Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Vintage baseball team honors Civil War soldiers, traditions of the game

Part 1: Georgia fort teams square off Sunday

Gib "Judge" Young can't quite see second base when he's umpiring for the Huntington Champion Hill Toppers, a group of guys who play old-timey baseball in Indiana.

Not to worry.

Sometimes he all ask fans, cranks as their known in the parlance, whether a ball was caught for an out or if a player was tagged in time.

He might even call a vote.

"The players accept that. There is no arguing," said Young. "Only a ruffian or a common laborer would argue with an umpire."

Welcome to this Indiana town's version of vintage baseball.

The Hill Toppers play by 1862 rules, used during the Civil War and used by ballists (players) in the Union Army. Popular in New York and parts of the Northeast before the war, baseball spread like wildfire after it, with amateur and community teams forming in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic states.

The Hill Toppers follow Vintage Base Ball Association rules, but there are some allowances for their graying ranks when they play at home -- virtually no stealing or sliding. Nine-inning games seldom last longer than 75 minutes.

"We play for the spirit of the game and camraderie and the aim of nobody getting hurt," says Dennis "Pops" Wiegmann, 33, a hurler (pitcher) for the Hill Toppers. (photo, above)

The team, formed in 2005, was named in honor of a pivotal Mississippi battle in May 16, 1863. The Battle of Champion Hill occurred during Ulysses S. Grant’s operations against Vicksburg. The bloody clash ended in a full Confederate retreat.

Seventeen boys from Huntington County, southwest of Fort Wayne, were killed or mortally wounded in the engagement.

Young, who had several ancestors who fought for the Union, said Huntington has one of the few remaining Grand Army of the Republic room's in the state, on the second floor of the courthouse.

The GAR, the largest Union veterans group, was hugely influential in Indiana and other states for a few decades after the war.

"If you were Republican and wanted to be elected, you wanted to have the GAR on your side," he said.

The Vintage Base Ball Association (VBBA), with about 115 teams, posts several 19th-century rules on its website and provides a history of the game, which has evolved over 150 years.

Vintage teams pitch the ball underhanded and can get a player out by catching a fly ball or the ball on one bounce. Ballists use no gloves. Strikes and balls are not called as they are today, because it's a hitter's game. Walks are not issued.

"Before the Civil War there was a contest between the Massachusetts game (rounders) and the New York game, like it is today. The New York game was more popular and competitive and won out," said Young.

The farther west it traveled, the game became more community-oriented, rather than the focus on the club.

One St. Louis team, became an artillery unit during the Civil War, according to Young.

"There were games played in various camps," he said. "By the time the war ended, there probably wasn't a county in the North where someone wasn't exposed to or played in the game of baseball."

Last year, the modern-day Hoosiers traveled to Gettysburg, Pa., to play the game (photo, right).

Wiegmann, a school teacher, says the game of that era -- before it became more professional -- was focused on gentlemanly conduct and getting the ball over the plate, so the striker (batter) could hit it.

"You cheer a guy (even on the other team) when they make a good play," said Wiegmann.

The VBBA is most popular in the Northeast and Midwest, with Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, New York and Massachusetts leading the way. There are only a handful of teams in the South and West.

Observers say VBBA teams in the East are more competitive and strictly adhere to the rules.

For the VBBA's Hill Toppers, a game is as much a social event as an athletic enterprise.

After every match, the host team hosts a meal for the opposing teams, with names like the Deep River Grinders, Cincinnati Buckeyes and the Cleveland Blues.

That doesn't mean the Hill Toppers don't try to come out with a win -- but it's how they play the game that matters as much as the score.

"When I hurl I try to get it to a place where they swing. I don't put it right where they want it," said Wiegmann.

Getting new players and fans is not easy at a time when social media means more than group participation.

Without sponsorship, players on the team must pay for uniforms, postgame meals and other expenses.

"Eighteen-year-old old boys have a hard time spending money that way," said Young. The average age of the Hill Toppers roster is about 50.

Interaction with the fans is an important part of vintage baseball. The umpire and ballists have a lot of fun with it.

The Hill Toppers lead a team song at the end of the seventh inning.

"When we do get them (fans), the judge issues finds for spitting and cussing," said Wiegmann. "When a lady wears shorts, he might admonish players for looking at a lady's ankles. They have to play a quarter fine."

Young, 63, is a State Farm agent with many interests, including membership in the Sons of Union Veterans. He also makes appearances as President Theodore Roosevelt.

A founder of the Hill Toppers, Young (photo, left) said baseball is a romantic and historic game that grew during the Industrial Age.

The umpire's main role is ensuring decorum and good sportsmanship on the field.

"We are gentlemen ballists first. We are sportsmen," said Young. "Arguing is beneath us. Our guys like that part of the game. Winning or losing does not matter. When we get new people, we tell them, what matters is we have a good time."

All photos courtesy of Dennis Wiegmann, except for photo of Gib Young.

Huntington Champion Hill Toppers
Vintage Base Ball Association


  1. Forgive me for posting to such an outdated entry, but I came across this whilst searching for inspiration for vintage base ball club names.

    Many thanks, sir, for your coverage of the fine sport, and the upstanding gentlemen of the Huntington Hilltoppers Base Ball Club. Your review of the sport, the spirit behind it, and the enthusiasm of those who are ballists and cranks is spot on - a finer group of folks would be hard to come by!