Sports

Like it’s 1865: The Rochester Roosters are bringing back vintage ‘base ball’

Athletes play in a vintage base ball game.
Sam "Lefty" Brust throws to first base for a double play after catching a ball fielded by Mike "Click" Olson. The Rochester Roosters took on the La Crescent Apple Jacks in their first vintage "base ball" game of the season on Saturday in La Crescent.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

With a thwack of a bat, the Rochester Roosters came out swinging at the team’s first practice of the season.

“I tell people I play for The Roosters and they’re like, ‘So, you must be really good at baseball,’” said team manager Mike Olson. “And I was like, ‘Well, we play barehanded.’ There’s confusion between the Honkers and The Roosters, for sure.”

Confusion because the Honkers are the minor league baseball team in town, and barehanded because this is vintage ball: no mitts allowed.

The Roosters are among a handful of teams in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin who play every summer following rules and customs more than 150 years old.

Athletes play in a vintage base ball game.
Greg "Horse Shoe" Lamp connects on a pitch in La Crescent Saturday.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

The roots of vintage “base ball” go back to around the time of the Civil War, said team umpire Mark Bilderback.

“It became a social activity,” he said. “This was an opportunity to bring all these people together, to have a meal, to socialize.”

This is just a practice game, but Bilderback — a former Rochester City Council member — is dressed to the nines, sporting a black paisley vest and a top hat.

“Back in the 1860s, depending on the height of the hat was whether you are Democrat or Republican,” he said.

Bilderback’s hat is neither short nor tall.

“It’s an independent hat,” he said.

Athletes play in a vintage base ball game.
Rooster pitcher Tom "Bucket" Flaig catches a fly ball bare-handed against the Apple Jacks on Saturday.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

Dressing the part is an important part of being on the team. Players don’t wear helmets, just caps. Even in the scorching sun, they wear bowties and bibs, pants and long-sleeved shirts.

There are a lot of other rules that might seem foreign to today’s baseball fans, said player Tracey Gohmann — like not over-running first base.

“You’ve got to slam on the brakes and stop on the base,” she said.

Balls caught after the first bounce? The batter is out.

Strikes are a rarity because pitchers throw balls that are meant to be hit.

And there’s a level of decorum that Olson said you don’t see in modern-day baseball.

Athletes play in a vintage base ball game.
Rooster Karl "Woody" Rogers reaches for first base with Apple Jack Joel "Hefty" Affeldt making the play Saturday.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

“Today’s baseball games have instant replay, the super slow-mo (video), and people are always on the umpires about bad calls,” Olson said. “Ideally, we’re supposed to call ourselves out. And obviously, when the competitive juices get flowing, that can be tricky.”

So what’s the umpire for? Well, there’s a reason Bilderback’s team nickname is “Sir Fines-A-Lot.”

He’ll charge fans and players alike 25 cents.

“If you misbehave, in my opinion,” said Bilderback.

Nicknames are customary, too.

Olson’s is “Click,” an honor to his late grandfather who sported the same moniker.

“He was a baseball player when he was a youth and played for the town ball team," said Olson.

Player Greg Kraus goes by “Cooper.”

“A ‘Cooper’ was somebody who made barrels in the 1860s. I happen to be a woodworker, so I thought it fit pretty well,” he said.

The Roosters have been playing for almost three decades and have had a lot of highs and lows, said Kraus. Some teammates have died. Other teammates have had babies.

The one constant has been the comradery and community built on the field under the hot summer sun. It’s a lot like family, he said.

“I came from a giant family,” said Kraus. “My cousins would come up, and it was just a game that brought us together. That’s the spirit that I wanted to bring back.”

Athletes play in a vintage base ball game.
The Roosters salute the Apple Jacks with three cheers after their first game on Saturday in La Crescent.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

The Roosters’ season is off to a good start. They won their first game on Saturday against the La Crescent Applejacks. For their next game, The Roosters play the Fillmore Fungi at Dream Acres Farm in Wykoff at 6 p.m. on June 7.

Correction: (May 23, 2024): A previous version of this story misspelled Greg Kraus’ name. The above version has been corrected.

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