Calling all "cranks": Milwaukee Grays baseball mixes hits with history
Baseball in Milwaukee is a state-of-the-art affair. Fans and players can sit back and take in a game under Miller Park's retractable roof with up-to-the-minute statistics and replays readily available on the video scoreboard.
Just a few miles north, in Fox Point, a much different version of America's pastime has been taking the field during Milwaukee's warmer months. Instead of the amenities of one of the best stadiums in baseball, though, fans of the Milwaukee Grays vintage base ball team head to Doctor's Park for a trip back in time and a unique look at the game's earliest form.
"It's still the same game even though the rules are a little different. Some things have to be explained," said co-captain Dave Heller, who has been playing with the Grays since the team formed in 2008. "When people show up, if they have questions we encourage them to walk up to us during a game and ask. It's a friendly environment."
Many frequently asked questions are a result of the fact that the Milwaukee Grays play base ball (yes, that's two words) as it was played in 1860. Many fans, or "cranks," will still recognize the game, but there are still plenty of details that have changed since the game got its start.
"We don't use gloves. That's probably the biggest thing people notice," said Heller. "If you catch a ball on the first bounce it's an out. You can't overrun first base, and you can't slide. There's no umpire, so you're on your honor to call safe or out."
With no officials on the field, it's the players' responsibility to exhibit "gentlemanly behavior," as it was called back in the day. It also falls on their shoulders to know the rules of the game.
"It's tough, but there are some written rules and we try and follow those as best we can," said Heller. "There's some studying to try and figure out what the exact rules were. We try to keep it where we're going by the written rules they had at the time in 1860."
Heller noted that, while the majority of vintage base ball teams follow the rules of 1860 as laid out by the Vintage Base Ball Association, there are teams that go by 1858 rules.
"You'd think in two years there wasn't that much of a difference," he said. "It's minimal stuff, but there is a difference between those two years."
The Milwaukee Grays play regular matches with Wisconsin's Eagle Diamonds, Greenbush Dead Citys and Milwaukee Cream Citys, as well as other teams from Illinois and Indiana.
"There's a meeting every November in Illinois and Indiana. A lot of teams go there to figure out games," said Heller. "If we can play every other week or once every two or three weeks, that's kind of how most teams do it."
Since the Grays don't have the luxury of the multi-million dollar contracts today's baseball players get, fitting games – and even practice time – between their day jobs and personal lives can be difficult.
"From our standpoint, we don't want to play too many games because there's only a certain amount of time you can put in," said Heller. "It's tough to get everyone together just to go out and hit the ball around. It'd be nice, but we've got to be realistic, too."
Getting involved in such a history-laden hobby can be demanding, even more so when considering it all comes out of the players' own pockets. And as Heller attests, historical accuracy isn't cheap.
"If you want to play on the team, it's a commitment," he said. "The uniforms are tailor-made. Specially made balls are like 16 bucks a pop, plus shipping and handling. We'd love to have sponsors to help us pay for some of this, but right now it's totally self-funded, so if you're at a game and you see us go in the woods to find a ball, you know why."
Despite the minor obstacles, the game is a labor of love for members of the Grays. According to Heller, however, winning isn't everything.
"We want to win and we're competitive, but that's not our main goal. A big part of it is educating people on what it was like," he said. "I think when you see vintage base ball, you're hooked. We'd like to see more people come out and see the evolution from then to now."
Post a comment / write a review.
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.