Vyrl Brown, Hays, was in the crowd Saturday on the lawn at Historic Fort Hays watching 12 men from Hays and eight from Emporia play vintage baseball, a game with wooden bats, old-time baseballs, no gloves, and 1864 rules.
“I’ve been a baseball fan for years,” said Brown, who was with family and friends. But normally he’s watching the Hays Larks or Fort Hays State.
“It’s just with this the rules are so much different,” he said, pausing and watching the field at the cracking sound of the bat connecting with the ball. Emporia players scrambled as the ball sailed into the outfield, while a Post Nine hitter headed for first.
“It’s just enjoyable to watch them run after the ball with no fence in the outfield, but they can still get them out, just like that,” Brown said pointing to the runner called out, “nowadays that would have been a home run.”
When a barehanded outfielder caught a high-fly ball, Lucy Lippert, Gorham, was among those in the crowd who oooh-ed and then groaned. “Oh my goodness,” Lippert said. “God that’s gotta hurt.”
“This is my third or fourth time,” said Lippert, for attending the twice-a-year vintage games, which commemorates the way baseball was played back when the 5th U.S. Infantry and 7th U.S. Cavalry were playing the game in the 1870s at the Fort Hays frontier post.
With the historic guardhouse behind right field, and the fort’s blockhouse out toward left field, the players' benches Saturday were stationed by what was the officer’s quarters.
At the start of the game around 11 a.m., Ryan Gottschalk, Hays, and Arnie “Whiskers” Anderson, Allen, brought their teams together to settle some rules for the day.
No stealing. No sliding. No running through first. With a hit, one bounce and it’s caught, whether fair or foul, the batter is out. And no walking if the batter gets hit.
“The pitcher will take off his cap and apologize,” explained Rick “Bootlegger” Buck, Emporia. “Theoretically.”
“This is the first time we’ve played here,” said Buck of the fort. “Other than the tree in center field, I like it a lot.”
If the ball goes into the big evergreen, suggested Gottschalk as the teams huddled to sort out the rules at game’s start, “Either play it or throw up your hands.”
On second thought, the players decided, “If somebody hits it in there and we can’t get it out, they can get two bases,” said Anderson.
Tanner Willhoft, Hays, got the first score of the game, with a hit that sent him around the bases and had him winded upon crossing home plate. Willhoft gave some credit to Saturday’s 16-mile-an-hour breeze that had the American flags, posted to mark out of bounds, flying straight out.
“I ran to second and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a long way,’” he laughed. “I hit it well, though, it felt good, and the wind helped, it’s pushing out to left field.”
The Post Nine is one of only four vintage ball teams in Kansas, besides Emporia, Wichita and Topeka, said Leroy Riedel, a volunteer at the fort who organizes the scheduling, and who was called in at the last minute as umpire. The team plays once in the spring and once in the fall in Hays, and travels elsewhere in Kansas to play the other teams. Riedel expects there could be other games in the future with teams in Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas.
It all started two years ago when the fort fielded its first team as part of the 150th-anniversary activities.
“The guys that played liked it so much, they said let’s do it again,” Riedel said. “The fort’s Society of Friends bought the uniforms and we set up the team.”
Saturday was the first time watching vintage baseball for Hays Larks coach Frank Leo, who sat front row with his wife, Barb.
Leo, who also coached the Hays High Indians for 39 years, admitted he was trying to figure out the rules.
“It’s not a pitcher’s duel like you see a lot now, where pitchers dominate the game,” Leo said. “There’s a lot of action and the ball’s put into play on nearly every pitch.”
Pitches are underhand, he noted, and straightforward, with no fastballs, curveballs or anything else.
“They’ve got the wind in their favor, but they swing it pretty aggressively,” he said. “They know what’s coming, and they gear up for it.”
Watching the game Saturday, Leo mentioned the Larks' 75th-anniversary next summer, with the team planning a big commemorative weekend.
“The thought came to my mind; it might be kind of neat to have a vintage game prior to a Lark’s game,” Leo said.
The vintage game, he said, is more laid back.
“The guys seem really relaxed and having fun. It kind of brings you back in time,” Leo said. “It’s kind of like the old sandlot days, where you find a flat surface, get some bags out and play. Who knows, I might find a future Lark out here I can recruit.”
It’s true - vintage ball is fun and challenging, especially the no-gloves part, said Post Nine’s Gottschalk, who ramrods the team, but has a day job as the owner of Master Cleaners, 200 W. 8th.
“It’s simple, it’s kind of like when you were little and you’d go out in the yard with a Wiffle ball and bat,” said Gottschalk, who played for TMP High School before graduating in 1996. “With no gloves, though, it’s definitely harder to field a ball.”
Batting is different too.
“With the wooden bat, if you hit it off the handle or the end of the bat, it stings your hands,” he said. “You can feel it vibrate through your hands … It lets you know if you hit it or not. If you hit it square, you don’t even feel it.”
As an observer, Gabe Hardman, Hays, echoed the laid back feel of the vintage game.
A Larks fan, he takes his four kids to as many games as he can, but Saturday it was all about the vintage ball, he said.
“It’s a core part of Americana, this is baseball at its grassroots,” said Hardman. “This is just baseball at its purest, you don’t come out here and play if you don’t love it.”