It's baseball played by 1886 rules, when pitchers were hurlers, batters were strikers, spit balls were OK, padded gloves hadn't been invented, and you'd end the game with a gentlemanly Hip, Hip, Huzzah!
During his three-year career playing for the Keene State baseball team, Pete Duda '95 was considered a student of the game. Whether he was squatting behind the plate or sitting in the dugout, the former Owl receiver relished the opportunity to talk baseball and match wits with coaches and teammates over the nuances of the game.
Duda, who grew up in Bedford, Mass., collecting cards and other baseball memorabilia from the turn of the century, recently took his love for old-time baseball a step further by stepping back – in time. "I liked how they once played the game and always wanted to get into it," Duda said.
A few years ago, Duda saw a story on local TV about a vintage baseball team from Providence. Fascinated, he contacted the team along with a couple of other clubs that had sprouted up around New England, but none of them had room on its roster. Duda took matters into his own hands and formed his own vintage baseball team.
After attending a meeting with representatives from the Hartford team to learn about the league and the Vintage Base Ball Association (VBBA), Duda began recruiting players. "Until you see a game, a lot of people don't understand," Duda explained. "They hear vintage baseball and they think it's a league made up of old-timers." Even his former Keene State roommates were skeptical.
"My first reaction was, holy cow, no glove. How am I going to write the next day after catching a ball with my bare hand?" said Marc Dube '00, who played a couple of seasons in the Owls' outfield.
"It was an interesting phone call to say the least," added Marc's older brother Mike Dube '97. "It took a little bit of thought, but I finally told him to sign me up. It really triggered the competitive side of my personality, which softball wasn't reaching."
Quickly gathering up 12 players, including former Owls Sean Barry '96, Scott Power '96, and the Dube brothers, Duda turned his attention to the next step: getting the equipment.
First, Duda and his teammates purchased replica gloves. Unlike today's mammoth baseball glove, the 19th-century glove resembled a tight-fitting leather work glove. Not used to the sting of the ball at first, the players began bouncing their throws until they built up a tolerance for the pain.
No one takes a beating more than the catcher. Playing behind the plate with no shin guards and an old chest protector and mask can be hazardous to one's health. Just ask Duda, who has tried everything short of bribery to get another player to help him with the backstop chores. Even players in the field aren't immune to injuries. The recently married Barry jammed his ring finger making a catch. "It swelled up and I couldn't wear my wedding ring for six months," said Barry, who spent some time in the New York Mets organization after leaving KSC. "My wife gave me a lot of heat."
Except for its dimensions, the baseball of the past was also different: gray instead of white, and a little softer. Back then, the rule was one ball per game. Hard balls that traveled far in the early innings would lose their pop as the game continued. The secret was to score early and often. And foul balls? It wasn't uncommon to see both teams in the woods hunting for the baseball.
Even Babe Ruth might have had a tough time swinging the heavy ash bats of the time. And the uniforms, made out of 100 percent wool, were no bargain either. "We played a game in high humidity in Providence and we could've wrung out our shirts afterwards," said Mike Dube. "They'd be perfect for Keene State during its cold games in March and April."
According to the Vintage Base Ball Association (www.vbba.org), which began in 1995, the sport has grown to include nearly 170 clubs in 25 states, including five teams in New England. (There is also a Ladies Vintage Base Ball League.) Teams choose among different eras of play. Duda's club decided on using 1886 rules because they were the closest to modern day and, for the first time, allowed a pitcher to deliver the ball overhand.
You can't have a team without a name, so Duda did some homework. "I was researching at the historical society and came across a team called the Manchester Granites," Duda recalls. "It had a nice ring to it, but I didn't want to be tied down to one city, so I changed it to the New Hampshire Granites."
Duda solicited the help of his wife, Monique Forgues Duda '96, sister Kimberly Duda Pessoni '99, and Barry's wife, Justine Innie Barry, to spread the word about the Granites, serve on the board, and help market the team. They even have a website: www.newhampshiregranite.org.
Monique, a former KSC athletic trainer, said the families showed up at games in the clothing of the era. "The guys came with their derby hats, suspenders, and cigars, and the women arrived in skirts and aprons and big hats," she said. "It was a lot of fun." The nostalgic atmosphere rubbed off on the players, too. "For a second you feel like you stepped into a time machine," Marc Dube said.
The New Hampshire Granites, who began their season in early April, play their games on a variety of fields ranging from football and Little League fields to Holman Stadium in Nashua. The team also plays several barnstorming games. "We'd just find an open field, step off the bases (80 paces), and play," said Duda. "That's how they did it in the old days."
The Granites finished last year's inaugural season with a surprising 8-1 record. "We had players from all different backgrounds, some we saw only during the nine times we were on the field, and we quickly became a team," said Duda.
"At the end of the day, it's still baseball," said Marc Dube. "You still have to catch and throw the ball and still have to hit. But there's also a lot to worry about. As VBBA rule number one states: 'There's no such thing as a routine play.'"
The adjustments are as much mental as they are physical. Facing a hard-throwing pitcher standing just 50 feet away, Dube remembers feeling terrified as he stood in the batter's box in his first game. "The only thing on my mind was, 'He's throwing pretty hard and I don't have a helmet on!"'
There's a lot of give and take when it comes to the rules. While batters are hampered by not being able to leave the box (even if they break a bat), pitchers can have a field day with no limits on quick pitches, balks, and the always popular hidden ball trick. "I pulled it off in the first game of the year," boasted Mike Dube.
The games are both fun and competitive. One moment you might be joking with an opponent on the bases, the next he's trying to bowl you over to break up a double play. But after the last out is made, both teams, along with family and friends, picnic together and talk about the game. "It's a gentleman's game," Duda said. "There's respect from players and fans alike."
Duda has ambitious plans for the Granites' second season. The team is planning a trip to Stillwater, Minn., and could eventually head out to California to play some of the more established teams. "It's very flattering that some of the older teams already want to play us," said Duda.
Monique Duda thinks the team's success can be traced back to its Keene State roots. "I think they benefit because several of the guys have played together," she said. "It gives them a distinct advantage over other teams."
"It's almost like a KSC alumni game," added Power. "It brings back good memories."
Mike Dube said playing vintage baseball not only allowed him the chance to play with his brother and former Owl teammates, but also made him more appreciative of the game. "It makes you realize that a lot of today's players are prima donnas," Dube said. "When you go back to the roots of the game and how it was played, you had to be an athlete."
Dube also tips his cap to Duda for following through on his dream. "You have to give Pete a lot of credit. His efforts have been phenomenal," Dube said. "Peter Duda is a very committed individual. When he decides he's going to do something, like the way he approaches vintage baseball, he's very serious. But he still knows how to have fun. Who else could get a bunch of Keene State baseball alums together to try to catch a small round ball with nothing but your bare hand?"
Stuart Kaufman is KSC's sports information coordinator.