Root, root, root for the home team Villagers

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange Villagers certainly didn’t let the fear of striking out hold them back on Saturday, Sept. 15, as the team faced the Flemington Neshanock at historic Cameron Field in a 19th-century baseball game, played with the sport’s rules from 1864.

The afternoon was part game, part exhibition and part history lesson as South Orange’s players took the field against Flemington, a team that wears period uniforms and specializes in 19th-century baseball.

Village President Sheena Collum threw out the first pitch like a pro, declaring: “I was born in Flemington, but I bleed South Orange!”

And the game began! Sadly for South Orange, the Villagers were routed, as the Neshanock took the game 24-12 — revenge for the Villagers winning last year 13-12. After the game, both teams expressed eagerness for a rematch next summer.

South Orange’s team comprised manager Ed “Skipper” Matthews, base coach Marcus “Griffy” McGriff, Capt. Steve “Face” Schnall, Walter “Spitball” Clarke, Jennifer “J Doc” Docherty, Barry “The Eagle” Echtman, Brian “The Hartford Loop” Farnham, Alec “Gibby” Gibson, Chris “’Ol Ghost” Henry, Dennis “Flytrap” Kearney, Matt “Crimedog” McGriff, Thomas “Mad Max” Nichols, Colin “The Schmidt” Schmidt, Phil “Buckeye” Schmiedl, Pete “Sure Hands” Travers and Andy “Wags” Wagshul.

In addition to the Neshanock period uniforms, featuring shield-front jerseys, breeches and newsboy caps, the game itself was very different. The most glaring difference was the fact that baseball in the 1860s was played sans gloves — all balls were caught barehanded. Though the one-piece, hand-stitched, historically-accurate ball used in Saturday’s game was a bit softer than today’s baseballs, catching it still stung. And it certainly still startled drivers when it was hit into the road.

Neshanock Team President Brad “Brooklyn” Shaw joked that his team’s main advantage when playing amateur old-timey teams like the Villagers is that his team is not afraid of the ball — anymore.

“It’s definitely an advantage,” “Brooklyn” told the News-Record. “And it’s not just a small advantage; it’s a huge advantage.”

Another difference is that after the batter — called the “striker” in the 1860s — hits the ball, the other team’s players can get him out by catching the ball on a bounce, likely a rule that evolved because catching, say, a line drive barehanded without a bounce could potentially break your hand.

According to “Brooklyn,” baseball first introduced mitts to protect the catcher’s hand. He made reference to a photo that showed a catcher’s hands with all 10 fingers pointing a different way.

Also, a ball is declared foul or fair depending on where it first hits, not where it ends up; if a ball bounces just inside the line and then goes out — too bad, it’s fair. One such ball bounced into the batting cage, causing a Neshanock player to declare that, if the gate had been open, he would have gotten it. Another fair-ball-bounced-foul seriously confused a Villager runner on third base, who was perplexed as to why he had just been tagged out on what he thought was a foul ball.

Another interesting rule change is that, when the pitcher — called the “hurler” in the 1860s — walks the striker, all runners on base walk as well.

Despite these big differences, the South Orange team played well. Though the Villagers ultimately lost, “Brooklyn” told the News-Record that South Orange is always one of the better amateur teams the Neshanock plays, and that the Villagers’ win last year was because last year the Villagers were simply better than the Neshanock.

And it is hard work to get up to the level of the Neshanock. “J Doc” joked with the News-Record that, when the team first came together to practice, not only were they playing with rules from the 1860s, they felt like they’d been born then, too. But they persisted.

“Face” told the News-Record that he looks forward to the game each year and always holds out hope for a win; he is eager to deliver some good-natured payback next year.

Of course, the Villagers play once a year, while the Neshanock play nearly every weekend, according to Flemington player Jeff “Duke” Schneider. “Duke” told the News-Record he has been with the team for a few years, others have been with the team for as long as decades and still others are now wrapping up their first season.

One longtime member of the Flemington Neshanock is umpire Sam “It Ain’t Nothin’ ’Til I Say” Bernstein, who travels with the team and puts aside any friendships he may have to call the game fairly. He was decked out in a full 1860s suit, complete with coattails, top hat and cane. He certainly lived up to his nickname, as the Wagshul boys waited on his say-so to update the scoreboard, an old-fashioned board on which the boys hung large cards with numbers on spikes to show the score.

It’s not just the old-fashioned scoreboard that makes Cameron Field the ideal place for this game; according to the South Orange Historic Preservation Commission, Cameron Field is “Where the Legends Played.” Famous Yankee all-stars like Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Whitey Ford played there; in 1929, Gehrig hit a homerun ball over the train tracks and all the way onto Vose Avenue! Additionally, several Negro League stars, including Josh Gibson of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, played on the field.

On such a storied field, it’s no surprise that each player — win or lose — had a great time and was there for love of the game. Afterward, each team gave the other three cheers and then lined up to shake hands.

“We love playing South Orange, and we’ll be back next year,” “Brooklyn” assured.

Photos by Yael Katzwer