Celebrating 20 years of historic base ball at The Henry Ford

The “Boys of Summer” will soon take the field for another season of historic base ball in Greenfield Village (and yes, base ball is two words here – in the time period we represent, base ball was spelled with two words unlike today). This Saturday is the home opener (The Lah-De-Dahs are hosting the Wyandotte Stars Base Ball Club) and marks the 20th season of the historic base ball program at The Henry Ford.

Base Ball at Greenfield VillageThe program began on a very small scale in 1993 with a hand full of employees volunteering to make up a club of nine. The idea and concept of a historic base ball program came while researching the J.R. Jones General Store in Greenfield Village. In the early 1990s, the J.R. Jones General Store received a major re-installation, overhaul of maintenance and repair needs, as well as new and updated presentation priorities. While searching through the Waterford, Mich., area newspapers, where the General Store originated, references were made to the Lah-De-Dahs base ball club from the area.

The first season of the re-created Lah-De-Dahs saw the club wearing reproduced white base ball shirts with a red script “L.” Players wore non-descript white painter’s pants as the period clothing department made matching knickers style bottoms. Little is known about the uniform of the Lah-De-Dahs, but a small color clue was provided in the Pontiac Bill Poster newspaper on Sept. 14, 1887:

“As the contest went on, slowly but surely dawned upon the minds of all the truth that a fine uniform does not constitute a fine pitcher, nor La-de-dahs in their mammas’ red stockings make swift, unerring fielders.”

Only a few matches were played that first season with an amalgamation of rules from various “understandings” at the time. A couple of matches played in one of the Firestone Farm’s harvested wheat field wherein the Lah-De-Dahs club played the Firestone Farm hands before whatever crowd gathered along the farm lane. A couple other games were played on the Activities Field (Walnut Grove) with outside clubs coming in to play.

Over the course of the next two seasons, complete reproduction uniforms were hand made for 25 players that made up the Lah-De-Dah roster. By 2002, the home schedule consisted of no more than a dozen games, playing only on select Saturdays throughout the summer. Games were only scheduled when visiting opponents could be recruited to make the trip to Dearborn. The addition of the Dodworth Saxhorn Band on a few of those dates combined with the wonderful pastoral setting of Walnut Grove made for some very memorable experiences.

The popularity of the historic base ball program increased with Greenfield Village visitors each year. The request for a more consistent base ball schedule with more games also intensified as an emerging Lah-De-Dahs fan-base grew.

The colossal Greenfield Village restoration in 2003 heightened the stakes of programming and the historic base ball program stepped up to the plate so to speak. Mr. and Mrs. Edsel Ford provided financial support that made it possible to plan and deliver an entire summer of base ball. The Henry Ford was able to expand the program in three areas; daily offerings of period base ball, the formal nine inning game played by the rules of 1867 on both Saturday and Sunday every weekend of summer season, and the development and expansion of the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball, based on the original and first-ever World Tournament of Base Ball hosted by the Detroit Base Ball Club that took place in Detroit in August of 1867.

Base Ball at Greenfield VillageWith the start of the 2004 season, the 12-game schedule was expanded to 30 games. In order to insure an opponent for the now beloved Lah-De-Dahs, a new Greenfield Village club was created. A simple name was chosen from among those who had originally played in the tournament in Detroit, the National Base Ball Club. Striking dark-blue-and-gold shield front uniforms were purchased along with a new set of the familiar red-and-white uniforms of the Lah-De-Dahs. The roster was also expanded to 42 players.

Greenfield Village’s daily program now includes Town Ball or Massachusetts Rules. This important program element allows Greenfield Village the capacity to offer a base ball experience on weekdays in the summer season. The chaotic rules of the early version of base ball, the soft ball, and minimal equipment needs made this a perfect choice for a game to be played on the Village Green. A dedicated staff now teaches and plays Town Ball with families throughout the day on weekdays all summer long.

Other key investments include a uniquely designed sound system on the primary base ball field, Walnut Grove. The system, installed on the outside of several strategically placed permanent garbage cans, allows the umpire and scorekeeper, by way of invisible cordless microphones, to present essentially a 19th century version of a play-by-play account of the game. The specially trained core of umpires and scorekeepers now are able to combine theatrical and interpretive techniques in the calling of each game. The play-by-play, live music and unpredictable nature of gloveless play makes for a very entertaining afternoon.

To further enhance our guests’ experiences, food opportunities were added to the field using contextual temporary structures in keeping with the rural/pastoral feel of the field. A huge hit with the visitors and fans has been the introduction of historically inspired base ball trading cards of the volunteer players. Throughout the entire game day, fans of all ages, but especially children, approach the historic base ball players wanting autographs on their base ball cards and/or programs.

Rosewood Baseball Bat

Baseball Bat Presented to John L. McCord for First Prize at the World’s Tournament of Base Ball, 1867 (Object ID: 2005.85.1).

Haney's Book of Reference

This is considered baseball’s first official rule book. Author Henry Chadwick was a sports journalist and leading promoter of the game. (Object ID: 2003.12.1)

With The Henry Ford’s collecting initiatives, we have been able to secure several baseball related artifacts. Prized among the collections is an original copy of Haney’s Base Ball Book of Reference for 1867 by Henry Chadwick and the gold mounted rosewood bat won by the Unknowns Base Ball Club of Jackson, Mich., in the first and original World’s Tournament of Base Ball in 1867. Haney’ book of reference is the rules by which our clubs play and is now reproduced and sold in our stores.

Although Greenfield Village now has two official clubs, the Lah-De-Dahs and the Nationals, many veteran staff and visitors associate the Lah-De-Dahs as the “home” club of The Henry Ford. With great matches, excellent sportsmanship and many close games going to either club, the fan base has evolved to embrace both clubs with equal partisanship.

The base ball clubs of Greenfield Village play every Saturday and Sunday from June 8 to Aug. 18, with the World Tournament of Historic Base Ball Aug.10-11. As an American innovation, base ball is touchstone to our past, present and the future. With this program we represent a time prior to professional players when amateurs played for recreation and innocent amusement. For the love of the game – HUZZAH!

Brian James Egen is Program Development Officer at The Henry Ford