The Old Ball Game
On a historic farm in Newbury, sports and history meet in the most beautiful way.
It was the summer of 1864.
Nevada had just become the 36th state. Abraham Lincoln had recently elevated Ulysses S. Grant to commander of the entire Union army. The Overland Campaign — the beginning of the end of the Civil War — was underway, with Union facing Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia.
At Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury, Mass., the “ballists” from the Lowell Nine were facing off with the Newburyport Clamdiggers in a base ball match.
And Brian Sheehy, a history teacher at North Andover High School, was there.
He is there.
. . . . .
Vintage base ball (that’s right, two words) is hot. The now-nationwide phenomenon started in 1996 when representatives from 13 clubs in five states gathered in Columbus, Ohio, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first recorded organized baseball game, and they founded the Vintage Base Ball Association (VBBA).
In 2002, the Essex Base Ball Club (EBBC) was created by the Danvers Historical Society with a grant from the Essex National Heritage Commission. They took their name from a team that played in Danvers back in 1859.
The new EBBC played their first match on July 1, 2002 against the Melrose Pondfielders before 1,000 “cranks” (vintage slang for “fans”) assembled around an open field at Endicott Park in Danvers.
Shortly after, Sheehy, 36, who played in that match, founded the Essex Base Ball Organization (EBBO), and then added teams — the Lynn Live Oaks, Lowell Base Ball Nine, Newburyport Clamdiggers, and the Rockinghams of Portsmouth — to form an entire league that also features two travel teams: Essex Base Ball Club and the Mechanics of North Andover.
The EBBC has traveled throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Maryland, and Connecticut playing and promoting vintage base ball.
Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, an Historic New England property which dates back to the mid-1600s, is the perfect setting for vintage base ball. The beautifully maintained buildings and pastures are in pristine condition.
And that’s where we caught up with EBBO founder Brian Sheehy for a conversation between games of a doubleheader.
We’ll get to baseball, but first, how did your interest in history get started?
I’ve always loved history. Even as a kid I gravitated towards books about the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln. I’ve also always loved baseball history — I visited Cooperstown (the upstate New York home of the Baseball Hall of Fame) for the first time as a 12-year-old, and now I present at conferences there. I’m fascinated by the rich history of the game.
At what point did you decide to pursue teaching?
Both of my parents were educators but they weren’t too fond of the idea of me following them on that path. They loved teaching, but it can be a tough and thankless job at times. I think they wanted to shield me from that. I was a history major at Merrimack College, and I knew teaching was always an option, but I was leaning more towards working in a museum or library.
After graduation, I was just kind of hanging around. My parents — in an effort to get me out of the house — told me I should go sub in Lawrence, where they both taught. So I did it. And while subbing is difficult, I found I really enjoyed being in the classroom. And still, every day, it’s always a different experience.
Tell us about your own baseball career.
I started playing when I was five, and played through high school. I was in college when I first got involved with the Essex Base Ball Club — and it has been a slippery slope downward ever since! I don’t think I ever dreamed of playing in the big leagues, but I am constantly amazed at where baseball can take you. Thanks to vintage ball, I’ve traveled all over the East Coast, gone out to California, and even went to Ireland to play and teach the history of the game.
Did you play other sports?
I played football, baseball, and track at Central Catholic in Lawrence, but baseball has always been my passion. I teach a class called Sports of the Past, where we learn about the history and interconnectedness of sports — and then we play them. The kids joke at how long we spend on the bat and ball games, but I am fascinated by sports and how it has influenced, and been a major part of, civilization from the beginning.
When did you get the idea for merging your passions?
North Andover High has been amazing in allowing me the opportunity to teach and share my knowledge and love of sports with my students. Even in my grad school work I put together a history of industrialization and urbanization through sports examples.
This is obviously no small job. How did Essex Base Ball get started?
That is a complicated question. Numerous people have been extremely influential in developing the Essex Base Ball Organization to where it is now. Without the hundreds of players who have come and gone or who are still here 17 years later, there are no games. Without Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm and Bethany Dorau, we don’t have a place to play or a large fanbase. And without Ipswich Ale and Jim Dorau, we have no beer or hot dogs.
In the beginning, and when I was in my early twenties with no full-time job and just a girlfriend (who’s now my wife), spending 30 hours a week emailing players, historical societies, and other groups, promoting through newspapers or magazines, and making baseballs made a lot of sense to me.
As we have grown and branched out from one team to two teams, and now to six teams, none of this would have been possible without the help of the captains of our teams and the strong partnerships we have with the farm and Ipswich Ale. I’m still plugging along doing a lot, but with three kids under six and a number of history- and teaching-related projects — I just started a learning lab at the high school — so making sure we have 18 guys on the field every week isn’t something I can do anymore.
When did Spencer-Peirce-Little get involved?
About 10 years ago. We started playing in Danvers thanks to a grant from the Essex National Heritage Commission. After I took over EBBC, in an effort to get the word out there, we made it a priority to play everywhere and anywhere to get fans and players, and to educate and expose people to the history of the game.
Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm invited us to play there back in 2007 or 2008 — and we jumped at the opportunity. The next year we played two games there. The crowds came, Ipswich Ale came, and we developed a following. Things were going well so we decided to make SPL our home field for our two clubs. And later we decided to have the whole EBBO be based at the farm. Everything was consolidated. I was turning 30, having kids, and a lot of the other guys were in the same boat. And I would say its been a success ever since.
Beer and baseball — that’s a pretty natural combination. How did your relationship with Ipswich Ale come about?
They are amazing. Thanks to a connection at the Farm, Ipswich Ale brought their vintage beer truck out for a game — it was such a natural beer-and-baseball connection. And they’ve been our partner ever since.
Has Vintage base ball lead to other opportunities for you?
Yes! In the spring I gave a series of lectures at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, a historical museum at the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford in Fort Myers, Florida. I went to Ireland to teach little leaguers how to play 19th-century baseball. I’ve curated displays at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, and at Fenway Park, as well as a handful of other ballparks around the country.
The EBBO requires a lot — and it can be a hassle at times — but I can’t ever see myself not being involved with it. I’ve traveled all over the country, and met all kinds of amazing people, and I think it makes me a better teacher.
Sean Alonzo Harris is a fine art and commercial photographer in Portland, Maine.