No game in the world is as tidy and dramatically neat as baseball, with cause and effect, crime and punishment, motive and result, so cleanly defined.
- Paul Gallico
IF YOU'RE A baseball purist who feels the game went to the dogs the day they hiked the price of a Major League ticket to 50 cents, well, you best be on hand for the fourth annual Railroaders Festival 1880's Baseball Tournament in Corinne.
Slated for Aug. 9, 10, 11, the tourney will feature three teams in period dress, using period equipment and playing by period rules. And if this year is like past years, you'll also be able to spot some top hats, waistcoats and bonnets in the crowd as well. Some are already looking to the future when 1880 food and transportation may put in an appearance.
"We used to have a tournament like this at Fort Davis," says Randy Kane, the Golden Spike National Historic Site ranger whose brain spawned the storm. "Some old-time baseball tournaments go all the way back and play `town ball,' with four bases and a home plate, others are more modern. We figured 1880 was just about right."
The games begin at 7 p.m. each evening and go for five innings. The tournament is the kickoff to the Railroaders Festival, which has been held for 18 years. This year the festival runs from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Golden Spike National Historic Site on Saturday, Aug. 13. And there, too, you'll feel you've been whisked back about a century. Grow a beard and show up.
In 1880, Rutherford B. Hayes was president, Edison's light bulb was 1-year-old and "Black Beauty" was a hot, new read. People in Utah were still mourning the death of Brigham Young.
In the world of baseball, William A. Hubert had just organized the National League and had coaxed Al Spalding and "Cap" Anson to join the new league to give it credibility. In 1880, however, Hubert scheduled Sunday games and sold booze at the ballpark, a couple of moves that got his new league expelled from the national association. But he was soon back - as were other teams - complete with their Sunday baseball and beer.
On the field itself, players were still pitching and catching bare-handed (except for the catcher, who wore a padded workman's glove). Baseball bats looked like wagon tongues (some may have been wagon tongues), and batters got three strikes and six balls. ("Here's the five-two pitch. . . .").
Out on the mound, pitchers were still expected to lob the "horsehide sphere" toward the plate underhanded, though more and more chuckers were sneaking in some side-arm deliveries.
Such shenanigans will be part of the old-time tourney in Corinne.
The big changes would come a couple of years later when foul balls caught on a bounce were no longer outs and distances were changed. Then, in 1884, Hillerich & Bradsby stuck a log on one of its lathes and spun out its first baseball bat - the "Louisville Slugger."
"We use those 1884 Pete Browning models in our games each year," says Kane. "We had to special order them. Browning broke his bat in a game and Hillerich - who made butter churns for a living - made Browning another one."
The bat has a handle as big as the trunk of a young sapling and weighs more than a young St. Bernard.
But Browning loved it. Nicknamed "The Gladiator," he batted .521 in 1882 with his homemade version but raised his average to .530 in 1885 when he went with the Louisville model. That was all hit-hungry players needed to see. They made Louisville Slugger rich and famous.
Such lore and legends will be on display - and also hovering in the atmosphere - when the teams take the field at the Corinne City ballpark, 2400 N. 4050 West in Corinne, west of Brigham City. For details, phone 801-471-2209.
"We'll have a team made up of the Brigham City Chamber of Commerce, another team of Tremonton firefighters and a third team of Corinne city citizens," says Kane. "We also have a traveling trophy."
Unlike the 1880 games, however, these contests will be co-ed.
In the end, with a baseball strike looming on Aug. 12 and fans everywhere feeling miffed at the greed and egos that now drive the game, the Corinne affair might serve as a tonic of sorts; a chance to get back to basics - literally - and see the sport for what it is again: a game that 6-year-olds can play, but geniuses will never fully understand.
A game that runs through American life like a string through a strand of pearls.
"Baseball" on PBS
Many a baseball and history buff is looking forward to the new 18-hour PBS series, succinctly titled "Baseball," from filmmaker Ken Burns. KUED Ch. 7 will broadcast a preview, "Baseball: An American Epic," at 6:55 p.m. Aug. 14 and again at 9 p.m. Aug. 17. The series itself begins Sept. 18 and will air in nine 2-hour "innings" over nine nights.
Says Burns, best known for his PBS series on the Civil War: "I think of baseball like I think of the canary in the mine, because we can measure our health as a country by the health of the game itself."