Playing like it’s 1886, Bay Area vintage baseball league honors game’s origins

San Francisco Pacifics' Will Hartman throws a pitch in a game against the Dublin Aces at Big Rec Ballfield in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on Aug. 28. Bay Area Vintage Baseball is a league in which teams dress and play according to 1880s rules.
Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

No batting helmets, batting gloves or metal bats. No uniforms with names or numbers. No eye black, high fives or intentional walks.

The umpire is “the sir” and smokes a cigar, and if a player — or ballist — commits an infraction such as cussing or spitting, “especially in the presence of a lady,” he’s subject to a fine.

There are three strikes but seven balls, and foul balls aren’t strikes; just no-pitches. You get drilled, you don’t get a free base; it’s simply a ball. The pitcher — or hurler — isn’t on the mound but in a box, and quick pitches are allowed, even encouraged.

It’s 1886, after all.

Welcome to Bay Area Vintage Base Ball, a 10-team league with representation in the city, East Bay and South Bay.

On any given Sunday, men dressed in 1880s base ball gear play with 1880s baseball equipment and by 1880s baseball rules in the heart of Golden Gate Park (and other Bay Area locales) as they try to look, feel and perform like it was 140 years ago.

That means big, heavy, wooden bats that are 35 inches in length and 40 ounces in weight (basically a table leg), web-less gloves better suited for gardening than catching and balls that are slightly smaller than today’s MLB version, with stitches that are lower and not as tightly wound — remember, this is pre-deadball era.

And, of course, loosely fitted pants and jerseys (tattered is an accepted fashion) with 19th century pillbox caps.

“I moved out here 10 years ago and was just walking through the park when I saw this crazy outfit playing a different version of baseball that looked fun,” said Rob Nolin, shortstop for the San Francisco Pelicans, one of five city-based teams. “It’s a tribute to the origin of baseball.”

Baseball has evolved over the years, decades and centuries. The vintage league focused on 1886 when determining its guidelines because that’s about the time it was modernizing, with the introduction of overhand pitching and elimination of the rule that a ball caught on a bounce is an out.

The San Francisco Pacifics are 2022 B.A.V.B.B. champs after defeating the East Division champion Berkeley Clarions in the Championship Match. It’s the fourth consecutive for the Pacs and the seventh in team history.— Bay Area Vintage Base Ball (@BAVBB) September 11, 2022

At the time, the sir stood several feet from the plate. The same ball was used throughout the game, when possible, meaning it got mushier in the later innings. The batter chose between a high strike zone (shoulders to waist) or low strike zone (waist to knees).

BAVBB has all of that. One difference: Because catchers weren’t protected as they are today, the league’s catchers (the behinds) are permitted to wear a chest protector, but shin guards and knee pads are supposed to be covered. The catcher’s mitt is modernized — if 1915 is considered modern. It’s without laces.

Cleats? Better be black. If not, get a sharpie and black out the swoosh or any other company logo.

“Everybody’s out here for the love of it,” league press secretary Terry Forte said. “It’s a very pure form of the game. There’s the performative aspect of it, but no one lets that get in the way of the spirit of the competition. Everybody’s going hard. Everybody’s trying to win.”

Left: Umpire Carl Gibbs, known as “the sir.” (Courtesy of Stanley Ng) Right: Pacifics manager Sage Bray, known as “Buttercup,” speaks with player Justin Tiesl at Big Rec Ballfield in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on Aug. 28. (Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle)

In the old days, depending on the league and region, rowdy behavior wasn’t uncommon, but BAVBB founders favored a more civil game with respect shown to foes, cranks (fans) and sirs (umpires). An infielder will offer a hand to pull up a runner who slid into a base. A call can be reversed by ballists involved in a play if the sir was blocked from view and missed the call.

By the way, the sir usually assigned to Big Rec matches is Carl Gibbs, who plays the part by wearing a top hat, vest and tie and puffing on his cigar between calls. The sir is in charge of updating the scoreboard, which is nothing more than numbers scribbled in chalk at the base of the backstop.

According to the league’s old-timers, the level of play has greatly improved since its 2006 inception. The hurler’s velocity is higher. So is the probability of catching a flyball with those flimsy gloves.

“The equipment makes it so challenging that you celebrate making outs as opposed to being frustrated when you can’t make outs,” said Sage Bray, captain (manager) of the Pacifics. “When I joined the league 15 years ago, if you told me 70% of flyballs hit toward an outfielder would be caught, which is the case now, I’d be stunned. When I joined, I’d say that number was 30%. The league has evolved to where everyone is good.”

Nolin, a former college quarterback and cousin of former A’s pitcher Sean Nolin, said, “The gloves even the playing field. No ball is easy to catch, so it makes it even for everybody. You could have crazy star athletes and just fans of the game, and it balances itself out.”

Vintage batting gloves (top left), baseballs (top right), baseball bats (bottom left) and catcher’s gear (bottom right) are all used in the Bay Area Vintage Baseball league, as seen during a game between the San Francisco Pacifics and Dublin Aces at Big Rec Ballfield in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on Aug. 28. (Photos by Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle)

Gazay, 33, still plays on the Dukes. The league is winding down its 2022 season. The Pacifics beat the Berkeley Clarions 10-2 in last Sunday’s championship match, and the annual Golden Gate Cup, a single-elimination, league-wide tournament, is under way.