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Vintage 'Base Ball' Players Stick to 1855 Rules, Tradition

By Paul Biasco | August 2, 2013 8:00am
 The Chicago Salmon baseball team plays by 1855 rules.
Chicago Salmon
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LINCOLN PARK — The Chicago Salmon keep it simple; a bat, a ball, outs and flyouts.

The Salmon, a vintage "base ball" team that plays its home games in Lincoln Park, play by 1855 rules.

That means no stealing, fly balls caught on one bounce are considered an out, and men must wear a long sleeve shirt to cover their elbows.

It was considered disrespectful for men to show their elbows to the ladies in that period, according to player/coach Gary "The Professor" Schiappacasse.

"What's appealing to us is that in the modern day game you could probably put together a volume [of rules]," said 64-year-old Schiappacasse. "Back in 1855 it was very simple."

The Salmon are in their 18th season and consist of many players from Chicago, but some members of the squad travel all the way in from Rockford and Indiana to play.

Schiappacasse said the team plays a vintage game that is a throwback to the Civil War era when soldiers would get out in the open fields and play a game while waiting for their next battle.

The Salmon, and most of the 200-some vintage base ball teams around the country, pay close attention to detail.

The bats they use are an inch-and-a-half thick and don't taper at the handle, fans are known as "cranks," and there is a team arbiter rather than an umpire.

There are no called balls or strikes unless it's a swinging strike and questionable plays at the plate are decided by the crowd.

"The arbiter wandered up and down the baseline talking to the cranks rather than paying complete attention to the batter or game," Schiappacasse said. "The arbiter would turn to the cranks and the players and more likely get a consensus on how the play should be called."

The Salmon started 18 years ago when a re-enactor who worked with the Mount Prospect Park District went to a Little League coaches meeting dressed in a costume of the Civil War period and sold them on the idea.

"It was more of a game for fun," Schiappacasse said.

The team isn't in a formal league, but is part of the Vintage Base Ball Association, which hosts a yearly conference where teams set their schedules.

The Salmon's schedule for 2013 includes 27 games versus teams from as close as Elmhurst and as far away as St. Louis and Indianapolis.

The Salmon's lead-off batter, 62-year-old Rob "Pipes" Panknin, got his first taste of vintage ball about 12 years ago.

A co-worker's husband, who played minor league baseball played vintage base ball on the side, invited him to check out the sport.

"I went and saw a game and I just fell in love with it," Panknin said.

Nicknames were big back in the 1850s, and that tradition was not lost on the Salmon.

The Salmon's roster includes Pipes, Doc, Jumbo Shrimp, Big Dummie, Chief, Jamaica and Pesto, to name a few.

Panknin's nickname was an obvious one — he's got a great voice.

Panknin is the team's official troubadour and comes up with a new song that he performs in the middle of each game.

The first and last verse are always the same, but the middle verses take jabs at three players from the Salmon and three from the opposing team.

He writes them during the game.

"We really get to know each other very personally," Panknin, a Northwest Sider, said. "You do something stupid and that's going to end up in the song."

Panknin has played in the league for about 10 years and by now he knows enough about most of the players on the other teams to fashion a few verses on the fly.

Bob "Zeus" Rzeszutko is a "hurler" on the Salmon and, to the dismay of his wife, also plays softball during the week, leaving him little time to get stuff done at home.

That led Panknin to come up with a favorite Salmon verse.

"Captain Zeus, man of steel, when he swings this bat, he will hit any place in the field. If his wife lets him out."

Panknin said he's played softball, baseball and a lot of other sport "but I've never played a version of baseball that is this much fun."

It's a tight-knit community of players of all ages. The only requirement is that they be at least 16 years old to get their start.

Even in his 60s, Panknin still has the skills to bat lead-off for the Salmon.

"That's impressive at 62," he said. "I'm the speed guy."

The biggest difference between a game of modern baseball or even rec-league softball is the friendly nature of the game, according to Salmon players.

The final troubadour verse that completes every song sums up their version of the sport.

"This is the Salmon baseball club, we come in all shapes and sizes. There's not a show that can beat our game especially at these prices."

The Salmon's next game is Saturday at 1 p.m. in Lincoln Park just east of the Chicago History Museum.