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Monday, Oct. 12, 2009

Vintage Baseball Star Jeff ‘The Gent’ Paige

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Baseball didn’t just spring into existence as America’s pastime—it took decades of evolution and refinement for British games like cricket and rounders to morph into the game we know today. Throughout the 1800s, amateur clubs in different parts of the country played by different sets of rules and with varying degrees of organization and competitiveness. Milwaukee’s first professional team, The Cream Citys, was founded in 1869 and played until 1878, when they went bankrupt during their first season in the National League. Today, the team and its style of baseball (or “base ball” as it was known then) have been lovingly and meticulously recreated, with a new Cream Citys team taking the field to entertain and educate fans about Milwaukee’s rich baseball legacy. We recently spoke to Cream Citys player Jeff “The Gent” Paige about the team and the game.

What are some of the most notable differences in the way the game was played back then?

Probably the biggest difference would be that if you caught the ball after one bounce it was called an out. Also, there were no called strikes or balls. It was more of a gentleman’s game, so the tosser [pitcher] would ask the striker [batter] how he wanted the ball thrown—a bit higher or a little faster, things like that—and after three swings and misses you were out.

Who would the original Cream Citys have played against?

The original Cream Citys would have played teams like the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the Chicago Salmon and some amateur teams, so it was a regional thing.

Where do you get the period attire?

There are 270 vintage baseball teams right now, so that creates a market for uniforms and equipment, and there are companies that supply that kind of thing. When the team was founded in 2004, there were only about 70 teams, so we made a lot of the bats and balls and other equipment ourselves.

Who would have played the game during the period you are recreating?

They came from all castes, primarily upper-class people, but there were farmers and people like that who played. The umpire, though, would have been somebody who was highly recognizable in the community, like a local judge or sheriff.

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How would a fan’s experience of a day at the ballgame have been different than it is today?

It was very spectator oriented. They were called “cranks” or “rooters.” There might be bleachers or chairs, but there was no special seating. They could sit anywhere in foul or fair territory and they really were a part of the game. If a rooter caught a ball on a bounce and handed it to a defensive player, it was an out; there was no interference. The same goes for trees. For example, at a game in Menomonee Falls, the ball went into a tree. So we had one of our guys shimmy up it. The other team was rounding the bases, but it didn’t matter: It was still an out.

For more information, visit www.milwaukeecreamcitys.org.

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