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.

A statewide league was formed in 2007, and it included two Houston-area teams: the Montgomery College Saw Dogs from Conroe and Richmond's George Ranch Giants. Watson believes that social networking is enabling more and more teams to find each other, thus enabling more games, which bring more exposure and thus more teams.

Watson discovered the game before learning of the existence of the other Texas teams. The director of Boerne's Agricultural Heritage Museum, she saw her first contest at a national agriculture history convention in Michigan and brought the game home with her. Her team is now one of the liveliest and most storied in the state, and until last season included one of the most amazing father-son combos ever to grace a diamond.

In the infield, there was 72-year-old Kenneth Bergmann, who played for the Boerne White Sox town team in the 1950s, and on the mound, there was his dad Elmer Bergmann. That's right: his dad. Elmer Bergmann also played for the old White Sox, albeit in his case, in the Great Depression. Elmer retired this year at age 90, but his son still carries on the family tradition. Despite the fact that he lives in College Station and has to drive hundreds of miles to Boerne home games, and despite the fact that a knee injury bars him from legging out his hits, Bergmann still stars for a form of the team he and his father have collectively played for since FDR was in the White House.

One of the Boerne White Sox tallies his team's first run. In vintage base ball, players must ask the umpire, or "Blind Tom," if they may register their score. If permission is granted, they ring the iron bell and the run is chalked on the board.
Daniel Kramer
One of the Boerne White Sox tallies his team's first run. In vintage base ball, players must ask the umpire, or "Blind Tom," if they may register their score. If permission is granted, they ring the iron bell and the run is chalked on the board.
In game two of the three-game round-robin, the Blind Tom resorted to a parasol to beat the sweltering Katy heat.
Daniel Kramer
In game two of the three-game round-robin, the Blind Tom resorted to a parasol to beat the sweltering Katy heat.

The Babies have multigenerational players, but none so unusual as that. Bench coach and occasional player Mike McCroskey says their strangest player was of a bovine appearance. In a voice reminiscent of character actor Barry Corbin, he says that the Babies once were forced to impress a Chick-fil-A cow into outfield service.

Unfortunately, the steer did not get its turn at bat. "Naw, he just grazed in the outfield for an inning or two," McCroskey chuckled.

Many of the older folks on all the teams see it as something like a cool drink from the fountain of youth and a great way to forestall the reaper. "Objects in motion tend to stay in motion," one of the elder Houston Babies noted.

In a way, the Houston Babies are the living embodiment of the ongoing scholarship of Mike Vance and Bill McCurdy.

With McCurdy as top editor and Vance as the number two, and under the auspices of Houston's SABR chapter, Vance and McCurdy are tracing the history of Houston baseball from its first mention in 1861 to the advent of big-league ball 101 years later. What's more, they are doing so with a rigor and humor never before applied to the subject, and though Vance says they are not sure what form all those studies will finally take, a book seems likely. There's some old-school star power attached. They hope to get dean of Houston sportswriters Mickey Herskowitz to pen the preface and a chapter on the last years of the Houston Buffs, and Astros great Jimmy "the Toy Cannon" Wynn is a fan of both their efforts and those of the Babies.

McCurdy, a retired psychiatrist in his 70s, announces the Babies games and serves as the team's "general manager." He is also their chronicler — his enthusiastic, slangy game accounts vie for space on his Pecan Park Eagle blog with his historical findings and ruminations on the game he loves. (McCurdy's way with words is apparent at our first meeting, at a Katy Freeway IHOP. He characterized volatile 1970s Astros pitcher Don Wilson as "always a mere flicker of discomfort away from psychosis.")

In his book-lined, wood-paneled ranch house just north of Oak Forest, Mike Vance rides herd on a pack of jubilant rescue dogs and delves deep into the antediluvian era of baseball in Houston, the way-back time before steroids and free agency and 108-loss Astros teams, before the Astrodome, before the Colt 45s, before even the Houston Buffs.

Over the years, Vance has been a comedian, voice actor, local sports pundit and the lead singer of country novelty act The P.C. Cowboys, but if his office is anything to go by, the national pastime is his most abiding passion, perhaps even more of one than his fanatical love of the Texas Longhorns. (Is it a coincidence that all three of his dogs are burnt orange?)

In search of old-time baseball lore, Vance says he is reading every sports page of every Houston newspaper (and also many copies of the Galveston Daily News), day by countless day. "I'm almost done with 1904 now," he says.

Along the way he's made some big discoveries, or rediscoveries, of forgotten local baseball lore, such as the exact location of Houston's first real ballpark, an account of a night game played here in the 1890s, and the soap opera 1904 season that ushered out the prehistoric era of Houston baseball and ushered in the Bayou City's 57-year evolution towards the major leagues. (See "The Wanderers.")

Before that, there were fits and starts. While the New York Mercury was already hailing baseball as "the national pastime" in 1856, that designation failed to look much beyond the Mason-Dixon line. With a few exceptions such as Houston and even more so in New Orleans, baseball in the antebellum South was a flop. For one thing, there wasn't much of a middle class from which to draw players, and historian Kenneth S. Greenberg believes that the game was a poor cultural and psychological fit for the Old South's ruling slaveholder class.

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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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