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Striker to the line!

As a youngster growing up in small-town Tennessee, baseball was always a part of my life. In the summer, backyards became baseball diamonds, family vacations involved trips along two-lane highways to reach Saint Louis Cardinal games, and many an evening was spent with my father listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck call the Cardinals games on KMOX. As I aged, my love and passion for baseball never lessened. A career with Tennessee State Parks called me to service, but evenings were filled with family trips to see local minor league teams or backyard wiffleball games being played.

As a manager at Fort Loudoun, a Tennessee State Park historic site that preserves a mid-18th century English military post deep in the ancestral home of the Cherokees, I was deeply involved in a robust living history program. Our days consisted of replicating and interpreting life in this colonial outpost. Troops marched and fired their muskets. Artillery was loaded and fired and other aspects of military life were demonstrated.

However, we sought to humanize those who lived there 250 years ago by presenting programs that emphasized more leisurely activities. In the reconstructed barracks, visitors found soldiers gathered about the fireplace singing period-appropriate songs or whiling away the hours with a game of dominoes or cards. Of course, the officers had to be diligent to ensure the soldiers did not gamble their money away! On the grounds in and around the reconstructed fort, other pastimes were brought to life as well. To recognize the rich Cherokee heritage of the area, stickball games were organized. Cherokee stickball is similar to the modern game of lacrosse and certainly lived up to its nickname, "the little brother of war." A few games of stickball left me sore, bruised, and appreciative of those who went before us!

Another re-created period game included lawn bowling by the English rules. Bowling is a much more passive game, which allowed our visitors the opportunity to try their hand on the bowling green. We also presented cricket games played by the rules as written in 1755. As an American raised on baseball, it was hard to break old habits. It took many a game for it to sink in that I had to take the bat with me when I dashed for the opposing wicket. In the game, I also recognized characteristics that would show up later in baseball. For example, the distance between the wickets is 60 feet, six inches, the same distance between a modern pitching rubber and home plate. Cricket was and continues to be a staple in the programming efforts at Fort Loudoun.

The year 2012 brought the opportunity to move from my managerial post to the director of interpretive programming and education position with Tennessee State Parks in Nashville. Immediately upon moving into the job, I began to jot down ideas for potential interpretive programs. In the pages of handwritten notes that were generated, there was "Create Civil War-era baseball program(s)." My personal background and interest in re-creating period sporting activities led to that particular notation. Too often historic programming seems to revolve around military programs. A re-created Civil War-era baseball effort would allow Tennessee State Park interpreters and volunteers to explore the humanity of those soldiers who occupied Nashville over 150 years ago. Visitors would be able to visualize the combatants of the Civil War as more than nameless rank and file members. They could be seen as real people who lived and enjoyed a game of ball just as we do today.

As fate would have it, it would be a year before I would be able to act upon that particular thought. In February 2013 I was forwarded an email that stated there would be an organizational meeting of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball (originally two words) at the East Nashville library the following Saturday. Since I was new in town, I talked my good friend Jeff "Cornbread" Jennings into accompanying me to the meeting. There we found about a dozen intrepid souls gathered to discuss the rebirth of "base ball" in Tennessee.

Some of the groundwork had already been accomplished. The fledging league would consist of two teams. One would be the Franklin Farriers, which would use the grounds of the Carnton House in the town of Franklin as its home. The second team would be the Nashville Maroons, which is where fate interceded.

Although base ball in Nashville was first noted in 1860, the game's surge in popularity came as a result of the American Civil War. Federal troops occupied the city shortly after Fort Donelson fell in February 1862. Over the next three years Nashville would be one of the most heavily defended and garrisoned federal outposts in the South. Tens of thousands of Union troops could be found in and around Nashville. Some of their recreational pursuits were less than savory but others included base ball. The area around the state capitol was used for encampments and there games were played by the troops. Today, the same locale is the site of the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, an open green space just north of the state capitol and just right for staging historic base ball games.

At the organizational meeting it was brought out that the Nashville Maroons did not have home grounds. Overtures to the city park system brought demands of field rental fees, which ran into the hundreds of dollars per game. This was going to be a difficult proposition for a new organization whose assets amounted to the dozen doughnuts that had been brought to the meeting! It was then that the partnership between the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball and Tennessee State Parks was born. A quick delivery of my role with state parks and my desire to bring base ball to the Bicentennial Capitol Mall sealed the deal and our 2013 season was underway. Our rosters filled quickly, game dates were established, and our players, or ballists, as they were called, took to the field. Visitor response at both the Carnton House and the Bicentennial Capitol Mall was beyond our wildest expectations. Local media caught on to our league, whose early slogan was "No spittin', no cussin', and no gloves." Whether at the matches or through media, our local fan base responded favorably by flocking to games, visiting our website, or reading our gameday programs. From the very beginning of our efforts, the league recognized the importance of engaging our fans. Ballists circulated through the crowd to discuss the game, made appearances at civic organizations, and even signed autographs for kids. A few of our players have been recognized outside of the base ball venues, such as the time when Tim "Meatball" Morgan was queried by several youngsters. "Hey, aren't you Meatball Morgan?" The first season concluded in September 2013 with plans of expansion dancing in our heads.

The following year found the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball expanding fourfold. The Nashville area moved from two to six teams and two additional squads were added in Knoxville. Playing barehanded base ball while wearing period-appropriate clothing doesn't appeal to everyone but, once again, the rosters filled quickly. It seems our efforts attract people that love the history of base ball or, at least, history itself.

The league has featured several parent-child combinations on teams, which lends a "Field of Dreams" quality to the game. To a person, the ballists of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball are outgoing individuals who willingly give their time to promote and interpret the history of mid 19th-century base ball. Simultaneously, they play full nine-inning ball games by the rules of 1864. The league also recognizes the importance of partnering with historic sites as game venues. The decision was made to avoid modern ball fields and use the open fields and pasture lands provided by historic locales. The partnership has also benefitted the historic sites by introducing a new audience and increased media exposure. Along with embracing historic sites, the league fully uses the modern aspects of social media. Information on the history of base ball, the uniqueness of our venues, and promotion of events is constantly streaming on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. As a result, we have followers all across the country.

The 2015 season saw its first pitch thrown at our newest venue, the 6th Cavalry Museum in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, in early April. Two new clubs have joined our league in the Chattanooga area, bringing our total number of teams to 10. Prior to the first pitch, schedule cards and gameday programs were printed, websites were loaded with all the information our fans need to know about the scheduled games, and multiple media appearances took place on local radio and television. More than 150 men and women took to the grounds of historic sites and museums in Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga to execute the mission statement of the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball: "To educate and entertain our communities through the civility of 19th-century base ball."

As a lifelong lover of both history and baseball, and as professional interpreter for Tennessee State Parks, the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball has provided a perfect intersection of my passions. The response and interest shown by the hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors who have attended our games have confirmed my prediction that the re-creation of Civil War-era base ball would resonate in our communities. A period of our common history that is almost exclusively discussed in terms of battles and casualties is now appreciated for the display of prowess on the diamond and gentlemanly behavior.

Striker to the line!

Jeff Wells, CIT, serves as director of interpretive programming and education for Tennessee State Parks and is a lifelong fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals.
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Title Annotation:interpretive programs at the Tennessee State Parks in Nashville, Tennessee
Author:Wells, Jeff
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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