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HARTFORD – The sports that we enjoy today – baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer – have their roots in a simpler era.

The game that became known as Our National Pastime, baseball, is said to have been a uniquely American invention; the person said to have been the game's inventor, Abner Doubleday, supposedly came up with the game in 1839, though that belief has been disputed since an early-20th century commission credited Doubleday – a well known Union general in the Civil War – as the game's creator; modern baseball historians believe the claim Doubleday came up with the game was not true. The game's modern rules were first developed in the mid-19th century by a group known as the New York Knickerbockers, an athletic club formed in September 1845 in New York, though accounts of games similar to baseball as we know it today date back to the late 18th century.

The game's growth eventually led to what was known at the time as “base ball” to surpass cricket as America's biggest sport and developed into the game we know today, a game played at levels from local youth leagues to what became Major League Baseball.

Clubs and groups across the nation still stage games played by the game's earliest rules today, including in the St. Louis area, where several clubs – known by historic St. Louis baseball team names like the St. Louis Brown Stockings and St. Louis Perfectos (a team from which today's Cardinals evolved) – have staged games, or matches, played by the rules that existed in the earliest organized days of the game.

A new club formed in the Alton area played a set of matches against some other clubs Saturday at Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Hartford Saturday. The club, known as the Alton Giant Base Ball Club – named for Robert Wadlow, The Alton Giant – played its second game under 1860s base ball rules against a club known as the Belleville Stags, named for the beer once brewed in Belleville.

“We really feel blessed and it's just our second day out to play,” said Giant club organizer Greg Gelzinnis. “We played our inaugural matches last Saturday (against the Brown Stockings and the St. Louis Unions at Rock Spring Park in Alton despite rainy conditions), so it's much better to be out in the sun than in the swamp and rain we had last Saturday.”

The Giant club came about thanks to club member Nathan Woodside, who was a member of the Springfield Long Nine club and recently moved to the Alton area. “(Woodside) had brought the idea and concept to us, and we had an inaugural match last fall that pitted several vintage teams and a celebrity VIP team from Alton,” Gelzinnis said, “and we had youth from the Bluff City baseball team that played. Things went so very, very well that we decided that it would be important for Alton to have a vintage team of its own; the meetings started and the Giant were formed.”

Last Saturday's matches, in fact, prompted three spectators who viewed the games to join the Giant as players. “We've gotten great support from the community,” Gelzinnis said. “In fact, we picked up three new players after last week's game.”

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Vintage base ball uses customs and procedures from the period to as accurately as possible present games as they were played in that early era; for instance, a batter is called a “striker”, a scorekeeper is called a “tally keeper”, runs are called “tallies”, an out is a “dead” or “hand dead”, a pitcher is known as a “hurler” and an umpire is known as an “arbiter”; hurlers and arbiters are terms still used today, though more informally than before.

Players and umpires also have nicknames; for example, Todd Eschman – sports editor of the Belleville News-Democrat – served as arbiter for Saturday's game using the nickname “Dutch”. As the arbiter for the match (he has played with the Stags, but recent shoulder surgery forced him out for the season from a playing standpoint), he introduced spectators to the game and invited team “captains” (similar to today's managers) to introduce themselves and the members of their teams.

“1860s is a game that is a game that's being studied really hard; there's not a lot of records of it,” Eschman said. “We're part of an organization called the Vintage Base Ball Association; we're studying constantly what these things mean.”

Arbiters then only had one decision to make; whether a ball was fair or foul. Players of the era made their own calls based on what could be called an honor system; they also congratulated players from either team who made good plays in the field. Arbiters of that era could ask for advice from players from either team or even from spectators to help him in his decisions or ask players from the teams to take over his duties if necessary.

“This is very much a gentlemanly game,” Eschman said. “It is up to the players to decide (on calls) for themselves.”

Equipment used in the game was much like that used back in that era, with players not wearing gloves but having to catch the balls bare-handed, much like in cricket. “Gloves didn't come along until the late 1880s,” Eschman said. “But they were not commonly worn until the 1890s because, even when they had gloves and it was an advantage, to wear a glove was considered unmanly.

“What changed that was a pitcher – and he was a highly regarded player – who played until he was 27 (a player who went by the name of Al Spalding). He became heavily invested in a company that came up with the glove and everyone said, 'hey, we can do that'; he stopped playing and started making sporting goods.”

Eschman was on the BND sports desk one day when he got a call asking about the Perfectos. “As soon as I answered him, I got on the Internet and found out if I was remotely correct,” Eschman said. “I found out that there was a club called the St. Louis Perfectos and they were having a vintage game under the (Gateway Arch) that very weekend. I went out and watched about five minutes and said 'I gotta do this.'

“That was in September 2011; by September 2012, I was wearing a uniform and playing vintage base ball. The best part of this game, far and away, is that these guys come together in a gentlemanly spirit, play the game because they love it, compete because it's what you do to honor the other team and giving it your best.”

For more information on the Giant and their upcoming games, contact Gelzinnis at (618) 465-7764 (day) or (618) 550-9291 or visit their Facebook page, Alton Giant VBBC.

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Related Video:

Vintage 'Base ball' at the Lewis & Clark Historic Site