A scorching line drive, headed for center field, cracks off the bat of Tom "Big Bat" Fesolowich of the Brooklyn Excelsiors. It lands some 30 feet behind second base, but right in front of the Mineola Washingtons' center fielder, who grabs the ball in his bare hands. The fans cheer an apparent single, but Big Bat and his teammates know otherwise.
Big Bat is out.
The call sends all of us neophytes to the game of Old Time Base Ball (two words), being played at Long Island's Old Bethpage Village Restoration, fumbling for our yellow rule sheets. Yep, Big Bat is out all right, according to the rules of 1864 -- the ones being followed here on the opening game of the 2004 season -- as a batted ball caught on "one bound anywhere in the field" is just another "hand down" (out).
Since 1980, both avid and casual fans of what is now the national pastime have been coming to this 209-acre, mid-19th-century outdoor museum owned and operated by the Nassau County Department of Parks, Recreation and Museums to see how the game was played in its infancy. What began as just another in a series of occasional living-history demonstrations caught on big -- not only among visitors to the village (for whom baseball is just one of its many attractions), but also among local amateur ballplayers of all ages.
Each Sunday from late April through mid-October (weather permitting), visitors get to see a double-header played by four of Old Bethpage Village's eight resident teams. The first game (11 a.m.) adheres to the 1864 rules, the second (2 p.m.) to the more modern 1887 rules.
In a scene reminiscent of amateur games across the country in years gone by, a pair of geese has to be shooed out of the high grass in right field, which in this case truly is a field -- and an unevenly mowed, uphill one at that. The squads, which take their names from actual teams of the period and dress in wool jerseys and striped caps copied from old photos, line up along the foul lines and introduce themselves to the several dozen fans who have taken their own place atop a series of plain wooden benches.
All sport colorful nicknames, most of which relate to the game they love -- "Kid Speed," "Big Bat," "Two Bag," etc. As was the tradition 140 years ago, the home team has provided an umpire, selected from among the most respected members of the community. In this case, it's lawyer Harry Higham of Tallman, N.Y., whose great-great-grandfather had actually been an umpire in the early National League.
With little fanfare, the umpire takes his position to the right of the batter's box, the Excelsiors take the field and play begins.
The first underhand (yes, underhand) pitch is neither bad enough to merit a warning to the pitcher nor good enough to provoke a warning to the batter, so Higham says nothing. Eventually a swing is taken and the ball -- slightly larger but much softer than today's hardball -- rolls toward third only to die in the high grass.
Infield hits prove common, but not nearly as common as muffs (errors), since there are no gloves, a sartorial absence that makes both fielding a hit ball and catching a thrown one anything but routine. Not surprisingly, there are also lots of stolen bases, which keeps the game moving right along.
Over on the sidelines, I chat with Bill Staskel, a Mets fan from nearby Central Islip, N.Y. Staskel, who has been coming every Sunday for six years, explains how the modern game still retains many of the old-time expressions. For example, "hit out of the box" refers to the original 12-by-4-foot chalk "box" within which the pitcher had to stand, and home plate is so named because it was frequently marked by a tin dinner plate.
A mighty blast to deep left field draws our attention back to the game. We turn to watch the ball bounce through the split-rail fence in front of one the village's historic houses and into a briar patch. A gaggle of Excelsiors quickly descends on the spot to help look as the ball is still in play.
Down 19 aces (runs) to nothing in the top of the fifth, someone on the bench exhorts the Brooklynites "to show some ginger" (hustle). The Excelsiors rally for three aces but still fall pitiably short -- not that anyone takes this game too seriously. Afterward the two squads line up again along their respective foul lines, where each captain lauds the other team before leading his own in three spirited "hip, hip, huzzahs."
Afterward I take in as many of the historical buildings (there are more than 50, many with costumed interpreters) as I can before the roar of the significantly larger afternoon crowd announces that it's time again to play ball.
The afternoon contest pits the Glen Head Zig Zags, clad in crimson and gray, against the Sea Cliff Idlewilds, in black and white. Eventually I recognize some of the players as holdovers from the earlier game, but it doesn't take me long to realize that much has happened in the intervening 23 years of baseball history.
For starters, the ball is pitched overhand and with as much velocity as the pitcher can manage without a windup. In addition, every pitch is now being called by a second umpire, positioned behind the pitcher, and each batter is allowed four strikes and five balls.
Despite having an extra strike (foul balls don't count), only a handful of batters are able to make solid contact, so the pace of the game slows down to a more modern speed. To keep things moving with the spectators, Umpire Tommy "Kid Speed" Heinlein, a tool and die maker from Selden, N.Y, comes over between innings to explain any of the unusual things we have just witnessed and to field any questions we may have.
During one such break I catch up with "Big Bat" Fesolowich, a high school teacher from Farmingdale, N.Y., who informs me that since its reintroduction at Old Bethpage Village, vintage baseball has not only become a regular feature at other period properties -- such as Greenfield Village outside Detroit and Ohio Village in Columbus -- but a popular league sport as well, particularly in the Midwest.
"But nowhere has it been more successful than here," he hastens to add, a success he readily attributes to the village's 19th-century ambiance. With the game knotted up in the sixth inning, a dispute erupts between the Sea Cliff captain and the umpire -- not over a close call of course, but about what rule was actually in effect in 1887. They agree to look it up later. Even the costumed staff are on their way home as Sea Cliff comes to bat in the top of the ninth trailing 6-5. A combination of well-struck balls and Zig Zag muffs -- one of which earns the third baseman a 25-cent fine for "cursing on a Sunday" -- allows the Idlewilds to score six aces and take a commanding, and ultimately unassailable, lead.
Six more "hip, hip, huzzahs" later, players and spectators alike make their way down the unpaved country lane that leads to Old Bethpage Village's 21st-century parking lot. As they always have, the players either take pride in or exception to the final score. But for those of us who came just to watch, it truly wasn't who won or lost but how they all played the really old ball game.
Marshall S. Berdan last wrote for Travel on the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River, Mass.