The vintage team plays by the rules of 1864.
Scott Alberts plays right field or second base—anywhere he’s less likely to make a throw. He’d play first base if he could wear a baseball glove to catch his teammates’ throws. But on his Athletic Base Ball Club of Philadelphia—which is to say, playing under the 12-team Mid Atlantic Vintage Base Ball League’s rules from circa 1864, when “base ball” was two words—fielders play bare-handed. The catcher receives the ball on a bounce, but moves closer with runners on base, and pitches arrive underhanded at top-notch Little League speed.
It’s an offensive game, so .600 batting averages aren’t unthinkable. Yet as Philly’s vintage team wraps up its season, it’s apparent that the intervening century and a half of pro baseball in this city hasn’t changed much as far as outcomes go. Philadelphia can boast just eight final championships: two World Series titles from the Phillies in 1980 and 2008, five from Connie Mack’s Athletics between 1910 and 1930—and, back in 1871, the original Athletic BBC won the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. The three-year-old Athletic revival squad hasn’t won squat yet; in fact, it went 0-10 in Federal Conference games this season. “If you’re hoping for a bright light, you won’t find it here,” says Albert, the club president. “We’re upholding the finest traditions in Philadelphia sports.”
So while the league plays its championship tournament this weekend, the Athletic team will be looking ahead to next year, hosting a recruiting tryout at 1 p.m. Sun., Oct. 14, at its field in Fairmount Park adjacent to the Please Touch Museum (that’s Memorial Hall to the retro-minded). Alberts is OK with that: Competition, he says, plays second fiddle to promoting the league and 19th-century baseball history. The baseball itself is a “leisurely thing… We do all we can to win, but we also have a great time losing games, too.” Even Charlie Manuel couldn’t—or wouldn’t—mumble that.
Alberts, a history major turned financial administrator at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, co-founded the Athletic BBC with brothers Ryan and Eric Berley of Franklin Fountain, an old-fashioned soda fountain parlor on Market Street in Old City. Hailing from a family of antiques collectors, the Berleys have a “good eye” for antiquity; they were invaluable in selecting the team’s uniforms, authentic wool reproductions with pearl buttons and leather belts. “We’ve built this team on history nerds, so it’d be nice to get a few more ballplayers,” Alberts says. “We’re always recruiting, but we’re no beer league. We’re adding to the city’s social fabric.”