Throwback Baseball Leagues Catch On

Pete "Junior" Shanazu and Greg "Hawk" Dengel i

In a pre-game ritual, Pete "Junior" Shanazu of the Bridgeport Orators and Greg "Hawk" Dengel of the Brooklyn Atlantics figure out who has home team advantage. Craig Lemoult for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Craig Lemoult for NPR
Pete "Junior" Shanazu and Greg "Hawk" Dengel

In a pre-game ritual, Pete "Junior" Shanazu of the Bridgeport Orators and Greg "Hawk" Dengel of the Brooklyn Atlantics figure out who has home team advantage.

Craig Lemoult for NPR
The Bridgeport Orators salute their opponents after the game. i

The Bridgeport Orators salute their opponents, the Brooklyn Atlantics, after the game. Left to right: Brian "Barkeep" Donnelly, "Gentleman" Ben Fortney, Dave "Irish" Farrell, Jay "Papi" Ortiz, Paul "Professor" Ferrante, Dave "Gozer the Closer" Gleza and Matty "Big Dawg" Ayotte. Craig Lemoult for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Craig Lemoult for NPR
The Bridgeport Orators salute their opponents after the game.

The Bridgeport Orators salute their opponents, the Brooklyn Atlantics, after the game. Left to right: Brian "Barkeep" Donnelly, "Gentleman" Ben Fortney, Dave "Irish" Farrell, Jay "Papi" Ortiz, Paul "Professor" Ferrante, Dave "Gozer the Closer" Gleza and Matty "Big Dawg" Ayotte.

Craig Lemoult for NPR

As baseball season gets started, some players are rediscovering the joy of the sport by looking back — way back. Their hats have short brims. Their team initials are stitched on a rectangle of fabric buttoned to their long-sleeved collared shirts. And the strangest thing of all is this: No one in the field is wearing a glove.

"Vintage is without a glove. Only sissies wear a mitt," says Mickey Tangel, a retired teacher.

Tangel is a member of the Brooklyn Atlantics, one of about 250 vintage baseball teams around the country. His team traveled to Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn., one recent Sunday to play the Bridgeport Orators in a game of baseball the way it was played in 1864.

"This is pure," Tangel says. "Pure baseball."

Some people might think playing vintage baseball in modern times smacks of war re-enactments. But the president of the 12-year-old national Vintage Baseball Association, Glenn Drinkwater, says vintage baseball is different because it's an actual game.

"If you're re-enacting the Battle of Gettysburg, you already know ahead of time who wins and who loses," he says. "If you're playing a vintage baseball game ... you can actually win this thing."

American baseball originated around the 1830s, with the first newspaper account of a baseball game published on Sept. 11, 1845. Drinkwater has been studying old newspaper clippings and historical records for years in order to understand exactly how early versions of the game were played. He found that there were two main sets of rules, and there's a hot debate within the vintage world over which is better. In 1860s games, pitching was underhand and there were no gloves. In 1880s games, pitchers threw overhand and players wore mitts the size of gardening gloves.

The 1880s game has its own World Series, which is organized by Jim Bouton, who played for the New York Yankees in the 1960s. He says modern day baseball is like professional wrestling: all about show. That's why he loves the vintage game.

"No chest bumping, high fiving, trash talking, hot dogging, pointing to the sky or kissing jewelry. Just baseball," Bouton says. "And that's why I love the game better than what you're seeing on television."

The players range in age from their 20s to their 60s. Many of them, like Bouton, say they joined vintage teams because they were sick of overly competitive baseball leagues.

"I've been playing hardball my whole life," says James Caparosa, a pitcher for the Orators. "I've played college ball, semi-pro ball, and this is the most fun I've had playing baseball since I was 7 years old."

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