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Thursday, 17 July 2014 00:00

Vintage base ball a big hit at Old World Wisconsin

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Eagle Diamonds teammates watch striker (batter) Mike “Pancake” VanderBunt’s knock (hit) to the garden (outfield) in the club’s 11-9 vintage base ball victory over the Milwaukee Grays on July 12 at Old World Wisconsin’s Ward School field. Eagle Diamonds teammates watch striker (batter) Mike “Pancake” VanderBunt’s knock (hit) to the garden (outfield) in the club’s 11-9 vintage base ball victory over the Milwaukee Grays on July 12 at Old World Wisconsin’s Ward School field. Photo courtesy of Mike Morbeck

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- The barrister tallied the aces in the nine-round match and made sure the audience was involved, allowing them to twice decide the striker’s fate.

PHOTO GALLERY

And even though strikers knocked the apple around and stepped on the dish, the match got serious when women cranks let the ballists adjust their uniforms.

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Translation: The umpire kept score in the nine-inning game and twice asked the crowd to make the safe or out call for runners at first base. Batters hit the ball and many runners crossed home plate, but female fans decided whether players could roll up the sleeves of their extremely warm jerseys.

Such was the terminology and etiquette of the day during the 1860s, and participants in the vintage base ball (two words) game displayed both with gusto -- on and off the field -- on an overcast, muggy July 12 at Old World Wisconsin.

The host Eagle Diamonds, even though they batted first after losing the coin toss, defeated the Milwaukee Grays, 11-9. However, these contests aren’t about winning and losing, because everyone at the living history museum’s Ward School field deserved a heartfelt huzzah (hurrah)!

The sport is celebrating its 10th anniversary season at the facility near Eagle, and Ryan Schwartz said it fits perfectly with the museum’s mission.

“Baseball has been a big part of our heritage, and the goal of Old World Wisconsin is to nurture people’s interest in state history,” said Schwartz, in his first year as the liaison between the site and the team. “We wanted to incorporate the program as part of our master plan, because baseball is at the core of the American spirit and who we are.”

And thus, late curator Marty Perkins’ efforts to start base ball was realized. And those bygone days are played out once per month from June through September at the pastoral setting -- not many ballparks’ outfield skylines feature an old silo -- near the Norwegian area of the site.

“There are a lot of vintage base ball teams, but none are as historically accurate, especially Marty’s painstaking work on the uniforms,” Schwartz said. “Marty picked the Waukesha Diamonds of 1867 to replicate, and we play by every nuance of those rules. We’ve got historically minded fans, and feedback we’ve received has been astronomically positive.”

One ballist who understands that spirit as well or better than most is Mike VanderBunt, a Delafield native who has lived in Williams Bay for about 10 years.

“We’ve been bringing our kids for years, so this is a special place,” said VanderBunt, who played baseball at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and in Germany and is in his second year in uniform for the Diamonds. “I love it and it’s one of the coolest things I’ve done in baseball. I’ve learned so much … it shows how little most of us know about the history of the sport, and it’s special to share it with our kids and others.

“It’s also the sportsmanship and camaraderie between the two teams and with the fans,” VanderBunt added. “We’re all learning the history of the game … most think it started with Babe Ruth or the 1927 (New York) Yankees, but it goes far beyond that.”

Two of the dozens of fans who showed up July 12 were first-timers and friends Joe Brill and Ruth Gundlach of Madison.

“We’ve been trying to come over for the past two years, but something always came up,” Gundlach said. “This has totally been worth it.”

Brill is a longtime Brewers fan and Milwaukee native who agreed.

“Old World Wisconsin is a great place, and this has been most enjoyable, just seeing what the smaller field is and the conversations between the batters and umpire, it’s just a different mentality,” Brill said. “I was surprised by the age of the players … there’s young and old.

“I’ve been to the ‘Field of Dreams’ field in Iowa twice, once in the spring and once in the fall,” Brill added. “But Old World and these base ball games are our history. It’s something people need to know. This is what we did. It makes you realize where we came from.”

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