1992. May 27

Grand Rapids Press, May 27, 1992

Local team takes part in baseball tourney played under 1860s rules

Before there were designated hitters or million-dollar salaries, and even before Babe Ruth, there was base ball. Two words, not one.

Imagine a gentleman’s game played in the post-Civil War era in which no gloves were used, stealing, sliding and swearing were prohibited and a ball caught on one bounce was considered an out.

That’s the game Gordon Olson now looks forward to playing as a member of the Kent Base Ball Club. Olson and his teammates formed a club last year – 125 years after the first organized game was played in Grand Rapids – that is dedicated to playing ball “the way it was intended to be played. ”

Olson, a strapping 49-year-old first baseman, and his Kent Club nine will don their replica dark blue knickers and white shirts and caps with blue embroidery for the 1860s Round Robin Base Ball Tournament this weekend in Columbus, Ohio. Four teams from Ohio and another from Kentucky also will play Saturday and Sunday in the tournament hosted by the Ohio Village Muffins.

“We went down last year and played two games, and that was the first time we played. We went down as an experiment,” said Olson, the city historian at Grand Rapids Public Library. “We’re doing it because it’s the game we grew up loving and trusting.”

It has become the game of choice for several Grand Rapids men in their 30s, 40s and 50s. There are lawyers, Amway Corp. employees, a Grand Rapids Community College professor, a banker and others whose love for the game has drawn them to participate in these 19th-century re-enactments.

Many of the members of the 12-man volunteer club, whose uniforms cost $90-100 each, have played slow-pitch softball together.

“When Gordon mentioned it to me, I thought it would be interesting. I love the game,” said 52-year-old Don Turner, the Public Library night maintenance supervisor.

“Playing without a glove is going to take me back a few years, because as kids none of us had gloves. We couldn’t afford them,” Turner said. “We just went out and played.”

When the Kent Club nine takes the field for its first game this weekend, their field of dreams will have no chalked baselines, warning tracks or fences. Ninety feet between bases has always been a constant, but the rolling, grassy field on which the re-enactment games are played has trees in center and right fields that come into play.

Games are played with a soft rubber-core ball wrapped in cloth rags and hand-stitched, and it is thrown underhand. A run is referred to as an “ace,” which then becomes a “tally” after it is announced to the scorekeeper and a bell has been rung. Pitchers are “hurlers,” batters are “strikers” and catcher is a “behind.”

The umpire, who stands in costume be-tween home plate and third base, keeps no ball-strike count but may call balls and strikes at his discretion.

“The umpire played a bigger role in making decisions for rules that weren’t even there yet. He would arbitrate many things,” Olson said.

“Above all, it was a gentleman’s game. There used to be fines on the field for swearing, 25 cent fines,” he said, “… when a quarter was a quarter.”

Olson’s passionate pastimes of baseball and nostalgia crossed paths a year ago while he was attending a history conference in Toledo, Ohio. He saw a re-enacted game there and came home and began forming the Kent Base Ball Club, which uses the constitution and bylaws of a club by the same name founded in Grand Rapids in 1867.

It seemed like a natural to Olson, a former rural Wisconsin high school and college player who once faced the legendary Satchell Paige.

“I saw this being done, read about it and was curious,” he said. “It’s a little off-beat, but we’re truly playing it for fun.”

The experience has been so much fun that Olson has planned an August demonstration game at John Ball Park as part of a library fund-raiser. He also hopes to bring one of the Ohio teams to Grand Rapids for a game later this summer.

Olson would like those events to attract the same attention given to the first organized game in Grand Rapids.

In May 1867, the Kents accepted an invitation to play a home-and-home series with the Custer Baseball Club of Ionia. For the first game in Grand Rapids on May 24, the local newspaper, The Eagle, gave an account of the game that indicated an estimated crowd of 2,000 on hand to see the Kents go down to defeat, 62-33.

Despite lopsided losses to the Custers in both games, by early June at least seven Grand Rapids clubs were mentioned in the newspapers. In addition to the Kents, there were the Dexters, Centrals, Young Americas, Stars, Hickorys and Peninsulars.

Olson envisions a league of ball clubs in replica uniforms re-enacting games all over Grand Rapids in the future.

“It would be nice to have teams playing the game the way it was meant to be played originally,” he said. “Once people see us, I don’t think it’ll be difficult to come up with a few more players.”

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

Kent Base Ball Club, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA