The Brandywine Vintage Base Ball Club Replays the Past
story by Jesse Piersol
In the 2018 movie Kodachrome, protagonist Matt Ryder (played by Jason Sudeikis) reconnects with his estranged father, Ben (Ed Harris), who is in the final throes of terminal cancer. A famous photographer with an impossible ego, Ben weasels his son into embarking on a road trip with him to Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, to develop his last remaining rolls of Kodachrome film before the December 31, 2010 deadline. After that date, Dwayne’s Photo — the last facility in the world to still process Kodachrome (which Kodak discontinued in June of 2009) would no longer develop it.
Part of what makes the story so enchanting is its central character: Kodachrome film itself, a beloved yet doomed American icon swallowed up by modern technology, including changes in the medium like digital photography and competing film formats with less complex processing requirements.
Kodachrome evokes the rich colors of a romanticized past. Today, everything vintage—from cocktails to Pyrex glassware to midcentury furniture—is enjoying an exuberant renaissance. An unlikely participant in that renaissance is the game of baseball. And West Chester has a league of its own.
Rick Stratton has been a member of the Brandywine Vintage Base Ball Club since it was restarted in 2013, after a 148-year hiatus.
Wait…what? One hundred and forty-eight years?! “The Brandywine Base Ball Club existed back in 1865, when base ball started gaining popularity after the Civil War,” Stratton explains. Teams formed when soldiers came home from battle. With more leisure time, it became a gentlemen’s game, where businessmen would gather together for exercise.
The club was active until somewhere between 1915 and 1919, when it fizzled out, lying dormant until 2013.
Stratton traces the origins of vintage base ball (note: it’s “base ball” in its vintage form, not “baseball”) to the late 1980s in Long Island, where it grew in popularity over the next decade or so. Around 2010, the Mid Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League was formed, comprised of a dozen teams spanning Washington, DC to Long Island.
Locally, a team in Delaware had been playing for three or four years, and the members were looking to grow a league so they didn’t have to travel so far. Stumbling upon West Chester’s rich history with the game, they pushed a couple of their guys to form their own team, which they did, taking out a newspaper ad to solicit players. “I saw the ad and walked into the Historical Society on a February morning not knowing what I was getting into,” Stratton recalls. “And the next thing I knew, I was vice president.” Although he had participated in Little League as a youth, he had not played competitively for 20 years. It turns out, none of that mattered.
Corduroy. Shaggy. Wrinkles. Donut. Stonewall. Everyone gets a nickname. Rick “Stonewall” Stratton grew up in rural New Hampshire, in a place with…well, a lot of stone walls. “I ended up playing catcher, which has a backstop,” Stratton explains. “So I’m kind of like a wall back there.”
Some players want to choose their own nickname, but the team discourages it. “We try to get it to come about organically,” he says. “Something funny or embarrassing, sometimes it fits with your background or your name. We say that once you have a nickname, then you’re really part of the club. Sometimes it happens the day you show up, and sometimes it’s three games in, or even half a year.”
Although a wide variety of people play the game, there is a sizeable contingent of history and baseball buffs on the team. Naturally, there are lots of teachers, especially history teachers. “I’m a civil engineer,” Stratton offers. “There are a couple guys who work in the restaurant business and the manufacturing industry. One guy works at a biomedical facility.”
For all its adherence to vintage rules and aesthetics, the modern-day version of the game is welcoming and inclusive. “We’ve played with people as young as 16 and 18 to people in their 70s, men, women, anyone who wants to come out and play,” he states. “The rules are the great equalizer. We have people who played in college ranging all the way to people who have never played. Our rules allow those two types of people to play together.” Typically, the club discourages players under 18, but they’ve made exceptions in the past.
There is even a woman on the team these days: Allison “Kat” Howell, who plays second base. “Back then, women didn’t play,” says Stratton. “Today, there is a team in New York called the Mutuals, and on certain days, there are up to three women playing on their roster. And they’re just as good as anyone out there.”
It is the range of people — and the relationships formed — that keeps team members coming back. “Just the camaraderie,” reflects Stratton. “You meet some pretty neat people from other teams. Being part of the community is really special.”
Going Back in Time
One of the most noticeable differences from modern baseball is that no gloves are worn in the vintage version of the game, for the simple reason that they hadn’t been invented yet. Mercifully, the ball is also a little bit softer, with a different stitching pattern that comes together in four quarters called the “lemon peel” stitch, rather than the curved lines of today’s figure eight style.
In addition to the slightly softer ball, players’ hands are also granted some reprieve by the catching rules. “You can catch the ball on the fly or on one bounce, which helps,” Stratton says. “If something is hit really hard and you don’t feel like diving, you can time it to catch it off the bounce—although if you’re a really good player and you rely on that bounce, you’ll get heckled a little bit.”
Let’s not leave any uncertainty here, though: “Without a glove, it’ll get scary sometimes. If you catch a line drive….” His voice trails off as he mentally calculates. “I’d estimate that 75 percent of our current club members have some type of finger injury. But we keep coming back.”
The bases are burlap sacks. Traditionally filled with sawdust, today’s vintage bases are filled with rubber chips. They don’t play on a cut diamond, instead just using an open expanse of grass, because that’s what teams had back then. Stratton notes that sometimes the terrain offers additional challenges. “We’ve played in places where there’s been a huge rock in center field or knee-high grass, but that just makes it more interesting.”
Bats are another element of the sport with a vintage spin, and the Brandywine club sources theirs from West Chester bat maker Prowler Bat Company.
Prowler founder Steve McCardell is a self-described baseball guy, West Chester born and bred, who attended Henderson High School and then Shippensburg University (which he chose for its baseball program, not necessarily his academics) before returning to the borough. After college, he was unsure about his career path, so turned to his first love: baseball. “Making bats was an easy thing to start up,” he recollects. “You just need a lathe and wood. But to really do it correctly takes a good bit of money and a lot of research.”
He invested the time, and today his market has grown to include customers from Maine to Tennessee to Iowa. He goes to the big tournaments with 25 teams, setting up his table to reach players there. His ultimate goal is to get bats to the Phillies, but that’s far off, because of the money required just to get the bats in front of them.
Vintage bats feature several notable differences from their modern-day counterparts. For one, they are longer, ranging from 34 to 37 inches. They also have a different shape, lacking the typical barrel definition of today’s bats. The handle is thicker and they are heavier, too. “Overall, they’re very simple in design, crafted from a solid piece of ash,” explains McCardell. Stain or dye is used to finish the wood rather than paint, and there are generally no logos added to the bat.
Sometimes, players request something special, as did Alex “Cardigan” Marmelstein (outfield). His bat features a V-shaped graphic with a row of circles that runs down the length of the bat, resembling a button-up sweater. On a cool spring day early in his tenure with the club, Marmelstein wore a sweater to a game, earning him the nickname “Cardigan” from that day forward. The next year, he requested the custom bat design from Prowler.
The motif was created by taping off the design and then staining it. McCardell gets all sorts of requests, with stripes being a popular addition to vintage bats. He also uses different shades of brown stains to mimic tobacco stains that often graced old bats. “They’re so different. I love doing them. ‘Authentic’ and ‘classic’ are the words I think of when I’m designing a vintage bat.”
Community support is essential to the team’s growth and outreach. One of their earliest sponsors was Levante Brewing, supporting the team since 2014. “One of our players knew they were starting up and had a conversation with them about being a sponsor,” Stratton recalls. “One of our players even works there now.” At Levante’s “Kegs and Eggs” event in February, the team shows up in uniform to fundraise.
They travel for games to places including Gettysburg and Pea Patch Island in Delaware. The team car pools to events that are an hour or two away, but flies to more distant locations, such as their upcoming trip to Wisconsin. “We’ll fly out there and all stay in a couple of rooms,” he says. “We’ll play all weekend long at the festival, which is maybe five games in three days.”
For home games, the team plays at East Goshen Park. “We’re a pretty healthy club in terms of roster and budget right now,” says Stratton. “What we’re really looking for is a following and a fan base. We need more spectators.” He notes, somewhat enviously, that one of the teams that comes to East Goshen travels from six hours away, and they bring a whole crowd with them. “They have 50 or so people who travel around to see them play base ball.”
Bringing it Home
“We’re all so frightened by time, the way it moves on and the way things disappear. That’s why we’re photographers. We’re preservationists by nature,” opines Ed Harris’ in Kodachrome. “We take pictures to stop time, to commit moments to eternity. Human nature made tangible.”
Just as Kodachrome isn’t about a product, the story of the Brandywine Vintage Base Ball Club isn’t really about a sport; it’s about people. “It’s always great to see a father and son on the team,” muses Stratton. “My goal is to play long enough that I can play with my son. It’s about preserving history and passing it down. And also teaching them about how it used to be.” Stratton’s son, now five, isn’t quite ready for the big leagues with Dad yet, although he participated in tee ball last year.
One of Stratton’s base ball moments committed to memory happened during a game the team played in Reading, at a little league field where vintage teams are sometimes invited. “They asked us to play there one weekend, and they had brought in a former major leaguer to play with us.” Bill “Spaceman” Lee, a left-handed pitcher who played for the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos from the 1970s through the early 1980s, was quite a character back when he was known for his counterculture viewpoints as well as his baseball prowess. “It was fun to be out there with someone who appreciates the history of the game,” Stratton remembers. “Being on the field with him was pretty neat.”
Prowler’s Steve McCardell recalls a special moment back when he was just starting out with bat making and playing in the West Chester adult league. “My brother hit a home run with one of my bats, which at that time was a really bad baseball bat, because I was just starting out and didn’t know anything. But he hit a home run with something I had made. I still have that bat hanging up in my garage.”
Memories such as these will play out again as future generations find their own place on the field, not matter what form that field takes.
Games are free to attend. Check out Brandywine Vintage Base Ball Club’s schedule on their website: brandywinebbc.org