Attorneys and law professors enjoy the gentility of 'Vintage Base Ball'

by Sheila Pursglove
Legal News
“Eyster’s at bat, easy out,” was a regular refrain in Jason Eyster’s grade school days, as outfielders strolled into the midfield.  

“Such conduct would not be countenanced under the Rules of 1858,” says Eyster, a Cooley Law School professor who serves as umpire for the Chelsea Monitors Base Ball Club, a resurrection of a club by the same name from Chelsea’s early years.

“Being an umpire for the Monitors is one of the few things I do in life purely for fun,” Eyster adds. “Since I spend my days training students to go to court and plead on behalf of asylum applicants, fleeing persecution based on their race, ethnicity, religion, political activities, or membership in a particular social group, Vintage Base Ball is a welcome change. It does not matter who wins and the outcome has no effect on anyone’s life.” 

His job as umpire is quite limited. Other than starting each inning by shouting “Striker to the Line!” and calling foul balls, “Foul tick!,” the umpire relies on the good sportsmanship of the players to resolve disputes, he explains. Where this is not possible, the umpire is the final arbiter.  

“I enjoy the formality and gentility of the game, two attributes that are rare in modern times,” he says. “And I appreciate the languor of Vintage Base Ball. While there are moments of intense frenzy, much of the time is spent in leisurely scrutiny of the ball as it breezes from pitcher to catcher, while the cicadas drone and the clouds stroll by.”

As in all Vintage Base Ball teams, the Monitor players (or “ballists”) sport nicknames – “Hawgcooker,” “Crusher,” “Ice Box,” “Grizzly,” “Walleye,” “Quickstep,” “Stick Boy,” and  “Squirrel Bait,” to name a few.

Eyster, who previously went by the moniker “Professor,” is now “Egghead.” Teammate Peter Van Hoek, an assistant defender in the State Appellate Defender Office (SADO) in Detroit and an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Law School, goes by “Stonewall.” 

Van Hoek’s wife, Dawn, director of SADO and a player on the Monitors’ affiliate women’s team – the Merries (Merrimacs), bears the name “Loose Cannon.”  The Merries play their first match against a women’s team, the Detroit River Belles, at historic Fort Wayne on June 29.  

“We will dominate,” Dawn Van Hoek predicts, “while remaining perfect ladies.”

The couple got involved with the Chelsea teams – that are under the auspices of the Chelsea Historical Society – when their son “Honest Jon” Van Hoek started the Monitors.

“I played Little League as a kid and then softball in the old Lawyer’s League at Softball City for a long time, and Jon played Little League when he was growing up. He always wanted to play softball with me, but the league and our team disbanded before he was old enough,” Peter Van Hoek explains. “He started playing Vintage Ball with the Royal Oak Wahoos, and then got me to join up. He later moved to Chelsea, and started
up the Monitor Baseball Club there with me, my son-in-law, and others [four years ago]. 

“Jon was instrumental in helping a friend start the Union Baseball Club in Dexter and we practice with them and play them several times a year. It’s a lot of fun – we’re all pretty relaxed about playing, but still are competitive.”  

Peter Van Hoek captained the “Old-Timers” squad in a recent Father's Day match, featuring fathers/grandfathers versus sons/daughters, and held at Navin Field, site of the old Tiger Stadium. 

“We had a group of fathers and their kids from nine Vintage clubs in Michigan and Ohio – lots of fun,” he says. 

The Old-Timers won 18-12.

“Vintage Base Ball is an awesome pastime, unique for its sportsmanship and the way it features players from a wide range of ages and abilities,” says Jon Van Hoek, whose wife Liz captains the Merries in Chelsea. “But for me the best part has always been being on a team with my dad – my Little League coach and my best friend.  Now I’m his coach!”

Vintage Base Ball attracts “ballists” and “cranks” (fans) from a wide area, with teams in Royal Oak, Flint, Dexter, Kalamazoo, Detroit, Bay City, Northville, and Okemos – as well as Greenfield Village, where a World Tournament will be held August 9-10, featuring teams from Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.

The event hearkens back to1867, when the Detroit area hosted the World’s Base Ball Tournament, with 24 clubs from the United States and Canada taking the field, attracting about 5,000 enthusiasts over the three-day event. Tickets were 25 cents, (grandstand seats extra) and parking 50 cents. In a surprise upset in the first Class of teams, the Unknowns of Jackson took first-place prize of $300 over the Allegheny Club. The Ann Arbor club won the second Class, and the Victoria of Ingersoll from Ontario took the third Class.

The likes of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer might have been baffled by 1867 rules: pitchers threw underhand, foul balls caught on the first bounce put the hitter out, and a ball that first bounced fair and rolled foul was a fair ball. Players seldom wore gloves, and the forerunner of today’s mitt was a fingerless pad protecting the palm.

Wayne Law grad Michael Ossy, an attorney with Blake Kirchner in Detroit, is Director of the historic Base Ball program at Greenfield Village, where the Lah-De-Dahs and the Nationals play. 

“It allows me to play baseball and also teach visitors at Greenfield Village about the early beginnings of America’s pastime,” Ossy says.  “We play by the rules of 1867, one of the last years baseball was played as a pure amateur sport – the first professional team was formed in 1869.  It’s an interesting time period to present because it demonstrates the last years before baseball exploded and became the national pastime.”  

Playing historic baseball is a great escape from the practice of law, notes Ossy, a Vintage Base Ball player for 12 years.  

“It lets me run around outside and forget about my files for a bit each weekend. Also, we get to wear knickers, which is pretty much only acceptable in 2014 if you’re playing historic baseball.”