In the 1981 song called “Willie, Mickey and the Duke,” songwriter Terry Cashman pays homage to baseball legends with memorable nicknames, like “the Scooter, the Barber and the Newc.”
Well, there’s a group of guys playing baseball in Colorado these days who aren’t as famous as the ones in that song, but they got fun nicknames too: Digger, Suds and Texas Mike, to name a few.
They travel around Colorado playing baseball with rules from an era long before today’s game — even long before Willie, Mickey and The Duke (Wille Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider) stepped onto the field.
On summer weekends, players from the Colorado Vintage Base Ball Association travel around the state and take fans back to the way the game was played in the 1860s, with the uniforms to match. “Ballists,” as ballplayers were called back then, wear things like period-appropriate pillbox hats, knickers and shirts with calvary-style bibs embroidered with logos written in Old English-style lettering.
“You will find that every last one of us here on the field was actually a thespian of sorts,” said Steven “Scorpion” Castellani, the CVBBA commissioner. “We do this because we love acting. The organization was actually founded by a group of civil war reenactors who basically got tired of pointing guns at one another.”
Founded in 1993, the nonprofit CVBBA is dedicated to the preservation of the history of 19th century baseball, or “base ball”, as it was written with two words back in the day. When teams take the field in a CVBBA contest, the group commits to using the rules, language, and playing surfaces from 1864. In a July 4 game in Broomfield, the playing field was full of pebbles, long grass and weeds.
“There were no groomed fields as you see today,” Castellani said. “There is no pitcher’s mound or hurler’s mound, unless you happen to be standing on a gopher hill. That was the exception to that. The bags (what we call bases now) were usually made of potato sacks or something filled with dirt. The home plate was just that — it was a plate, like a dinner plate.”
The group said Colorado’s first baseball team, which was called the Colorado Base Ball Club, was formed in 1862, not long after gold was discovered in the state. There weren’t many games played back then because of the Civil War. More teams organized a few years later, including clubs representing mining communities in Colorado.
“At that time, in the 1860s and ‘70s and ‘80s, you had a lot of the mine teams,” said Roger Hadix, who goes by the name “Digger” on the field. “So in Frisco, Colorado, there was the Kokomo Mine, so they had a team. In Leadville, they had a team that was known as the Leadville Blues. They had money, and in 1882, they were the best team in the state because they could actually pay players from the eastern leagues to come out there and play at 10,000 feet altitude.”
For the July 4 game in Broomfield, Hadix represented the Star Base Ball Club of Central City, which was formed in 1869 and featured the best players from mining communities. Their opponent, the Denver Blue Stockings, was also an all-star team from the era.
There’s often a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ going on during CVBBA games. But it’s all in good spirit. The league prides itself on “gentlemanly and fair play.”
“You’re acting as if you’re in the 1860s, so you’ll hear different languages, people trying to be a little more gentlemanly, not charging the mound, not arguing; Disclosing whether you were really safe or out,” said Robert Mitchell, who goes by the Buckeye in the league.
It’s also hard to be super competitive when you’re just not very good at baseball to begin with. In the 1860s, games were often ridiculously high-scoring affairs. A lot of that had to do with the fact that they didn’t play with gloves back then. And neither do players from the CVBBA.
“Authentic to the period, people weren’t very good at playing baseball,” Mitchell said. “So there were a lot of errors. No gloves, no experience.”
The ballists also use era-appropriate language when they’re on the field. For example, fans used to be called “cranks.”
”You’re the striker, not the batter,” said Chuck “Suds” Knezevich. “The behind is the catcher. The pitcher’s the hurler. You’re a base-tender, that kind of thing.”
Some of the vintage base ballplayers, like “Suds” Knezevich, have entered into modern-day pop culture. Before a game in Fort Lupton in 2012, Suds and other CVBBA players were standing in a circle, going over lineups. Someone took a photo and it ended up being the cover of the 2014 Phish album, “Fuego.”
“Somebody gave us a call or sent us an email and said, ‘Have you seen the latest Phish album that came out?’” recalled Knezevich, who is the player wearing suspenders on the album cover. “We pull it out and, boom … we’re on a Phish album with some of my friends.”
Their popularity doesn’t stop with jam bands. The players’ high-spirited play and throwback fashion is a hit with fans.
“I like the atmosphere,” said Mikkilynn Olmsted, who was one of about 30 fans who attended the game in Broomfield on July 4. “I like the jokes the players tell. And sometimes they yell out stuff that’s period-appropriate, which is hilarious. So you have to listen.”
So what makes these guys get dressed up in old uniforms every weekend, run around on rough playing surfaces, and catch baseballs with their bare hands? Well, Mike “Texas Mike” Mikel said it’s for the love of the game.
“I tell everybody I’m 70 years old standing here talking to you,” he said. “When I step on the field, I’m 12 again. And then when I step off the field I’m a 70-year-old who feels like a 12-year-old’s been running his body” he laughs.