Monday, August 02, 2010

Joy in Mudville, Wherever It May Be

Michael McCollum/The Record
The Mudville Base Ball Club and
the Amador County Crushers
played a game under vintage
rules Saturday in Stockton, Calif


New York Times
Published: August 1, 2010
STOCKTON, Calif. — They stepped on the field dressed as ballplayers from a bygone era: the hats smaller, the pants baggier, the gloves tighter than those of today. The unlikely rivals shook hands and slapped backs, exchanging pleasantries and barbs as they warmed up for a game some had crossed the country to play.

The Mudville Base Ball Club, from Holliston, Mass., took the field Saturday while Northern California’s Amador County Crushers prepared to hit. Before barely 100 spectators, they began a game aimed at settling two cities’ identities and more than a century of history.

It all started with a poem.
“Casey at the Bat,” written in 1888 by Ernest L. Thayer and later popularized in vaudeville performances by DeWolf Hopper, is set in a place called Mudville and features a team known as the Mudville Nine.
For decades, Holliston residents have believed their town to be Mudville. So, too, have Stocktonians.

“As far as I’ve always been concerned, there was never any rivalry,” said Dave Alton, a former Stockton resident and now the manager of the Crushers, a recreational team that plays vintage-style baseball. “There wasn’t a dispute over who was Mudville. It was us.”

An article in The New York Times in 2004 highlighted the fact that the two cities, separated by about 2,600 miles, each claimed to be the real Mudville. Thayer covered Stockton baseball for The San Francisco Examiner, and locals have claimed that players from the area bore the same Irish names as those in the poem. In the Times article, the Holliston town historian, Joanne Hulbert, said that Thayer’s family owned a mill less than a mile from the town’s Mudville neighborhood, the home of a bustling baseball diamond. As in Stockton, some local players had the same Irish names as those in the poem.

Thayer insisted that Mudville was fictitious and that the poem had no basis in fact.

But that did not deter John Shannahan, the Mudville Base Ball Club captain, from looking for a Stockton team to challenge his vintage squad. Inspired by the Times article, Shannahan contacted Stockton’s parks and recreation department and a local city council member in efforts to find a willing opponent. After five years of effort, the promotions department at the Class A Stockton Ports baseball team helped Shannahan connect with the Crushers, who play in nearby Jackson. About nine months later, the teams finally met.

“It’s been a dream of ours,” Shannahan said. “We just really wanted to complete this Mudville rivalry, in a way.”

The Crushers won Saturday, 10-4, in a game that featured players born in at least four decades, an umpire dressed in suspenders and a bow tie, a public-address announcer who read from the famous poem between innings, and two sets of archaic rules. The Holliston club, which fields players with an average age of about 55 and has competed in cities throughout the East Coast and Midwest, decided that the first three innings would be played according to 1861 rules, which featured underhanded pitching, no gloves and a rule by which players are out when the ball is caught after only one bounce.

The Crushers, who had home-field advantage, decided that the next three innings would be played by 1886 National League rules, which allowed for small mitts, overhand pitching and base-stealing. Because the Crushers led entering the seventh, the final inning was also played by their rules.

Throughout the game, players from both teams helped each other understand the idiosyncrasies of the different eras. The umpire Mike Carey, the founder of the Gold Country Vintage Base Ball league in which the Crushers compete, was aided by each bench, as players were willing to make calls against their own team in the name of fairness.

“It’s a gentleman’s game,” Brian Hess of the Crushers said. “If you don’t respect it, don’t play it. So it’s not just about doing whatever it takes to win. It’s about enjoying and respecting the game and the other players.”

Both eras featured outdated terminology. Outfielders were known as gardeners, batters as strikers, pitchers as hurlers, and runs as tallies. By both rules, a foul ball did not count as a strike, a hit batsman counted only as a ball, and seven balls were required for a walk. But no matter the rules, the team representing Stockton dominated, surging to a 4-2 first-inning lead.

But the win did little to dispel the dispute over Mudville.

“This isn’t so much about determining who is Mudville as it is about two teams from different parts of the country getting together to play a great kind of baseball,” said Alton, the Crushers’ manager.

And so the rivalry continues.

“My feeling is that this can’t be settled until it goes both ways,” said Carl Damigella, a friend of the Holliston team and the squad’s figurehead owner. “Now it’s their turn to come to Holliston.”

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