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Bare-handed baseball and Bisbee

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When the umpire yelled “strikers to the line,” it was clear immediately, this was not an ordinary baseball game. There is nothing ordinary about bare-handed baseball — or the town of Bisbee for that matter.

The Copper City Classic vintage baseball tournament has been held annually at Bisbee’s historic Warren Ballpark for the past seven years.

“This is what baseball is all about, it doesn’t get more authentic than this,” said Mike Anderson, captain of the Bisbee Black Sox. “A day at the park, band playing in the stands, and some really nice weather.”

Vintage baseball is baseball for diehards, those who truly love and honor the traditions and history of the game. The perfect tradition for Bisbee, a town that still resembles a postcard of 1920s small town America.

A striker for the Bisbee Bee's makes contact with a ball.

A striker for the Bisbee Bee’s makes contact with the ball.

Games are played without gloves, which makes fielding a comedy of errors as the ball bounces uncontrollably from one hand to the next.

Pitchers, originally referred to as bowlers, throw underhanded and try to deliver hittable balls for the opposing team’s batter.

“The ambiance, the atmosphere, and the rules — it’s true to how baseball was played in the 1800s,” said Dan O’Brien, or Yankee Doodle as he’s known by his teammates on the Tucson Saguaros. Most players fielded bare-handed until the mid-1880s, but a few catchers began wearing gloves in the mid-1870s.

Although vintage baseball is a competitive sport, it is also a re-enactment of baseball.

The Colorado All-Stars have their own seamstress who keeps their red, white and blue pinstripe uniforms in pristine condition, according to the team’s website.

Vintage baseball teams are comprised of a motley crew of all ages, male and female. The only prerequisite to playing bare-handed baseball is the love of the game and its history.

“The trumpet player in the band, she used to be our center fielder,” said Anderson, “and she had a mouth on her.”

Players are encouraged to embrace the spirit of gentlemanly sportsmanship in keeping with early-day baseball.

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The Colorado All-Stars line up for a team picture after defeating the Bisbee Bees.

Friendly banter is also encouraged between teams, and a knowledge of the terminology used during the creation of baseball is required.

The tournament is comprised mostly of teams from the Arizona Territories Vintage Baseball League: two teams from Bisbee, the Black Sox, and the Bees, the Tucson Saguaros and the Glendale Gophers.

Aside from being captain of the Black Sox, Anderson is also the founder Friends of Warren Ballpark, an organization that recognizes the historical significance of the ballpark and works to promote, restore and renovate the ballpark.

“This ballpark is part of our past, it’s part of our heritage,” said Anderson. “The ballpark has its own identity.”

The tournament is held annually to generate funds for the historic 107-year-old ballpark.

Originally from Tucson, Anderson said the first time he travelled to Bisbee as a sports stringer for the Tucson Sentinel in 1971, he was amazed by “this old stadium,” and when he had the opportunity, he and his wife made Bisbee their home.

“I like living in a place, when I sit down outside, everyone I know says hi,” said Anderson. “It’s like Mayberry in the mountains.”

Mike Anderson, founder of Friends of Warren Ballpark gives a speech honoring John "Button" Salmons at the Copper City Classic.

University of Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne (center) watches Mike Anderson, founder of Friends of Warren Ballpark, give a speech honoring John “Button” Salmon at the Copper City Classic.

Anderson, who around Bisbee is known as the baseball historian, has  published two books on baseball in the Copper City.

“The ballpark means a lot to the people around here,” said Anderson. “There is a continuity of life that isn’t found elsewhere — families go all the way back.”

What he talks about is evident at the tournament, multigenerational families are seated in the stands, enjoying a breezy Saturday with their neighbors.

This sense of community is what originally attracted O’Brien to joining a local vintage baseball team in Tucson. O’Brien and his wife visited Bisbee a few years ago and after watching the annual tournament met with the Saguaros team captain and expressed his interest in playing.

“I thought, ‘God I’d love to do that,’ ” said O’Brien. “It’s been three years and I haven’t looked back.”

Nicholas Cada is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at ncada@email.arizona.edu.

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