Civil War sport on display this weekend at Appomattox Court House

Published 5:21 am Saturday, July 1, 2023

In 1864, when you competed in a game of “base ball”, your prize was the ball itself. The challenging team was responsible for bringing the ball and the winning team walked away with it. The bases were bags full of sawdust and the pitcher’s mound was an iron plate. And some of the rules to play were definitely not what we’re used to. This Saturday, teams from Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward counties will have a chance to compete in a Civil War sport under the old rules, at Appomattox Court House. 

The state park will hold a series of pickup games on Saturday, July 1, all of which will be played under Civil War era rules. That means if you hit a ball and it’s caught on one bounce, you’re out. It also means “soaking” is allowed, where if you hit the runner with the ball while he’s running between bases, he’s out. In today’s game, we let players run past first as they try to get a hit. Nope, that wasn’t allowed either, leading to players sliding or diving to first base just like we see at home plate now. 

The umpires also weren’t really there to call balls and strikes. According to the rules of the National Association of Base Ball Players from 1863, the pitcher wasn’t trying to get the batter out. The pitcher was supposed to throw it so the batter could hit it. The umpire only got involved if it got out of control, like say if the pitcher just couldn’t hit the catcher’s mitt at all. At that point, the umpire could call for a walk, or he could ignore it. It was completely his decision. Also, don’t expect all overhand throws. Most pitchers tossed underhanded in those early days. 

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In many ways, it’s a much simpler version of the game that’ll be on display Saturday. And anyone can show up to take part. 

“It’s a drop-in program,” said Brian Miller. He works as the lead park ranger at Appomattox Court House. “Visitors are simply welcome to join in if they’d like.” 

No mitts needed

And while some teams of friends and families will be competing, people can just show up and join on their own as well. You don’t need to bring anything, not even a mitt. Why? Because you catch with your hands. 

“The ball is much softer than it is today,” Miller said. “There is no need to bring a mitt, as they were not used.” 

That was part of the challenge back in the 1860s. According to those National Association rules, the ball had to be made of a mixture of india rubber and yarn, covered with leather. Today’s version is much harder, consisting of a cork core, wrapped in two layers of rubber. On the one hand, the earlier version was much easier to catch. But it also was harder to hit. While today’s game is focused on high scores and home runs, it wasn’t as easy to take a wooden bat and drive a piece of yarn wrapped in rubber over a fence. Bats were unique as well. They all had to be made of wood, but that was it, as far as rules were concerned. 

“It must be made of wood and may be of any length to suit the striker,” the National Association rules state. 

Artist drawings from the era show all kinds of examples. You had some who preferred a tiny bat, something that barely crossed the plate. Others preferred a long barrel, practically guaranteeing if it crossed the plate, they could hit it. 

And don’t worry about finding an 1860s version of a ball or bat if you’re coming on Saturday. The park will provide all of that, along with the fields to play games in. 

History of baseball 

So what does baseball have to do with the Civil War? That’s when it really became a national game. The game had been adopted from a British schoolyard game called rounders and in the decades leading up to the Civil War, it was basically a semi-professional sport. 

According to Michael Mahr, with the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, the sport was practically ordered to be played, by Union doctors.
“Union soldiers would play baseball while in camp or while they were waiting for deployment, as the soldier’s life was usually quite boring,” Mahr said. “Not only did this provide entertainment for the troops, it also was an outlet for physical exercise and was welcomed by regimental surgeons as a way to keep the troops healthy.”

When and where

You can compete in games of “base ball”, spelled as two words like they did in the 1860s, on Saturday, July 1. Games will be held at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., with all games expected to last from 1 hour to 1 and a half hours.