It was a perfect summer day Saturday for some vintage base ball at Historic Fort Hays.
In a continuation of the 150th anniversary of Fort Hays, the historic site featured a game of America’s pastime, played according to rules in 1869.
The Topeka Westerns, a vintage team that’s been playing for approximately four years, was the visiting team against a Fort Hays team made up of local players.
Baseball was not an unusual event on the frontier, even away from the military posts, Mark Eberle told the crowd before the game.
Eberle, a program specialist in the Fort Hays State University biological sciences department, is a volunteer with the Society of Friends of Fort Hays and the author of “Kansas Baseball, 1858-1941,” published this year by the University Press of Kansas.
“Life on the prairie was rather boring, and so a lot of teams were formed for something to do,” he said.
Nearly every military encampment had a team, and they would play teams from other encampments or nearby towns, Eberle said. The 7th Cavalry was one of the most prominent units that competed.
“Some of their players had hoped to go on to play for national league teams when they were discharged. So they were really bragging about their baseball skills,” he said.
That bragging even included sending messengers to towns with telegraph lines to send stories about games to New York newspapers, he said.
The military teams even would play while out on patrol across the plains while searching for Native American tribes.
“The Indians didn’t particularly want to be found, and so they spend a lot of time just riding around through the prairies. They would occasionally stop and play baseball to take a break.
“The funny thing is, they could never find the Cheyenne, but they managed to run into other patrols on a regular basis,” he said.
As the military forts transitioned from cavalry units to infantry, playing town teams became more popular.
“It was something for them to do besides going into town and getting drunk,” Eberle said.
Even though a Hays City town team played against soldiers at the fort, it was something the team members would deny.
“It was kind of considered something that gentlemen didn’t really do out on the plains,” Eberle said.
In Hays City, the first game on record was in 1869 on the parade grounds of the fort. Tournaments were played where FHSU’s Lewis Field is now through the 1880s. The $100 cash prize attracted teams from all over western Kansas, Eberle said.
Shane “Buckshot” Beebe, who plays for the Old Cowtown Vintage Base Ball Club in Wichita, was umpire for Saturday’s game and explained some of differences in the rules from today.
“One thing you see will be different is the ball is pitched underhand. It had to be next to you and not above your waist,” he said.
One of the most noticeable differences is the players don’t use gloves. It wasn’t until the 1890s that gloves became commonly used in baseball.
Bats could be any length and made of any kind of wood, as long as they were no larger than 2 inches in diameter.
Aaron Staab, a captain of the Topeka Westerns, said the hardest rule to get used to was to not overrun first base. Doing so counts as an out.
Staab, whose ancestors were among those to founded Catharine, is on the national board of Vintage Base Ball Association. He said the Westerns try to make their games authentic, even though no original photographs of the team are known to exist.
The team played from 1870 to 1882.
“We know they wore the knee breeches,” he said, indicating his uniform.
Staab said he enjoys the sport for its family atmosphere.
“We have fathers and sons that play,” he said.
Beebe said he hoped Hays could put together a team that could play against the Cowtown and Topeka teams, the only vintage baseball clubs in the state.