The clean tock! of a base hit sounds just right to those of us who grew up with wooden bats. But you’d have to be much older than that to recognize the shouts from the crowd.
“Well struck!” a sportsmanlike opponent shouts, in genuine appreciation of a ball soaring over his teammate’s head.
When a ball is caught after a single bounce, the umpire shouts, “Two hands dead!”
Hearty shouts of “Huzzah!” sound absolutely sincere.
These 18 guys in homemade uniforms are playing by 1864 rules, some of the earliest rules for a sport that was in those days known always by two words, separated by a discreetly respectful space: base ball.
It’s a different game, in several respects. There are no called strikes—the only way to strike out is to swing three times—and, for the pitcher, who’s 15 feet closer to the batter than in modern baseball, no called balls. Somehow it results in a faster-paced game, with more hits, more of what the casual baseball fan would appreciate as action. Some batters have averages in the .600s.
One of the most conspicuous differences is that a ball caught on a bounce is an out. That might make 1864 seem an effete version of the game, if not for the fact that none of the players wear gloves. They catch the ball—sometimes on a hop, often on the fly—with their bare hands. The baseball is slightly larger than a modern baseball, but not as big as a softball. Only one ball is used in a game; if it’s hit into the weeds or the creek, as often happens at the Ramsey House grounds, it has to be located before play can proceed.
It’s a tougher sport, without protective gear, maybe analogous to the relationship between rugby and American football. Which makes it all the more remarkable that many of the people who play it aren’t necessarily tough guys or even athletes. These are guys with desk jobs, with a predominance of librarians, professors, authors. Some are well over 40.
Players refer to each other strictly by their base ball nickname: Freight Train, Grapeshot, String Bean, Stove Pipe, Molasses, Butter Bean, Doc.
Together they create an almost perfect illusion in which everybody seems to participate. When a small airplane flies low overhead, there’s an astonished shout. “Witchcraft! What sorcery is that?”
The revival of 1864 rules base ball bounced out of Nashville last year, part of a national movement to play 19th-century ball, but it appears every league chooses its own favorite year. Adam Alfrey, historian and curator of the Museum of East Tennessee History, saw a Nashville game last year. He enjoyed the pageantry of it, thought it looked like a lot of fun, and talked some friends into participating in the state’s own league, the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball. He was specifically intrigued with the prospect of reviving a long-forgotten team called the Holstons, East Tennessee’s baseball champions of the 1860s, and maybe the first local team that got any attention in any sport.
A generation before the first football was ever spotted in East Tennessee, longer still before basketball, Knoxville had baseball. Or base ball.
The narrative of Knoxville base ball hinges on the memory of a clerk named Samuel Dow. He was an old insurance man in the 1920s when he was one of the very few surviving witnesses to the birth of the sport, and he told a detailed, almost fantastic story of the weird summer after the Civil War ended, when soldiers who’d been trying to kill each other for four years returned to the same hometown; and of the day the whole war-crippled community went down to watch the first game.
Naturally, this being Knoxville, it was a contest between partisans of the Union and the Confederacy. Dow was a Union man, and as he told it, he organized Knoxville’s first team, broad-mindedly inviting Confederates to join. But when the erstwhile Rebels didn’t show at the announced organizational meeting at Star Billiards on Gay Street, the Union men formed their own team, and considering the name wasn’t yet taken, called themselves the Knoxvilles. Soon enough they learned the Confederates had been practicing with their own team, the Holstons, named for the river.
Then Dow spoke of the dramatic first game between the two, that summer of 1865, as stores and offices were closed for the day and everyone in town gathered on the hillside above what had been the down dump to watch the game of base ball. Three players suffered serious injuries, including broken bones and concussions. The Knoxvilles won that contest, echoing the recent result at Appomattox.
The man known on the field as Butter Bean can’t prove Dow’s story is untrue, but he has found reason to question it.
The post-Civil War era is murky in lots of respects. Newspapers, our main source for most of what we know about life in the 19th century, are spotty during that chaotic era. Those newspapermen who survived the war were distracted by political news in a rapidly changing country, and those librarians who survived the war weren’t quite as careful about saving what newspapers were published. A lot of stories didn’t get covered, and a lot of those that did get covered got lost. That era leaves plenty of room for legend.
Adam Alfrey has done a good deal of looking, and has not found a contemporary account of base ball in Knoxville before 1867—but that was a very big year for base ball here, and it included several incidents similar to those Dow describes as happening in a single game in 1865. Perhaps for the purpose of improving the narrative, Alfrey suggests, Dow may have conflated several true stories and moved them two years earlier, almost to suggest it might have been part of the Civil War itself, into a single game of mythological symbolism and gravity.
It’s agreed that it all happened on Gay barely north of Union, a steep slope descending to a small floodplain that had been used as the town dump. It became the Knoxville Grounds, or the Base Ball Grounds, or, within six or seven years, a place of almost legendary significance, the Old Base Ball Grounds. Home plate, according to Dow, was around where the foundation of today’s Downtown Grill and Brewery is. Batters swung toward the north, and Dow said the goal was to try to hit one all the way to the train yards.
Alfrey hasn’t completely confirmed Dow’s memories concerning the partisanship of Knoxville’s first two teams. He knows some of the Knoxvilles were Unionists and some of the Holstons were Confederates. As if to put the war behind them, the Holstons wore Yankee blue. Within a couple of years, despite the early out-of-the-chute stumble, the Holstons became the better known of Knoxville’s teams, respected as regional champs by the late 1860s. The game instantly attracted gamblers, and some players apparently got paid to play.
By the 1870s, a Knoxville team associated with the growing university was known as the Reds. Professional minor-league baseball emerged in the 1890s, starting the occasionally broken chain now known as the Tennessee Smokies. By then, baseball had left downtown, for places like Baldwin Park, along Ailor Avenue on the west side, or Chilhowee Park on the east side, eventually settling at Caswell Park, named for its benefactor, William Caswell, a neighbor who was, incidentally, an early fielder for the Knoxville Holstons. It had been obliged to move, in large part, because large buildings had been built on the Old Base Ball Grounds.
Despite the unanswered questions about verifiable truth versus legend, the Knoxville Holstons form plenty enough of a heritage for a historian like Alfrey to build on.
The Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball consists of eight teams, most of them located in the greater Nashville area. Besides the Holstons, another area favorite is the Dry Town Boys, based in Harriman and named for that town’s famous Victorian-era association with prohibition. Tennessee plays strictly 1864 rules, when they’re playing at home, but other states and regions have their own preferences; an Ohio league prefers 1871 rules—no out-on-one-bounce for them—and vintage teams generally respect the preferred rules of the home team.
The Holstons don’t have tryouts. “It’s whoever gets the beginners’ fee on the barrelhead first,” Alfrey says. It’s $100 a year for beginners—and you have to come up with your own uniform—but just $75 for veterans, that is, those who started playing this year.
The latter-day Holstons may not be championship contenders in 2014, as they face the dauntless Nashville Maroons on Saturday, in the latter half of a double-header at World’s Fair Park. Currently the Holstons are tied for sixth place, with the Franklin Farriers. But Alfrey is proud of the team, and how the community has responded. One game at Ramsey House about six weeks ago drew 400 spectators. The Three Rivers Rambler, the excursion train from downtown, reaches its terminus within walking distance of the ball field, and base ball fever has filled a few passenger trains. And it’s just their first year.
Vintage Base Ball Double-header
Dry Town Boys vs. Franklin Farriers at noon
Nashville Maroons vs. Knoxville Holstons at 2:30 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 16
World’s Fair Park