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Payback: 147 years later, as Essex wallops Portsmouth

Union Leader Correspondent

August 16. 2014 10:32PM
Portsmouth Rockingham second baseman Brett Zani throws to first base during Saturday afternoon's Vintage Base Ball game against Essex Base Ball Club at Leary Field in Portsmouth. (JOSH GIBNEY/UNION LEADER)

PORTSMOUTH - On July 4, 1867, the Portsmouth Rockinghams soundly thrashed the Essex Base Ball Club of Newburyport, Mass., by a score of 52-10 in a five-inning game shortened by rain on the Essex club's home field.

The Essex men returned the favor Saturday, 147 years later, traveling to Portsmouth and smartly walloping the Rockinghams in both games of a vintage "base ball" doubleheader before a small-but-boisterous crowd at Leary Field.

Players wore old-style uniforms complete with striped socks and jaunty caps. No gloves were to be found, in the field or at the plate. The ball was noticeably softer than a modern baseball, and created more of a "thwack" of the bat than a "crack" when struck - a sound akin to slapping a punching bag.

Retired Portsmouth Police Dept. chief Lou Ferland served as umpire. The avid historian wore a 19th-century policeman's uniform.

Most umpires 150 years ago were prominent citizens of the home team's town, he said. Fernald kept track of the innings Saturday by scratching lines in the dirt behind home plate with his foot.

He hollered the score to the crowd at the end of every half-inning and called runs "tallies" and outs "hands," per tradition.

Also per tradition, he frequently yelled, "Out or safe?" to the crowd before making a call, like a Roman emperor deciding the fate of a gladiator.

"According to the rulebook, the umpire could ask for the crowd's help on 'out' or 'safe,'?" Ferland said with a grin. "Imagine if they did that today - you'd have 50,000 people screaming. That'd be awesome!"

The Portsmouth crowd faithfully sided for the Rockinghams on such calls and booed lustily when Ferland announced scores not to their liking, but to no avail. The Essex club's stout striking - batters were "strikers" 150 years ago, and pitchers were "hurlers" - led to a 13-5 romp in the first game and a 17-11 trouncing of the local gents in the second.

The entire affair took a little more than three hours, about the length of one modern baseball game.

Throughout, the Rockinghams' bats were no match for Essex hurler Brian Besse, a resident of Boxford, Mass., who said he's a corporate CFO when he's not baffling batters with fluttery tosses.

"I'm known as 'The Wizard,'?" Besse said with a grin.

Nineteenth-century hurlers pitched underhand.

"There's no wind-up - only one step," Besse said. "The idea is to move locations and change speeds, because they're going to hit it. You're not going to strike anybody out."

Ferland made frequent calls of "Striker's warning!" and "Hurler's warning!" representing a first strike or ball, respectively - three strikes after that meant a strikeout, and three more balls meant a walk.

Essex catcher Peter Allain had the daunting task of corralling Besse's throws, along with the whirling foul balls that often resulted.

"Catching those spinners back there ain't easy," the stocky, bearded Allain said in a moment of respite during the first game.

Pitching for the Portsmouth nine was Franklin resident Stephen Pascucci, who said he also plays third for the N.H. Granite throwback team.

Despite the pummeling Pascucci took on the mound, he was a stalwart striker, smacking several doubles into the outfield and scampering 'round the bases as if his pants were afire, often running with his cap in hand so it wouldn't blow off.

An unidentified newspaper clipping describing the doubleheader on July 4, 1867, posted on, describes a ball settling into the hands of a Rockingham outfielder "as easily as a fly into a tar bucket."

Such was not the case Saturday.

The lack of gloves made fly balls far from routine for both sides, and many potential outs were lost - even with the 19th-century rule that a striker was out if a fly ball was caught on one bounce.

Portsmouth High School sophomore and Babe Ruth baseball player Kieran Ford, 15, watched from the stands and smiled at the players' fielding difficulties.

"The (modern) rules make more sense," Kieran said. "The whole thing with the gloves. ...they kept missing where they should have caught it, if they had gloves."

Rye resident Rich Berry, retired from a career at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, was a little more charitable in his assessment of the players.

"It looks like they're in good shape," he said. "I've been surprised by how well they're playing."

Ferland put the rowdy crowd in its place at one point.

"Do you guys know you're called 'the cranks?'" he yelled playfully, referring to the 19th-century nickname for spectators.

Portsmouth Athenaeum, a nonprofit library and museum, helped organize Saturday's doubleheader. The games were part of a busy summer schedule for the Rockinghams, the Essex club and four other historical teams - the Lynn Live Oaks, Lowell Base Ball Club, Newburyport Clamdiggers and Georgetown Samosets.

More information can be found at or by emailing the Essex club at:

An Essex player said people who'd like to play could send an email, even mid-season, as more players often are needed.

Pelham resident Larry Major remarked on the players' enjoyment of the pure game while watching with his son.

"They look like they're having a lot of fun, and the way it's played looks fun," Major said. "It's a good way to kill the afternoon."

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