Houston's Babies Play Vintage Baseball

There's no gloves or batting helmets when Larry Joe Miggins and the rest of the Houston Babies regularly travel back in time to play the game by its 1860 rules.

Houston's Babies Play Vintage Baseball

It's a sweltering Cinco de Mayo in Katy's City Park, and on a dusty baseball diamond, Larry Joe "Long Ball" Miggins steps up to the plate with two men on and two outs and the score tied at six runs apiece.

The Babies need a big hit and Miggins is just the man manager Bob Dorrill would like to see at the plate. Perhaps the most feared slugger on the Houston Babies 1860-vintage baseball team, the bearded Long Ball adjusts his short-billed cap and, through tiny, circular 19th century shades, stares down the Katy Combine pitcher, who lobs the pill underhanded towards the plate.

Miggins takes the first pitch, and the umpire, dressed in a black top hat, white button-down shirt and black vest, makes no call. In this version of baseball, or "base ball," as its aficionados write it, balls don't exist and strikes are called only when the umpire believes a batter is trying to delay the game.

Larry Joe "Long Ball" Miggins carries his family's long hardball tradition into the future by taking it deep in the past.
Daniel Kramer
Larry Joe "Long Ball" Miggins carries his family's long hardball tradition into the future by taking it deep in the past.
At 73 years old, second baseman Phil Holland went eight-for-eight for the Babies, then left the game behind the wheel of a flashy red Corvette.
Daniel Kramer
At 73 years old, second baseman Phil Holland went eight-for-eight for the Babies, then left the game behind the wheel of a flashy red Corvette.

The catcher tosses the ball back to the pitcher. Like the rest of their teammates, neither of the battery-mates is wearing a glove, and the catcher, or "behind," as they were known, wears no helmet or chest protector either. Since that was the way they did it in 1860, that's the way the Katy Combine and the Houston Babies do it, too.

Miggins pulls up the sleeves of his billowy gray-and-red jersey, and with little delay, the pitcher tosses his next offering plateward. Long Ball takes a mighty cut, grunting like Nolan Ryan delivering a fastball as he does so. POCK! The bat connects with the ball — bigger than a modern baseball, smaller than a softball and spongier than both — and it flies high and deep towards the left-centerfield gap.

The two Babies runners trot listlessly toward home, and despite having hit what in modern baseball would likely be an extra-base hit, Miggins tosses the bat on the ground in disgust. The Katy outfielder lazily tracks down the fly, which falls to earth about six feet behind him and bounds high in the air. The outfielder snatches the ball on one bounce — and Miggins is out.

It's another quirk of the rules of this ancient form of baseball — all balls caught on a single bounce, no matter how far they travel, are outs, the same as a feeble dribbler to the pitcher or a weak pop-up to third base.

"I left two guys on base," Miggins is muttering under his breath as he trots toward the dugout. "That's a baseball mortal sin."

In this version of the game, it's not about power or speed, as lead-offs and steals are also forbidden. It's about hitting hard ground balls — "stingers" and "daisy-cutters" — where the fielders ain't, or line drives over the infield and between the outfielders. Though a Katy slugger would knock one out of the park, homers are rare, and swinging for the fences tends to result, as in Long Ball's case, mainly in what are called "loud outs."

There's also an entirely different lexicon and other weird rules. Batters are "strikers," pitchers are "hurlers" or "bowlers," and umpires are "Blind Toms." A ball that lands first in fair territory stays fair even if it rolls foul before it reaches third or first base, and fouls are not strikes. (Though if the catcher snags a foul tip or a once-bounced foul, the "striker" is "dead.") Over-running first base is a no-no, as you could be tagged out, steals and leading off are forbidden, and sliding is discouraged and regarded as ungentlemanly.

Runs are called "tallies," and when a player crosses the plate, he must ring an iron bell behind the plate and ask the Blind Tom for permission to register the score. If granted, the score will literally be chalked up on a blackboard near the backstop.

There's also a code of gentlemanly conduct. Blind Toms can ask players and the "cranks" (spectators) for assistance in making calls, and even opposing cranks and players are supposed to tell the truth. Players are forbidden to argue, gamble or swear, and none save the Blind Tom may carry a flask.

Today, the Babies play mainly at heritage festivals (the next game is slated for the Fourth of July weekend at the George Ranch in Fort Bend County), but General Manager Dr. Bill McCurdy and others involved hope to grow a four-team Houston-area league and host a postseason championship at Minute Maid Park, blocks away from the site of the birth of Houston baseball.

Babies Field Manager Bob Dorrill says that the team has been in existence for five years. Dorrill is also the chair of Houston's Larry Dierker Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research, and he says that the Babies came into being after a fellow SABR member started a team at Lone Star College in Tomball. About six SABR members went to the first game and liked it, Dorrill remembers, so they started recruiting more players, and soon enough the Babies were born.

While the national Vintage Base Ball Association was formed in Columbus, Ohio, in 1996, and there are now at least 100 clubs playing nationwide, nobody is sure exactly when the old game returned to Texas. Kristy "Horseshoe" Watson, player-manager of the Boerne White Sox, says that there were early teams in Buffalo Gap, Abilene and scattered through the Dallas suburbs.

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Great story, Houston Press. Vintage base ball is now played all over the country. We will be commemorating the 1913 World Tour of the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox next March during the Fourth Annual Copper City Classic Vintage Base Ball Tournament at historic 103-year-old Warren Ballpark in beautiful and historic Bisbee, AZ. It's the only surviving ballpark from the venues where John McGraw's and Charlie Comiskey's all-star teams played during their tour by steamship and train around the world. For more info go to www.friendsofwarrenballpark.co... or check out the Friends of Warren Ballpark.Facebook page.


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