If you’re looking for an opportunity to take a step back in time, exits 67, 70 and 73 off of Interstate 81 will lead you to a “Field of Dreams” type of nostalgia. Rather than a cornfield in Iowa, you can visit Withers Park in Wytheville to experience vintage baseball as it was played more than 150 years ago.
History buff Michael Gillman, coordinator of heritage programs and sites for the town of Wytheville’s Department of Museums, organized Wytheville’s vintage baseball team after stumbling across a YouTube video on the subject from Gettysburg National Park. He asked Director of Historic Resources Frances Emerson about initiating the idea in Wytheville, and she gave him license to proceed.
Gillman refers to vintage baseball as a “gentleman’s game,” but is quick to add that play is not devoid of competition. “It’s a hitter’s game,” he explained. “According to 1864 rules, if the batter lays the bat across home plate, the pitcher is obliged to throw the underhanded pitch as instructed by the prospective hitter.”
In January of 2018, Gillman called a meeting for anyone interested in a vintage baseball team, and seven attended. The first game was played at Wytheville’s historic Homestead property with 147 spectators looking on. Today, 22 players consistently participate in practices and games that field two distinct teams. The teams abide by 1864 rules which call for bare-handed play (no mitt) with a 9-1/2- to 9-3/4-inch ball of leather-wrapped twine that can weigh no less than 5-1/2 ounces and no more than 5-3/4 ounces.
Players are decked out in period uniforms thanks to the generosity of supporters. The team called the Bereans, funded by Berea Christian Church, wear blue and white uniforms and sport a “B” on their chest plate. The team wearing green and white uniforms were funded by the Wythe County Historical Society (“W”) and call themselves the Deacons, named for Major League baseball pitcher Deacon Phillippe – a Rural Retreat native who played in the first World Series in 1909. Hats were funded by Richard and Corinne Johnson. Red bats were made available through State Farm insurance agent Jennifer Walters. Additional funding was made available through Rick and Shirley Knack of Knack Engineering and a number of anonymous donors.
Players range in age from 20-something college baseball alumni to a 72 year-old town employee who all share a love of baseball, and include town employees, teachers, factory workers and a high school varsity baseball coach, among other folk.
Under the auspices of the Town of Wytheville Museums, the vintage baseball program is working to create awareness among other southwest Virginia localities in the hope that they may form similar programs with the potential for games between communities. Play is open to men and women, age 18 and older.
The next chance to see a vintage baseball game in Withers Park will be Thursday, Sept. 19, at 6 p.m. The park is located at 300 N. Fourth St., a block off Wytheville’s Main Street.
For more information or to discuss becoming a part of a vintage baseball team, contact Michael Gillman at (276) 223-3330 or email@example.com.
Submitted by Mary Jane Umberger