For years a favorite night at the park for Nashville Sounds fans has been their “Throwback Thursday’s” when in years past they would don the classic blue and white uniforms that featured a man swinging a gigantic guitar. With the opening of the new First Tennessee Park on the site of the old Sulphur Dell park, Throwback Thursdays now feature the Sounds in the Nashville Vols uniforms of the 1940s.
Only steps away from First Tennessee Park though, you can see baseball thrown way back to the way it was played in 1864. The Tennessee Association of Vintage Baseball features 10 teams from across the state, playing the game by its original rules. This means, no gloves (because they hadn’t been invented yet), no home runs (because they typically had only one ball and they didn’t want to lose it), and pitchers who throw the ball underhanded because their primary responsibility was to give hitters a ball they could hit – not get them out.
The league, now in its third season, grew from just two teams in 2013. As people saw and heard about the vintage baseball, they began asking not just how they could watch it, but how they could join a team or form their own. Teams now dot Tennessee from Mountain City to Nashville.
Aside from having fun playing the game, the goal of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Baseball clubs is to promote living history by bringing the 19th century to life. They do so with the hopes of providing educational programs and cultural enrichment to children and adults alike.
Players in the Tennessee Association of Vintage Baseball league range in age from 25 to 75, and come from all walks of life. There are every day workers, doctors, state officials and even scientists from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They each wear traditional uniforms from 1864, take on the persona of players from the time and play in traditional locations like Bicentennial Capitol Mall, Carton Plantation and the historic Sam Davis home in Rutherford County.
The Nashville Maroons, one of the original two teams, play their home games at the foot of Tennessee’s Capitol building at Bicentennial Mall and on the day we took in a game against the Stewart’s Creek Scouts, crowds of people were amazed to see a baseball game from 1864 breaking out. Few passersby were able to keep going without stopping to watch at least an inning or two, like a couple visiting from Germany who were visiting the State Capitol that day with their grandson.
The grandson made them stop and watch for a while, but at first he wasn’t convinced it was really baseball he was watching.
“I think it is baseball” he said to his grandparents repeatedly. “But it doesn’t look like baseball I play.”
That is a reaction players in the league have grown accustomed to and with their intention of educating people young and old about the game and the time period in history they do an excellent job of interacting with the crowd to explain the differences.
Just like in 1864, they aren’t playing in confined stadiums like First Tennessee Park. There are no fences separating the players from the fans. During play of the game, players on the bench or those waiting for their turn at bat will chat with onlookers, explaining the rules of the 1864 game, fielding questions and having fun with the crowds.
There are other rules modifications from the game we know today, like if you catch a ball on the bound (one bounce) – that is considered and out, and for the most part the players make the calls on the field – not a slew of umpires. There is one official though, called the arbiter, who is there to settle any disputes if teams cannot agree on a call. In a truly interesting twist, if the teams and the arbiter cannot determine the outcome of a close play, the arbiter will turn to the crowd to settle the dispute.
The teams that make up the Tennessee Association of Vintage Baseball play games around the state through August, and will then culminate the season in a tournament for the Sulphur Dell Cup at the historic Carnton Plantation in Franklin.
To catch a game near you, a schedule for the entire league can be found here. In a world filled with fast paced weekends and non-stop schedules, take a step back to 1864 and enjoy America’s pastime in its earliest form.