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Vintage players bring 1850s baseball to the Fox Valley

Rick 'Fabs' Fabrie waits bagainst Chicago SalmSaturday Randall Park.
Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media

Rick "Fabs" Fabrie waits to bat against the Chicago Salmon Saturday at Randall Park. Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media

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This week, thousands of little boys daydreamed about the World Series. From living rooms in Aurora, Elgin and Naperville, these Little Leaguers imagined stepping in against Tigers ace Justin Verlander or trying to sneak a fastball past Giants catcher Buster Posey.

As charming as this scene may be, there is a secret I feel obligated to share: it’s not just little boys pretending to play big league ball.

There more than a few grown men standing in front of their couch, glancing over their shoulder at the “runner” near the lamp, then delivering a perfect strike toward the fire place. (Not that I’d know anything about that. We don’t have a fireplace.)

The beauty and history of baseball never quite leave your bloodstream. How else can you explain grown men playing in adult leagues wearing knee braces and bifocals? And if that is not strange enough, what about the people playing vintage baseball? These are men of endless imagination. Not satisfied to just play ball, they want to compete under rules that were in place before Lincoln was president.

“Most people think its weird, but cool,” said Mike “Flash” Abbs. “My wife thinks the uniforms are silly. My son, he just turned 13, had a hard time wrapping his head around it. Now he thinks it’s cool.”

I’d say it’s nuts if it didn’t look like a blast.

According to the Vintage Base Ball Association, there are slightly more than 100 vintage baseball teams across the country. Most of them play in the northeast and Midwest, but the Fox Valley is a hotbed. For the last six years, vintage enthusiasts have had the Somonauk Blue Stockings or the DuPage County Plowboys out of Downers Grove. This year, I got to tag along as 15 Aurora police officers built the newest vintage team from scratch.

The game is sort of a combination sports league and historical recreation, where athletes meticulously build uniforms that meet 19th Century specifications: wooden bats, short brim hats, leather high-top shoes.

For a baseball nerd like me, I enjoyed their precision. But, in the end, it was still just a little boy’s game. And to the players, that was more than enough.

After weeks of putting the team together — and years after his last high school game — Paul “Slugger” Nelson could hardly believe it when he ran out to the field.

“I’m 48 years old and I’m getting ready to play another nine on nine game,” he thought. “This is great.”

- Matt Hanley

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Updated: November 29, 2012 6:11AM

Remember that nasty hot streak in this summer? Remember how, for about a week, the thermometer was as likely to have three digits as two? The hot streak was many things, but it was certainly not a time you wanted to be outside, running around in a vintage wool baseball uniform.

But on July 7, Paul Nelson was doing exactly that. He was standing in the shadeless outfield of Cantigny Park, leftfielder for the Aurora Town Club wearing wool pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a thick wool hat.

Nelson says he’s a firm believer in long sleeves, even in the heat — “Landscapers, Bedouins don’t wear short sleeves,” he noted — but his beet-red face suggested his body did not care what Bedouins wore.

The heat was aggravating enough. But what was really bothering Nelson was that the Chicago Salmon kept ringing that darn bell.

The Aurora Town Club was made up entirely of Aurora police officers. Sure, they weren’t in their twenties anymore, but they were all strong and in reasonably good shape.

The Salmon? They were scrawny. A few of the Salmon players appeared old enough to have played in some of the first games after the 1858 base ball rules were put in place.

But the Salmon were dominating the Town Club. The Aurora uppercut batters — using swings they’d perfected during decades of softball and Little League — would hit towering fly balls. And the Salmon outfielders would glide under the fly balls, snatching them on the first bounce, an easy out in vintage baseball.

“All right boys, we need some worm burners here,” Aurora Lt. Nick Cornado yelled to the team. “Like skipping rocks.”

By the third inning, the Salmon had scored four times, ringing the traditional bell behind home plate each time.

Out of instinct, Aurora fielders were trying to grab high pop ups before they bit the ground, only to see them bounce off their bare hands.

The Salmon scored three more in the third. Ding, ding, ding.

When Nelson had started the team a few months earlier, he assumed the officers’ athleticism would make them instantly competitive in the vintage baseball league. He was right; he just didn’t realize how little athleticism mattered. Often, the Aurora player’s instincts were counterproductive, causing them to overrun the brown, flabby ball that never quite flew straight. The Aurora Town Club would rally in the last inning, but fell 7-6.

After 17 seasons playing 40 games a year, the Salmons were just better because they knew how to play vintage baseball.

That day in the heat, Nelson knew the score didn’t really matter. Vintage baseball was about presenting the game to the fans.

But, dang it, Nelson felt they should be winning. And it was going to drive him crazy until they got it right.

Opening pitch

A year before that heated contest at Cantigny, Nelson had wandered over to Aurora’s Blackberry Farm where teams from Oregon, Ill., and Somonauk were playing an 1850s rules game. He’d been intrigued by vintage baseball for years, but hadn’t seen it played in person.

The game at Blackberry was part of a loose travel schedule for the Oregon Ganymedes and Somonauk Blue Stockings. The 10 or so Illinois vintage baseball teams all played home games, but also frequently traveled to historical sites like Blackberry Farm or Naper Settlement to add a little period appropriate sports flavor. The players publicly presented the sport as an enjoyable novelty. And while they genuinely enjoyed sharing the game with fans, privately, they liked to win.

Nelson was captivated by the mix of history and competition. After the game, he talked to the Somonauk manager about possibly joining their team. The manager mentioned that he was surprised that Aurora, with its rich baseball history, didn’t have a team.

Pretty soon, Nelson, an Aurora police commander, was talking to other baseball fans in the department.

“Not a single one said no,” Nelson recalled. “In a week I had the team put together.”

Most, like Mike Abbs, were intrigued by the differences. He’d played softball for 20 years, but wasn’t familiar with vintage baseball.

“I didn’t really know about there being leagues or teams,” he said. “This sounded like a fun variation on traditional baseball.”

Although the game’s broad outline is the same, the nuances and rule changes of vintage baseball can change a team’s strategy. For instance, since the players didn’t wear gloves, it was advantageous to get into run downs, where fielders threw back and forth and tried to tag a runner dashed between bases. Vintage veterans knew the fielders threw the ball long enough, it would eventually trickle away from one of them.

For the same reason, ground balls were never an easy out. A grounder required two players have to make three successful plays for an out. First, the fielder has to catch the ball with no glove. Second, the fielder has to make an accurate throw to first base. Finally, the first baseman — also gloveless — has to grab oddly sized ball. Not so simple.

Making a team

Besides being a baseball fan, Nelson was also a dedicated Revolutionary War recreationist, known for his near obsessive attention to uniform detail. (He’s made his own belts when he couldn’t find a manufacturer to cut the right width.)

Nelson worked with the Aurora Historical Society to design uniforms that matched an 1870s photo of the oldest known baseball team in Aurora. The team’s name was selected from a Beacon-News article that referred to memorable 1886 Fourth of July game between a Naperville team and the “Aurora Town Club.”

Nelson found an out-of-business vintage baseball hat maker to create a period-appropriate baseball cap (small brim, six panels). He got a man who makes Civil War style books to basically invent 1850s baseball spikes (above the ankle, metal spikes). Nelson even re-stitched the brown, 10-inch ball when the seams failed after a few innings.

Of course, the one thing Nelson couldn’t quickly fix in a sewing machine were the team’s instincts. At practices, they worked on moving away from the broad uppercut swings that worked so well in softball. They learned to hang back on flyballs, letting the first bounce turn a hot smash into an easy bounce.

Nelson even went so far as to review his swing on video tape. (Not traditionally available in 1858.) And the team slowly got better. Going into their final game of the season on Sept. 8, the team had a chance to end the year with an even record. Standing in the way were the Salmons. The outlook was brilliant for the Aurora nine.

A new player

Aurora started hot, but the Salmons tied the game by scoring three runs in the eighth inning. In the top of the ninth, Nelson was up first.

In his new, video-tweaked, flatter swing, he drove a two-hopper to the shortstop. Nelson ran hard to rattle the shortstop, who fumbled the ball slightly.

Nelson got to first at about the same time as the throw, but Nelson’s hustle had forced the shortstop to rush. The ball came in high and the first baseman jumped, but couldn’t grab the throw. Nelson knew that on a traditional field, the ball would have hit a wall and bounced back toward the bases. Behind first base at Randall Park, there was nothing but grasshoppers and open space.

Nelson put his head down and headed to second without looking back.

As he ran, Nelson considered the first baseman. Nelson figured this man had probably been put at first base for three reasons: he was tall, he didn’t move around very well and he couldn’t throw well.

Nelson decided he’d round second aggressively forcing the first baseman to make a throw. Nelson’s theory proved right: the first baseman had a terrible arm. A month ago, Nelson would have probably popped up. Instead, he knew how to turn a ground ball into a triple.

The next batter hit a long fly ball to centerfield. The outfielder was forced to charge the ball speed to try to catch it on a fly and keep Nelson from advancing.

The outfielder came up just short and Nelson trotted home.

He happily rang the bell.

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