NEW GLOUCESTER, Maine — One hundred and fifty years ago, when batters were called “strikers” and home plate was actually an iron plate, you couldn’t blame the umpire for striking out. There were no called strikes in the early days of a game called “base ball.”
“The only time a strike was called was if the umpire thought the batter was waiting too long for that perfect pitch,” said Bob Hubbard, a third baseman for the Dirigo Vintage Base Ball Club.
The Dirigo club plays by the rules of 1861, when games often were held in farm pastures. Earlier this month, they were challenged by some local high school varsity players in a game held on the infield of a former horse-racing track at the New Gloucester Fairgrounds.
The old game resembles the modern game with a few exceptions. In the mid-19th century, pitches were delivered underhand and a fielder could make the out by catching the ball on the first bounce.
The hand-stitched leather ball is a little bit bigger than a baseball you’d find today. The more it was used the softer it got — which was good since fielders did not use gloves.
The popularity of base ball spread during the Civil War, when soldiers played pick-up games in camp. But unlike the war, the game was not do or die.
“If there was a close play at first base and you knew you were out, it was the gentlemanly thing to do to admit you were out and surrender the out to the other team,” said pitcher Kevin Sullivan. “You probably wouldn’t find that today.”