He goes by the name Jelly Legs. Although a friend, I’ve never called him that. But like the other ballists (players) on his team, when he steps on the field he adopts a new persona.
They go by names like Lunchbox, High Pockets, Long Legs and Skillet Hands. Even the umpire had the moniker of “Moonshine;” I never heard him reveal his true identity.
The game was played at BeautifulTrobaughField near the grounds of the Homestead Prairie Farm south of Decatur, a facility listed on the National Register of Historic Places and part of the Macon County Conservation District. The sport is Base Ball, but of the vintage variety. On this day, they were playing the rules from 1858, a “gentlemen’s game” that resembles the game of today with some significant differences.
For one, the pitching is of an underhand variety, and the goal (as a gentleman) is to place the ball where the batsman (hitter) can strike it. Secondly, the rules of 1858 state a batsman is out when “the ball is caught without having touched the ground or upon the bound.” It was clear last Saturday that when the ground is hard, catching the ball on the bound isn’t as challenging as you’d think. Even a dropped fly ball gathered after its initial bounce is an out.
In fairness to the players, the game isn’t easy. Scoring is a challenge, but so is defense when you note that none of the fielders wear gloves. Fortunately, the ball, typically “not less than six nor more than six and one-quarter ounces,” isn’t quite as hard as the balls of today.
When you score an ace (run), you have to ask the scorekeeper to “tally you,” at which point the player may celebrate the ace by ringing the bell, provided it isn’t done with “undue exuberance or ungentlemanly boastfulness.”
On this day, the home team Rock Springs Ground Squirrels were trailing the Springfield Long Nine for most of the game. Jelly Legs relinquished his pitching duties with a three ace lead (he had to leave the game early for another commitment). The margin was as great as four before leading 6-3 heading into the bottom of the 9th. Loading the bases with no hands down (outs), the Ground Squirrels mounted a rally and walked away with a 7-6 victory in their home opener. It even included a close play at home base which left the game tied at 6 aces apiece before a final strike scored the game winner.
I talked with Jelly Legs briefly by cell phone after the game (which almost felt like a violation since cell phones weren’t around in 1858), and there was some disappointment in his voice. But the season spans into October, so there will be other opportunities at redemption.
The game had some interesting highlights:
- Play was suspended momentarily because the ball got lost in the weeds.
- Play was suspended again in the ninth inning when one of Long Nine’s fielders had to leave the game after apparently vomiting due to the extreme heat. No word on whether he will now change his “Base Ball name.”
- Before and after, the team’s representative addresses the cranks (fans), and thanks them for their support.
- Moonshine, the umpire, sits in a chair or stands beside the field, and makes his ruling from that position. Although there were no missed calls this day, the rules allow for a correction by the players themselves, keeping in tradition the gentlemen’s theme. Both the Ground Squirrels and Long Nine have further games scheduled, including a rematch at Lincoln Park in Springfield August 15th.
Photos (credit: Jeff Findley):
(1) Jelly Legs connects early in the game. (2) Moonshine, the umpire, address the crowd about fair play. (3) A close play at the plate finds the Ground Squirrel player tagged out, preserving the tie at 6 aces each. (4) The Ground Squirrels salute the Long Nine after what turned out to be a long nine inning game. (5) Jelly Legs is also a “hurler,” and tosses the ball underhand to the awating striker. (6) The field’s namesake, “Joseph Trobaugh,” addresses the cranks (fans) before the game begins. (7) High Pockets delivers a pitch late in the game, and was credited with a “blown save” in my scorebook, although that statistic didn’t exist in 1858.