Local vintage baseball team showcases sport’s roots

By: Timothy Pontzer | Rochester Post | Published August 8, 2017

 Grangers center fielder Keith Walters tracks a fly ball during an Aug. 5 contest. Walters and the club will compete in the World Series of Vintage Base Ball Aug. 12-13 at the Greenfield Village in Dearborn.

Grangers center fielder Keith Walters tracks a fly ball during an Aug. 5 contest. Walters and the club will compete in the World Series of Vintage Base Ball Aug. 12-13 at the Greenfield Village in Dearborn.

Photo by Patricia O'Blenes

ROCHESTER HILLS — Long before our national pastime featured multimillion-dollar pitchers facing steroid-aided sluggers, the game of baseball was a simpler pursuit.

In fact the sport was two words, with “base ball” not being a profession, but instead a way for young men to represent the local community. Sportsmanship was valued over any semblance of salary, with courtesy toward opponents outweighing competition.

The Rochester Grangers do their best to bring this time back to life, meticulously recreating a setting complete with the proper rules, uniforms, verbiage and customs. Founded in 1999, the “vintage base ball club” calls the grounds of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm home.

“This boils the sport down to its core where it’s a kids game with a bat, ball, three bases, all on an open field,” said Patrick McKay, a co-founder of the Grangers. “At its heart it is a simple game, and vintage baseball allows all of us to play again while really enjoying the sport’s roots.”

McKay played varsity baseball at Utica High, graduating in 1978. After representing the Chieftains, McKay went on to become the director of the Rochester Hills Museum, a post he has held for 31 years. The inception of the Grangers allowed him to create a marriage of two of his favorite passions.

A Rochester resident reached out to McKay inquiring about early baseball in the area. After scouring old newspaper clips and photos, the Grangers were revived — 124 years after their original birth in 1875.

“The Grangers serve as a great way for people to visit the museum,” McKay said. “I don’t want empty parking lots; I want everyone to have a Rochester Hills Museum story, whether they came here for a wedding, on a field trip in third grade, or had their senior pictures taken here. Vintage baseball is another opportunity for that.”

While today’s baseball takes place in large taxpayer-funded stadiums, the Grangers utilize a large, grassy plain at the museum. Their field is complete with several small foothills in center field, a rickety split-rail fence in right and a large American elm in left — a playable hazard that can see a fielder catching a ball off the branches for an out.

The term “out” is nonexistent. Instead, players are deemed “dead” when beaten by a throw or tag — a term carried over from the Civil War that quite literally described one’s fate on the base paths. Bases are “sacks,” authentically filled with sawdust. A pitcher faces a “striker” instead of a batter, and when a run is scored it is an “ace tallied,” complete with each individual player ringing a cowbell after crossing home plate.

“We try our best to keep everything (as) authentic as possible,” said Keith Walters, the Grangers’ center fielder. “It is a lot of fun. It definitely has a different vibe than playing in a softball league. We try to appreciate the history of the game.”

That authenticity includes banning modern comforts of the sport such as sunglasses, skinny-handled bats and gloves. Players are allowed to wear cleats, but they must be fully blacked out, forcing players like Walters to take a magic marker to a Nike swoosh or Under Armour logo on his footwear.

A 2005 Rochester High grad, Walters grew up playing baseball but admits it was quite an adjustment to learn how to patrol center without a leather glove to snag fly balls.

“Catching a ball takes a little while. For the first couple years, you have to let your hands get beat up and bruised,” Walters said. “It always hurts a lot more if you drop it.”

The Grangers uniform is complete with a pillbox cap, suspenders, a tie and a handkerchief. Long sleeves and pants complete the look, with each player donning a “shield” on their chest that closely mirrors what Rochester firefighters wore in the era.

Comprising 17 players ranging in age from 21 to 84, the club has competed in affairs all over the country this season, including trips to Chicago, Akron, Cheboygan, Mackinac Island and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. When they host, the Grangers sing a postgame song for their opponent and welcome them to a meal, all of which was custom for that time.

“Back then, teams would have to travel long distances to play each other, so they would be hungry,” McKay explained. “It was expected to offer a meal to everyone who attended, including the other team. Teams were judged more by their gentlemanly attitude and meal afterwards, rather than the actual competitive level on the field.”

Players compliment one another regardless of team affiliation all throughout a contest, offering remarks on a fine play and apologizing when a mistake is made. Batters instruct opposing pitchers on where to specifically underhand toss the ball over the plate, as that era encouraged a game of hitting rather than deceptive curveballs and tough fastballs.

The Grangers have garnered plenty of on-field accolades, currently holding an overall record of 12-3. Despite that, McKay likes to focus on the merits of his team rather than the results.

“We may put down that we won or lost, but we don’t put down the score on our website,” McKay remarked. “If you ask me what the record is, usually I’m not even sure. It really doesn’t matter; we’re not getting a scholarship, and the Yankees aren’t watching. If we can remember it is a fundamental game and get kids to love baseball again, then it is something wonderful to do in the afternoon.”

 


 

Grangers anthem

In the early days of the sport, it was common for baseball teams to greet and thank one another for competing with a song. While there is no record of the Grangers’ original tune, Doug Otlewski took it upon himself to pen lyrics for the club. Otlewski runs a law firm in downtown Rochester and on the side performs as a musician at local establishments. A longtime member of the Grangers, he wrote his club’s number, “For the Love of the Game.”

Hear ye, fellow Grangers
Brethren, heed the call
Come on, come all and join us
Beyond the stony wall

Lay aside your troubles
Upon the field of dreams
Come play the game that calls us
The best you’ve ever seen

For the love of the game
Not for money, not for fame
Our hearts belong to base ball,
Forever burns the flame
Huzzah! Huzzah! For the
“opposing team’s name”
We’re nightly glad you came
We tip our caps to base ball
For the love of the game

Huzzah!