// By Rich Reed //
photos by // michael gleason photography
It began with my neighbor across the street, Scott Tomrell, texting me to look out my front window. He was standing in his driveway dressed in a strange-looking uniform, wearing an odd little cap. As it turns out, Scott plays for the Lumber City Base Ball Club in Flint, a team that played in Flint during the 1870-1871 season. I even had the opportunity to attend a game played at the University of Michigan-Flint this past July.
This team got its start in 2013, thanks to the vision and expertise of Thomas Henthorn, a tenured professor of history at UM-Flint. As a Wyatt-endowed professor with a Ph.D. in urban history from Michigan State University, Henthorn researched the game as it was first played in America. The correct history of the game is available at VBBA.org, so Henthorn set about to establish a team and play according to historically correct rules and equipment.
With over 30 vintage baseball teams in Michigan alone, “It was interesting, but not good history. It wasn’t real history, so I wanted to make it fun and play good, accurate baseball,” he says. According to Henthorn, many vintage teams made up a lot of the history and terms to suit their desires, so he researched it and corrected it, with many teams being suspicious of a Ph.D. telling them what was wrong. However, Henthorn grew up with a ball glove on all summer long and took it off at Halloween.
During the urbanization of the East Coast in the 1830s and 1840s, wherever city men –
bankers, clerks, volunteer firemen and so on – got together and socialized, they played baseball. As the game evolved, exact rules were established in 1858 by the National Association of Base Ball Players. Under those rules, the first team to reach 21 runs won the game. A nine-inning rule was added, with some games even ending in a tie. Strikes and balls were called with the three-strikes-you’re-out rule added in 1858.
I recently watched Henthorn in action. Attempting to stay historically accurate, Henthorn umpired the game, called balls and strikes and explained the rules of the game. The only modern exception I witnessed was a public address system to announce the players, as in, “Mr. Tomrell at bat.”
The captain coaches the Flint team, which plays 12-13 games April-September. The ages of the current team members are about 45 to 50. There are nine players on the field playing the same positions as modern-day baseball. Each team gets three outs and the game lasts nine innings.
“Rather than focusing on pitching and batting as in modern baseball,
fielding is the highlight of the game.”
All players must wear an authentic uniform and cap. The shirts have a “shield” on the front, and the full-length pants are blue, held up by suspenders. The team play with no gloves; the first baseman and catcher are the only players to wear fingerless gloves. The ball is rubber, wrapped in wool and covered in leather; it is handmade and doesn’t go very far. It is pitched underhand from 45 feet out. The bat is 2.5 inches around at a maximum length of 40 inches. Rather than focusing on pitching and batting as in modern baseball, fielding is the highlight of the game. The pitcher starts the action and the “striker” (batter) gets play moving. A striker is called out when a defensive player catches a ball in the air or when a striker hits a one-bounce hit to someone in the field.
Trying to convince his wife that he is at work when the team plays, Henthorn states, “This is a serious historical research project.” There are no sunglasses allowed; cellphones are banned, as are backpacks and gym bags on the bench. Players are not allowed to high-five, since that is a modern way of celebrating a good play. And no beer is allowed.
There is a UM-Flint brand associated with the team because the History Department does fund a few expenses. The team is also associated with the Whaley House, and a team trailer is provided by Genesee Polymers Corporation. All home games are played at UM-Flint, just north of campus. Henthorn would like to see more diversity on the team and maybe even a team put together at Berston Field House or Bassett Park.
He states, “We take public history into communities in Flint, especially underserved areas.” In fact, the team members have worn their uniforms and set up a batting cage at Movies Under the Stars, sponsored by Communities First, Inc., a Flint nonprofit.
The Lumber City Base Ball Club has played in tournaments in Frankenmuth and at Greenfield Village, where they have held a World Tournament of Historic Base Ball event. The Flint team does not belong to a league, per se, and a win-loss record is kept by the team only. On September 15, the team played a Lapeer team at Berston Field House.
The following people are currently listed as team members of the Lumber City Base Ball Club: Andrew Stout, Brian Benjamin, Charles Piskoti (captain), Daniel Cole, Dennis Kleinedler, Don Ferguson, Ed Folsom, James Dillard, Jason Haas, Joe Deitering, Josh Greenwald, Kyle McGilvery, Lewis Benjamin, Matthew Thick, Mike Plasha, Patrick Bower and Scott Tomrell.
For anyone interested in trying out for the team or participating in any fashion, please contact Henthorn by phone or text at 810-919-9614 or email him at [email protected] The cost is approximately $100 for the uniform and $50 for dues. So again, let’s play ball!