn a double thumbs down in any century. Kent scored seven times in the second after a six-run first inning.

Manistee is also an organized club like Kent, and it resulted in a more competitive game. The two teams play up to 10 games a summer. This was Kent’s only West Michigan appearance of the summer.

The idea to create a Grand Rapids area team first came to Olson after he watched Ohio clubs play. He then rounded up co-workers and members on his city league softball team to join him.

Kent plays the game as close to 1867 rules as possible. A cloth covered ball is used, and an out is recorded if a ball is caught on the first bounce. Batters must stand with the bat on their shoulders.

Mike Hoffman, a Kent “hurler,” was reminded of a rule when he slid into second base and was called out against Valley City. Sliding was prohibited in 1867.

The Kent Base Ball Club was formed on April 1, 1867, and it played its first game later in the month in the area now known as Kent Country Club. Olson revised the club three years ago.

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

Kent Base Ball Club, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA