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An old game, played at its beginnings: La Crescent Apple Jacks play baseball the 19th century way

An old game, played at its beginnings: La Crescent Apple Jacks play baseball the 19th century way

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LA CRESCENT, Minn. — The hitter taps a wood bat on the plate, digs in and begins to wag the bat above his shoulders.

The pitcher tugs on his cap, squints and leans forward. He does not take much of a windup — instead, the pitcher rocks slightly back and tosses the ball underhand, almost reluctantly, as if the ball were a precious thing he feared to shatter.

Smack!

The La Crescent Apple Jacks and other vintage base ball teams play under rules and customs from 1860, which means purposely hittable pitching.

It means puffy uniforms, wood bats and bare hands — gloves were a later invention.

It means balls caught after one hop result in an out, and runners who step safely on home plate must ask the umpire’s permission to tally a run, and then ring a gold bell to make it official.

“This is baseball,” Bill Ohm said, “at its very beginnings.”

Ohm used to be president of the Apple Jacks — now, he says, he is president emeritus.

The team was established in 2004 by the La Crescent Area Historical Society, one of a dozen or so teams around Minnesota and Wisconsin that are joined in the game’s revival.

In the beginning, base ball (two words) was played largely by people who lived in the East. Men from the middle of the country learned the game during the Civil War — soldiers frequently played at their encampments — and brought it home after the fighting ended.

“We don’t much care if it was fun back then,” Ohm said. “We want it to be fun now.”

“We play for exercise, and that opens the game to all ages. You don’t need the skill that you need in baseball today. You don’t need to be Derek Jeter.”

They call it a gentlemen’s game.

No spitting, no swearing, no arguing with the umpire.

Close plays on the bases are usually sorted out by the players involved. If they can’t agree, the umpire takes a poll of the crowd.

The Apple Jacks play at Abnet Field on the south side of town, a row of trees lining the outfield fence in this quiet neighborhood.

On game days, players show up around noon. They wear ruffled white shirts that have an extra piece of fabric buttoned across the chest. The players call it a shield; it looks more like a bib.

Their caps are flimsy and short-billed — and if you ignore for a moment their shiny new cleats, they really do look the part.

The umpire goes even further. He wears a wool coat and a top hat. He carries a cane and a gold pocket watch.

“I ordered three top hats,” he said, “before I found one I liked.”

The Lanesboro Excelsiors and Afton Red Socks came to town last weekend for a tripleheader. The men — women play, too — slid across wet grass, trying to nab sinking line drives. They squeezed wood bats with their bare hands, uncoiling big swings at hanging pitches. They tore down the line and rounded the bases, keeping one hand atop their heads to keep their caps from flying off.

“I never played baseball in high school,” said Joel Affeldt, who pitches and plays the corner bases. “But I fell in love with this.”

Every player is given a nickname. Ohm is Ho-hum. Joel is Hefty. There is a Ziggy, a Skunk and a Weazel — and a visitor from the north called Newsboy.

Prince Peter, the umpire, puts more thought into his base ball persona than anyone else. Every morning before a game, he coats his mustache in wax, curling the ends into handlebars.

“On hot days,” he noted, “it droops.”

The umpire is a ceremonial figure. He does not call balls and strikes — there isn’t a running count. Mostly, he decides fair or foul, and issues 25-cent fines to anyone who breaks a rule or challenges his authority.

One woman brings a roll of quarters to the games. She walks over to the fine jar, drops one in. “Questioning his eyesight,” she says.

Base ball players enjoy the game, they say, because it is casual and low stakes. The Apple Jacks do not play in a league, so there are no standings, no consequences for a win or a loss. Teams will share players if one is shorthanded. And between games, Joan Ohm, Bill’s wife, does a lap through the players and crowd, passing out pieces of licorice.

Joan made her own dress, gray and heavy, inspired by what women wore in the 1860s. She sometimes wears it to the games, but last weekend, she decided against it.

“Those people were crazy dressing like that,” Joan said.

She is the only person here who seems to think so.

“We play for exercise, and that opens the game to all ages. You don’t need the skill that you need in baseball today. You don’t need to be Derek Jeter.” Bill Ohm

“We play for exercise, and that opens the game to all ages. You don’t need the skill that you need in baseball today. You don’t need to be Derek Jeter.”

Bill Ohm

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