Take Me Out to Ye Olde Ball Game
This team from a tiny Catskills town plays America’s pastime in its purest form
Stumble upon the Kirkside Park baseball diamond in Roxbury, Delaware County on a summer afternoon and you might get the idea you’ve traveled backward in time. Electronic scoreboards and public address systems are nowhere to be found. The players sport the same oversized cotton uniforms that legends like Cy Young once donned. The fielders wear unwebbed, unpadded gloves — if they have anything on their hands at all.
No, you are not witnessing a real-life Field of Dreams. (Any sentence you overhear that begins with “If you build it...” probably refers to the catcher’s carpentry business.) The team on the field, the Roxbury Nine, plays the game according to the rules and customs of 19th-centurybaseball — or “base ball,” as the term was written back then. Its players hail from a small town located just over Greene County’s western border.
They spend their summer weekends competing against vintage baseball squads from across the Northeast, often with great success: The team compiled an 18-2 record last season. This year, the Nine will play 16 games, culminating in the hometown Keator Cup tournament on Labor Day weekend. “The tournaments, they’re very competitive,” says Rich Ellsworth, the team founder, manager, and carpenter/catcher. “People want to win. They don’t go there to lose.”
Unlike the old-timers in that Kevin Costner movie, the Nine did not spring out of a cornfield overnight. In 1999, Ellsworth’s wife Peg was overseeing a renovation of Kirkside Park when Ellsworth recalled a Smithsonian magazine article he had read on a vintage baseball team from Long Island. The couple realized the park was a perfect match for old-fashioned baseball: a century earlier, a town resident named Harry Keator had organized a team on the same grounds. Ellsworth decided to recruit players for a vintage-style game in the park, pitting Roxbury’s single men against those who were married. “They thought, ‘Oh, this will be a one-shot deal and we won’t have to worry about it again,’ ” Ellsworth remembers. “Eight years later, they’re scratching their heads and wondering, ‘What did we get into?’ ”
The differences between the modern game and the vintage version are fascinating. For home games, the Nine follow 1898 rules, which adhere closely to present-day customs with a few major exceptions: Balls hit into foul territory are not counted as strikes against the batter, and pitchers aren’t allowed as much leeway when it comes to windup motion — “no rocking back, no pitching from the stretch, just one step for the delivery,” Ellsworth says. Although 1898 rules allow players to use fielding gloves, members of the original Roxbury team did not wear them, so the majority of the current Nine forgo using mitts for the sake of historical accuracy.
Instant replay: Roxbury’s Ryan Funck dives back to base as two fielders — members of the Providence Grays — attempt to tag him out
Photograph by Margaret Ellsworth, courtesy of Town of Roxbury
The rules differ depending on which team is home, however. For example, the Brooklyn Atlantics, a frequent opponent of the Nine, follow 1864 rules, which require the pitcher to throw underhanded; forbid baserunners from overrunning first base; and, most bizarrely, allow fielders to tally an out by catching a fly ball on one bounce. Generally, the older the set of rules, the more foreign the game appears. Under the 1854 rules — the earliest by which the Nine have played — the first team to score 21 runs wins the game. “I think some of those games have lasted 23, 24 innings,” Ellsworth says.
To the spectator, perhaps the most enthralling aspect of vintage baseball is the defensive show put on by the gloveless players. “The infielders and the first basemen probably have it the worst,” says Ellsworth. “If the ball goes to the shortstop and it’s a quick play, he’s going to throw it really hard to first to get the guy out. He’s not going to lob it over there.” Matt Walker, Ellsworth’s nephew and a Nine second baseman, is more diplomatic. “I don’t know if we get the worst of it. Some of those pop flies to the outfield are hit pretty high.” Whatever the position, vintage players can expect their fair share of jammed and broken fingers, although Ellsworth says the injuries lessen over time. “You get better at it — you’ve broken enough fingertips that they don’t break anymore,” he says.
The sometimes-painful sport has brought an ample amount of pleasure to the Roxbury community: In a town of 2,500 people, at least 1,500 fans attend the Keator Cup tournament championship game every year. The team also seems to have forged a tighter bond among the families of the town. Four sets of brothers are on the team roster, and Ellsworth plays alongside a stepson and two nephews. Alan Keator, a recent addition to the squad, is the great-great-grand-nephew of original team founder Harry Keator. “We fielded a team one time where everyone on the field was related to someone else on the field, all nine positions,” Walker says. Despite the differences in age — the youngest player is 17; Ellsworth, the oldest, is 49 — players say the Nine fit together seamlessly. “The older guys are the mentors for the younger guys,” Walker says. “There’s a common understanding about what we’re there for, and we’re real passionate about the game and the history.” That understanding extends across the diamond to the other team’s bench. After every game, opposing players relax with burgers, beer, and a little good-natured ribbing. “Other talents the team has,” Peg Ellsworth, the unofficial “team mom,” says, “are an incredibly dry sense of humor, and the ability to drink a whole lot of beer.”
The Nine’s easy entry into the world of vintage baseball is made all the more remarkable by its small population. Many of their opponents hail from much larger areas like Brooklyn, Hartford, and Providence. “People from Long Island and New Jersey are amazed that such a small community can have such an interest in the game,” Ellsworth says, “and field such a good team.
So why has old-time baseball been such a hit in this Catskills enclave? It could be the residents’ impressive athletic ability, or the town’s long history with the sport. Or it could just be the mysterious, almost unknowable force that has prompted generation after generation of Americans to grab a leather-bound rubber ball, a long-cut wooden stick, and hit, run, and throw until the sun goes down. For the Roxbury Nine player and fan, there is no why, just when and where. As the town newspaper implored in 1898: “There is certainly material enough in Roxbury for an excellent ball team. Why not organize one?”