The crack of a bat sounds different here. So does the echo of clapped hands when a 15-year-old boy named Gavin slaps his together and turns to scan the corn waving in the wind behind him, as if the noise had fluttered off into the night. He was standing in deep right field at the famous Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa — the same one they built for the 1989 movie where Kevin Costner plays a farmer who chops down his corn crop and builds a baseball field against his better judgement, raising baseball’s dead and reconnecting with his estranged father in the process. Gavin can’t fully grasp the weight of what this place means — the movie came out over a decade before he was born, he reminded me on the bench. But there’s something special about this field, and the game it’s home to.
For the last four hours, Gavin had been playing ball with his father and a group of other old men who make up two teams from the Vintage Base Ball Association (VBBA), a nationwide league that plays baseball “as it was” by rules from 1858. This game has a few tweaks: players don’t use gloves, a pop-up can bounce once and still be caught for an out, and pitchers throw underhand. Above all, etiquette drives the game: Runs don’t count unless the baserunner rings a bell at home plate, there’s no high-fives, and players who cuss have to fork up 25 cents for the swear jar.
Though most of the men were in their 60s and 70s, Gavin wasn’t the only boy in the game. A pair of 22-year-old twins named Erik and Samuel Deetz were here with their father Daniel. So was 13-year-old Vaughn, the son of a university librarian named Dan Zamudio, 51, who was out in center field cosplaying as a 19th-century ball player, partly for recreation and partly to bond with his kid. Baseball is sold as a game for fathers and sons — especially this year, as major leaguers like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mike Yastrzemski have carried on their family’s legacy in the pros. In Field of Dreams, the only way Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, could even connect with his father was through baseball — a sacred bond shared through stories, backyard catch, and Little League games that tie American generations together.
The 40 or so men playing vintage baseball were chasing ghosts of their own, admittedly so. The league’s president, 70-year-old Gary Schiappacasse, told me that he sees it as an act of preservation: Baseball’s not the same, and neither are we as we get older. This vintage game they’re playing now is just for fun, but it’s also a polite rebellion against time and the changes that come with it. “I’m a kid,” Schiappacasse said, watching his elder teammates take their brittle turns at bat. “At 70, I can still pretend I’m 12 years old. I don’t want to be that guy that curls up in a chair in the nursing home and they put a blanket over me and I just snore all day. No, no, no. I can’t have that.”
In July, Major League Baseball partnered with the independent Atlantic League to use “robot umpires” to call balls and strikes in a live game, testing its potential to be used in the MLB. They’ve also pushed to speed up games, implementing pitch clocks, restricting mound visits and the number of relief pitchers a team can use. There’s also talk of shortening the season and the games themselves to fit modern attention spans, a topic you don’t want to bring up around a team of vintage baseball players. Even just mentioning “replays” or “sabermetrics” (the term for the in-depth statistical analysis that has largely influenced how baseball organizations build their teams in the 21st century) makes their eyes roll. Baseball’s never looked different. And purists like the players in the VBBA are holding onto the past — their past — stronger than ever.
“If you take away bad calls (by using replays and automated umpires), it might take away from the game,” complained Daron Krichbaum, who drove five and a half hours from Indiana to “feel like a teenager again” and play in today’s VBBA game. It was his first time west of the Mississippi. Others made the adventure from Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois to play in the iconic corn field.
The game doesn’t count for any standings. There’s no playoffs or rankings in the VBBA, which means there’s no champions, winners or losers. The weekly games are scheduled each year at an annual conference but sometimes get canceled day-of because players can’t make it out or have to leave early. Oftentimes, like the game in Iowa, players from other teams fill in to make ragtag teams of people who’ve never met. Most of them don’t even know the score when they’re on the field. They’re just here, hidden away from the world and all its troubles, about two and a half miles off Highway 20 down a gravel road, searching for a fountain of youth.
“I’m not even thinking about home,” Krichbaum laughed, almost like it’s a secret he couldn’t believe he was saying out loud. “My yard needs mowing, but I don’t care! When you come to a place like this to play… I don’t care what’s going on.”
The VBBA started in 1996 with 13 teams from five states who organized to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first baseball game ever recorded. Baseball was quickly becoming unfamiliar in the 1990s, rapidly warped under a rainfall of homeruns, rule changes, a season-ending player strike, and steroid scandals that ended up playing out on national television. Over 20 years later, the VBBA’s historical heel-digging has resulted in 200-plus vintage teams spread across the United States, recruiting old men by the dozens ready to dress up, reenact America’s pastime, and fan life into memories that would otherwise fade. “It keeps you young,” Schiappacasse said, watching the other old men laugh and run around the field. (He joined soon after the VBBA’s inception.) “You just get to continue to be young.”
The two of us were sitting side-by-side on the home team’s bench, watching the aging bodies play ball. This unique version of the game moves at a slug-like pace. Sons run the bases for their fathers; pitches are lobbed toward home plate where batters can take as many pitches as they choose before swinging away. A player from a Minnesota club told me that once he saw a guy watch over 75 pitches before finally swinging at the perfect ball. That sounds like an exaggeration, but this 1858-version of the game is built on acting like a gentleman, and its players take that extremely serious. At an objective glance, this really is just a bunch of geezers playing a children’s game on a Saturday afternoon. But when I closed my eyes for a second, their laughter and friendly teasing fluttered through the rows of corn like the clap of Gavin’s hands.
Playing baseball “as it was” has a loaded subtext. The league wasn’t completely desegregated until 1959, when the Boston Red Sox finally integrated its team following a lawsuit, and displays of showmanship — often but not exclusively by non-white players — still become flashpoints of controversy. (Jose Bautista’s famous bat flip in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS garnered so much criticism that the Dominican player had to write a column in The Players’ Tribune explaining himself and the cultural differences in playing the game.) Of the 40 men playing that evening in Iowa, all of them were white, though Schiappacasse emphasized everyone is welcome.
“We welcome all comers,” he said. “That’s never been a big issue.” The organization’s recruitment comes down to reaching out to friends to fill in for games players can’t attend, he said, and it’s clear on a day like this they don’t have many non-white friends. The Chicago Salmon have had a couple of black players throughout their history, but not many, and Schiappacasse himself noted most players are old white men.
Schiappacasse came alone today, but like the other father-and-son duos who made the trip, he shared the game with his son, Tim, growing up. Today, Tim is a high school varsity baseball coach at Zion Benton High School, about an hour north of Chicago. They talk on the phone regularly, but Schiappacasse doesn’t totally relate to the issues his son faces when he talks about coaching. Baseball in 2019 is complicated, built on sabermetrics and modern strategies like infield shifts that befuddle guys who were raised on wooden bats and bare hands. Schiappacasse is a 70-year-old retired grade school social studies teacher who grew up in a baseball family and studied the game like history. It’s something he understood as a part of life, like daytime and nighttime. One relative, Lou, even made it to the major leagues with the Detroit Tigers in 1902 — a point of pride for the family, even though Lou had just six at-bats in two games and is best known for having the longest last name (13 letters) in Tigers history.
Still, the players who stayed out late on this crisp August night weren’t here to venerate all of baseball’s past. Don Stone, an Iraq War veteran, was looking for tangible distraction. “He uses it to keep centered,” Schiappacasse said. Fathers like Dan Zamudio and Daniel Deetz were scraping together their last chance to bond with their sons before they head back to school, another summer older. Playing nine innings the way it was back then won’t stop baseball from changing, just like it won’t stop kids from growing into old men. But here — at what Gary calls “The Cathedral of Baseball” — there’s reverence in salvaging youth through the guise of an otherwise silly, ever-changing game.
A slew of new rules are already penned for the 2020 MLB season and it’s a given that more, including the automated umpires ready to take another human touch away from the game, are on the horizon. But driving out to the middle of nowhere to play the game “unplugged” gives old men like Gary a tighter grip on the things they’re afraid of losing to time, both for themselves and the game that’s carved so many paths in their lives. “It’s about the story,” Gary said. “It’s simpler. We’ve gotten so deep into the 85,000 different ways we do things, but sometimes it’s just nice to sit back and go back to simpler times. We can do that with vintage baseball.”