News and Tribune

August 1, 2013

Going old school on the diamond

Games to bring vintage baseball to New Albany


NEW ALBANY — Baseball didn’t always feature multimillion dollar contracts, steroid allegations and a win-at-all-costs mentality.

In fact, 19th Century baseball games were more like reunions or parties, as teams from little cities and towns around the country would gather for a game that was more about community than competition.

“It was a gentleman’s game,” said Dennis Wiegmann, vice president and player for the Huntington Champion Hill Toppers, as well as the vice president of the Vintage Baseball Association.

Wiegmann and his team will be taking on the Cincinnati Buckeyes in a pair of exhibition games as part of the Old Fashioned Day in the Park and Vintage Baseball Games event in New Albany on Aug. 10.

The games are being held at Binford Park in celebration of New Albany’s bicentennial. The Hill Toppers will face the Buckeyes in a game featuring 1862 baseball rules, and then a second contest that will consist of 1869 guidelines.

And the rules of the game certainly were different back then.

Until 1869, players were ruled out on a batted ball that was caught on a bounce. Instead of aiming for a swing and miss, pitchers even attempted to throw balls that could be hit.

By the way, there weren’t gloves, and the teams won’t use them during the Aug. 10 event, either.

“Originally baseball was created for more of an exercise thing and advanced as time went on,” Wiegmann said.

The event will also feature a lady’s game featuring a New Albany vintage team coached by Letty Walker. She was the coach of the local Business and Professional Women’s softball team in the 1950s and 1960s.

The team went on quite a tear from 1956 to 1969.

Known as the BPW Hoosiers, the squad racked up 10 consecutive Louisville City titles, competed in six word tournaments including a fourth place finish in 1963, and won five consecutive Kentuckiana Slow Pitch Softball tournaments.

The impact the BPW Hoosiers had on girls in the area is one of the reasons organizers planned the vintage baseball event.

“I know from growing up here that we have a big history of baseball and softball in the area,” said Barbara Zoller, president of the Living History Committee which organized the event.

From the BPW Hoosiers to Major League Baseball players and New Albany natives Billy Herman and George Jouett Meekin, the sport is deeply rooted in the city.

When researching information for bicentennial events, Zoller happened upon a New Albany newspaper article from 1866 that depicted a game between some local baseball teams.

She said it wasn’t uncommon to find photos from that era of men donning their Civil War uniforms while playing.

“I think they enjoyed the game, and they brought it home with them,” Zoller said.

And the Living History Committee is attempting to capture that pure enjoyment during the vintage baseball games.

The event is free and open to the public, and Wiegmann said even the umpire, or “judge” as the officials were known by during the 19th Century, plays up to the crowd.

“It’s nothing to get fined for something, a quarter here or a quarter there,” he said.

There are 11 vintage baseball teams in Indiana, and the Hill Toppers typically play about 40 games a year, Wiegmann said.

But the games are about fun and not who wins, he continued.

“It’s one of those things where all of us enjoy the game of baseball, but there’s just something about how it was played” in the past, Wiegmann said.

Games would often be halted so players from an opposing team could congratulate a competitor on a great play, Zoller added.

The Aug. 10 event begins with a ceremony at 11 a.m., followed by the first men’s game from 11:15 to 12:30.

The women’s game is slated for 12:45 to 2:45, as New Albany’s team will play the Lady Diamonds from Columbus, Ohio.

The teams will be wearing time-period uniforms. The women were under more scrutiny at the time, as they had to wear shirts that covered their elbows and long dresses.

Zoller said such a dress code has made for some steamy practices on a few warm summer evenings for the New Albany team.

There won’t be scoreboards, speakers or monster television screens to show replays, but spectators can bring lawn chairs, blankets and picnic baskets and relive the tranquil setting of vintage baseball on Aug. 10.

“It’s just the audience, and it’s just baseball,” Zoller said.