The Mid-Atlantic Base Ball League Celebrates the Nation's Pastime
The Main Line is the epicenter of this throwback organization.
(All game-day photographs) Action from an April 18 matchup between the Mohican Base Ball Club of Kennett Square and West Chester’s Brandywine Vintage Base Ball Club. The Mohicans crushed the Brandywines 22-4//All photos by Jim Graham.
The outfield perimeter of the Kennett Square Mohicans’ home field near Unionville is lined by a cornfield. “We asked [landowner Katie Ryan Walker] to plant the corn for effect,” says Mohicans co-captain Dan “Ketch” Kelly.
Such a setting begs for that Field of Dreams moment when the players emerge from a sea of stalks. It’s the sort of mystical nostalgia the Mid Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League was founded upon. Yes, that’s “base” and “ball” as two words, like it originally was. The throwback organization reverses time and the rules, playing the 1860s style of the national pastime. And that means no gloves—ever.
The Brandywine Vintage Base Ball Club of West Chester once played its games in Pocopson Park. It was more rural and authentic than its current home at East Goshen Township Park, but it lacked foot traffic and exposure. Today, its matchups draw beeps from passing vehicles on Paoli Pike, along with the occasional ice cream truck. Prior to the Pocopson Park, the Brandywine BBC held its games on a field that’s now a Burger King on even busier West Chester Pike.
Vintage Base Ball League regulars Mike “River” Spaziani and Dennis “Muhl” Snyder
Our region is a vintage-baseball epicenter of sorts. Among 20-some area teams, there’s also the Athletic BBC of Philadelphia—which has Main Line players, or “ballists”—and three outfits from Delaware. In June, locals participate in Haverford Township’s Heritage Festival. In mid-September, there’s the Philadelphia Vintage Base Ball Festival at the Navy Yard.
To resurrect a team, a town needed to have one back then. The original Mohican BBC of Kennett Square formed in 1875. A 1903 season ticket was found at the Chester County Historical Society.
With 130 teams around the country, the MAVBBL is active from April to October. Fielders play barehanded, so broken fingers are common. There are no smiles in team photos, and everyone has a nickname.
The “hurler”—or pitcher—delivers the ball underhand. Three balls is a walk, and three strikes a strikeout. Foul balls don’t count as strikes, though a caught foul tip—regardless of the strike count—is an out, or a “hand.” Both batters—called “strikers”—and hurlers get a warning before a strike or a ball is called. If a pitch is too close to call, the umpire—usually a volunteer from one side or the other—might opt for a “no call.”
A striker can crush a ball. But if an outfielder plays it cleanly on one bounce, it’s an out—or so say the rules from 1864. “It’s a single in any other century,” says Rick “Stonewall” Stratton, the Brandywines’ catcher and vice president.
Upper Darby’s Scott Alberts is a founder of the Athletic BBC of Philadelphia, which was crowned champion of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players back in 1871. “Essentially, it’s baseball,” he says. “For the anomalies, we’re on hand to answer questions.”
Teams play on 20 or so dates, which typically include nine-inning double-headers. There are no tryouts—just “come outs.” Stratton, a civil engineer who lives in Exton, found an ad, attended a meeting, and became vice president. Only Bryan “Shaggy” Kopcik arrived ahead of him, so he became president.
From left: Dennis “Muhl” Snyder of the Brandywine Vintage BBC; Dan “Ketch” Kelly of the Kennett Square Mohicans
In this version of the game, not even the catcher wears a glove. He can set up wherever he likes, but he’s usually closer with a runner on and often receives the ball on a bounce.
The first drive in West Chester’s April 18 home opener reaches deep left-center off a Kennett Square bat, falls, then bounces up a berm. The runner heads for home, beating the throw. Had the hit been caught on a first bounce, it would’ve been an out. “But depending on who you’re playing, there can be a lot of heckling because, to catch it on a bounce, well, it’s not considered real manly,” Kopcik says.
Uniforms are often pieced together from suppliers around the country. Bats are made by Steve McCardell of the Prowler Bat Co. in West Chester. McCardell sponsors the Brandywines. Ordered through 19cbaseball.com, the ball is made of leather over a string-and-rubber core. The stitching is crisscrossed, ending in two horseshoes. Some balls have a wooden core; all are softer than the modern-day hardball. “They sound good off the bat, but to catch one hurts like a son of a bitch,” says Kopcik.
“It hurts on a cold day,” adds Brandywines’ first baseman Matt “Pins” Hagnauer, so named because of the pins in his shoulder from a wrestling injury.
A single ball is kept in play each game. It’s awarded as the trophy to the winning team in a gentlemanly closing ceremony. “We try to keep them,” Kopcik says.
Twenty runs isn’t uncommon in a game, but neither is a 4-2 score. The Brandywines lost their first-ever game against Diamond State BBC 31-1 in 2013. It was the team’s first match in 90 years, having been defunct from 1923 on. Earlier this season, Diamond State defeated Maryland newcomer Ellicott City 68-7.
“There’s definitely a learning curve,” admits the Brandywine BBC’s Josh “Splinter” Mulzoff, who’s a graduating senior at
On this April afternoon, the Brandywines fall to the Mohicans 22-4. Positioned on two foul lines at game’s end, each captain takes a turn thanking spectators, the umpire, sponsors, the press, and the opponent. “We’re proud to have our home opener with Kennett Square,” says West Chester captain Brian “King” Kraeer, who lives two blocks from the original Brandywines field. “They’re like our brothers. They play right, and they play hard.”