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Vintage baseball an ode to game's history

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GREENFIELD — An open expanse of green grass at Riley Park became Greenfield’s Field of Dreams Saturday as baseball players from a bygone era emerged from the afternoon mist for nine innings of “the gentleman’s game.”

The Indianapolis Hoosiers, a reincarnation of the squad originally formed in 1884 to play in the old American Association and then reorganized in 1887 for a two-year stint in the National League, hosted the diamond men from Freetown Village, the capital city’s living history organization celebrating African-American culture. The game was part of the weekend’s Riley Festival.

And it didn’t take long to set up. Victorian-era baseball — or base ball, as it was known then — was a decidedly Spartan affair: four bases, a couple of hand-wound baseballs and a bag of skinny hickory and maple bats is all that’s needed to transform an empty field into a ball park.

After Hoosier Jim “Mountain” Walker explained the “home field” rules of play — not always necessary since almost any obstacle and hazard was playable in those days — the game was on in its simplest form.

One ball, no gloves, underhanded pitching, no umpires, no infield fly rule, and if a deep drive is caught on one bounce, the batter is out. That rule closes off a vintage field considerably.

“Of course, power is never a bad thing,” said Daniel “The Codger” Hook, one of the original Hoosiers from 2005. “But this game is much less about power as it is about placement.”

Hook and the others say they are drawn to the vintage version of the game because of its purity and civility.

It’s much more gentlemanly,” said Jordan “Black Jack” Updike. “It’s the perfect balance between competition and fun.”

Make no mistake, when the big men, Hoosier Dwight Podgurski and Freetown’s Phillip “Mr. Big” Glover, take their cuts, they’re swinging for the … trees, since there were rarely fences on the old ball fields. But there was no malice in their mighty rips.

“It wasn’t unusual for the winning team to sing a song written especially for the losing team complimenting their efforts,” Podgurski said.

With what little equipment needed to play the game available from vintage specialty companies, there’s little to do but sign on and make the circuit, which takes the Hoosiers throughout central Indiana and as far away as St. Louis for tournaments.

But Saturday, it was 10 men on an open field much like it was 167 years ago when the first recorded base ball game was played. There was barking and chatter and grunts from mighty swings. When a Freetowner hit a sharp single up the middle, the Hoosiers’ first baseman offered a compliment common to that time: “Good ball, sir.”

Bernard McFarland, former dean of students at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, said he was drawn to the game because of the history it brings to life.

“I’m a historian,” McFarland said, warming up before the game. “I love history.”

When asked for a prediction on the game’s outcome, McFarland fairly captured why the men took the field on a misting and cloudy Saturday afternoon.

“I think everyone that comes here today will win.” McFarland said.

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