The Old ‘Crack-of-the-Bat’ Vintage Base Ball in Cades Cove by Craig Mortimore

Abraham Lincoln stands ready 45 feet away, intently staring at his battery mate. His black suit and stovepipe hat are uncomfortable garments for this activity, conducted in the heat of a summer afternoon. He receives a nod from his catcher and stands straight, reverses his arm in the direction of second base, and then swings it forward in an elegant underhand pitch. The ball arcs through the air descending into the welcoming hands of his battery mate.

“Well tossed!” exclaims the arbiter. A perfect strike, although no striker had been present to appraise the offering. Old Abe is not daunted by the sweat of his brow, for he is only there to offer the ceremonial first pitch of match between two base ball clubs gathered at the Historic Ramsey House in Knoxville. “Huzzah!’ comes the cheers from players and enthusiastic rooters alike. The home team’s nine take to the field in their colorful uniforms for yet another match on the schedule of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball. (Note the historical emphasis on two words.)

During Old Timer’s Day at Cades Cove this Saturday, September 29, Vintage Base Ball will be played for the first time in a long time. Baseball (now using the modern term) was played in the Cove during the period prior to the park’s creation. While there are only a few references to the game, comments in both Randolph Shields’ and Durwood Dunn’s books attest to the entertainment value the game provided to the community. Games played between the Upper and Lower Schools were a delightful diversion for the hard-working Cove residents. According to Shields, “It was not unusual to see the entire population of the cove turn out for a baseball game between the two schools.”

Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball honors the tradition of the game during its early years. Playing by rules established in 1864, 12 teams play out a full season on pitches arranged within the grounds of 10 different historic venues throughout the Volunteer State. Balls, bats and playing field dimensions differ from those of the modern game. Moreover, the game then did not tally balls and strikes to determine the striker’s (batter) fate – though in the latter part of the 1860’s, these did become necessary as an attempt to speed up the pace of the game.

As for speed, participants range in age, with many a man long in the tooth still gainfully contributing to the success of their team while chugging around the bases. It is a sport in which the players do have a competitive fire to emerge victorious. Perhaps more importantly, the Association’s teams hope to portray the evolution of the game and in so doing instill a sense of history for all who attend their matches.  

This year, the Knoxville Holstons, captained by Lynn “Hawkeye” Bates, will host an exhibition game at the Cades Cove Visitors Center halfway around Loop Road. On Old Timer’s Day, the grounds will be readied for play and the base path laid out for the action. Spectators can pass the time, or figuratively go back in time, to hear the players shout out in terms applicable to the old game. Muckles (power hitters) and muffins (less skilled players) alike will be showing sand (playing with enthusiasm) when they take to the plate in hopes of smacking a stinger, whizzer or hot ball (a well-hit ball) past the fielders to score an ace (a run scored). It shall be an activity that all ages will enjoy. We’re not sure what the bears and deer will think of it.

About the Author: Craig Mortimore is a Great Smoky Mountains Association sales associate and miller at Cable Mill in Cades Cove.

Vintage Base Ball in the Smokies

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