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.

Other memories from the era are less ignominious. Vance says that there was a somewhat surreal attempt at playing a night game at the old grounds in about 1892. He believes the rig consisted of numerous arc lights surrounded by reflectors placed on tripods ringing the field, and that it was more of a novelty than a real game. "Of course it was advertised as being 'As Bright as Daytime!' but then they would talk about how batters were encouraged to hit the ball slow and on the ground. So maybe it was not as bright as daytime after all." (Competitive night baseball did not come about until 1930.)

This gaudy Gilded Age technological feat was repeated in Galveston, which Vance says was the site of one of the quirkiest ballparks ever. On the grounds of Beach Park, it was adjacent to the gloriously ornate, Nicholas Clayton-designed Beach Hotel, mere yards from the Gulf surf in pre-Seawall Galveston. Galveston's field had a feature that makes even Tal's Hill at Minute Maid Park seem like a mere outfield divot.

"At high tide, the water would come in to either left or right field," Vance says. "It would roll up right under the fence."

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.

In 1898, after the city ordered the Beach Hotel's owners to cease dumping raw sewage into the Gulf, the resort mysteriously burned down. The Great Hurricane of 1900 would have erased the ball field and splintered the hotel into matchsticks anyway, but Galveston baseball's days of saltwater and jellyfish delays were over in any case.
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"It's for the love of the game that we all play," says the 52-year-old Miggins, and in talking to several of the team's stars, that love comes shining through like the gleam in Ernie Banks's eyes. That love trumps the Katy heat and, for Miggins especially, a good deal of physical pain. A game or two hauling in "stingers" (sharp ground balls) and catching infielders' throws at first base leaves his hands a black and blue mess.

Once they are on the field, the theatrical re-enactment aspects melt away as the baseball genes kick in, and many of these guys have the grand old game deeply embedded in their DNA. The game against the Katy Combine would be the Babies' first extra-inning contest in their five-year history, and they would pull it out in the eighth inning. (Seven innings was the standard in 1860.) And they would come from behind in the second game of the round-robin doubleheader and take down the Boerne White Sox, despite some shoddy base-running from both this writer and photographer Dan Kramer. (See "Covering all the Bases.")

Since it was a day of 90-degree heat with humidity to match, pulling off a doubleheader was no mean feat, as most of these Babies are no babies. Though the players' ages ranged from 16 to 73, the median was probably about 55. (Both Boerne and Katy had much younger squads; it says something about the democratic nature of vintage base ball that the Babies swept the Combine and the White Sox.)

Which is not to downplay the skills of some of the oldest players. Take Houston Babies elder statesman Phil Holland. The 73-year-old second baseman is perhaps the team's best all-around player. Holland has the physique and agility of a man 30 years younger, and in a thick Carolina brogue, he says he's been playing baseball and softball all his life, beginning in high school, continuing in an industrial adult hardball league and also as a key member of three national championship-winning senior softball teams. Over the course of the doubleheader, Holland rapped out no fewer than eight hits, and then was seen leaving the field behind the wheel of a red Corvette in the company of an attractive woman.

Sixtysomething third baseman Bill Hale has a similar background. An amazingly nimble and sure-handed third baseman despite his age and expansive gut, Hale grew up worshiping Stan Musial in his native St. Louis. He played all through high school and one year of college baseball and has since played on seven national championship senior softball teams.

This is his second year as a vintage player. "This is fun," he says. "A lot of fun. I really enjoy the camaraderie."

When asked if third base was especially difficult in this gloveless version of baseball, Hale laughed and said, "For me it is. But that's the position I play in softball, too. Well, third base and shortstop."

"He's so big he plays two positions," Miggins cracks, to the merriment of the rest of the Babies.

"That's not funny," Hale smiles. "Okay, it's a little funny."

"He used to have a six-pack and now he's got a keg," Miggins continues mercilessly.

For the voluble Miggins, these games are a convergence of pretty much everything he holds near and dear. An enthusiastic history buff, Miggins heartily participates in historical re-enactments of the battles of Goliad, San Jacinto and Dick Dowling's Civil War victory at Sabine Pass. He hasn't yet been able to crack the Alamo: "That one is hard to get picked for. Every Texan wants to die at the Alamo," he says.

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4 comments
Andy Marcel
Andy Marcel

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Andy Marcel
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mikefrombisbee
mikefrombisbee

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.

Huzzah!

 
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