Jayme “High Steppin” Johnson is in his fifth season as captain of the Bay City Independents, the vintage baseball team that plays by the rules of 1865 – which require no gloves and no fences, just a gentleman’s manner and a hearty “Huzzah!” An elementary teacher for Saginaw Public Schools, the 38-year-old Essexville resident and father of three takes history to heart with his throwback team, which next plays Aug. 22 at Carroll Park.
1. How did you get involved in vintage baseball?
I was doing an activity with the kids in my classroom, and I had a replica made of my great-grandfather’s uniform from when he played in 1910. That’s when I found out that something like this existed. So one day I was chatting with a bunch of my fantasy football buddies over a couple beers at Mulligan’s and threw it out there – and they thought it was a good idea. They probably never thought I’d follow through with it.
2. What is it like playing the 1865 brand of ball?
It’s different. We make a serious effort to not only play the game like it was played but to use the correct terminology and act properly. The hardest part is catching the ball without a glove. You always see people who aren’t used to it get down in perfect position to catch the ball, and it goes right through their legs.
3. How do you portray the players of that time?
We try to stay in character as much as possible. We make sure there is no spitting or swearing or arguing with the umpire. And if you get hot and want to roll up your sleeves – and those uniforms do get hot – you may have to ask the ladies in attendance for permission to do so.
4. Do some take the performance further than others?
We had an umpire come in who was really, really into it. He would go all the way down to the proper underwear and eyeglasses. All of our uniforms are accurate, but sometimes the guys will slip on a cup or knee pads to help take the bumps and bruises out of it.
5. What kind of fan reaction do you get?
We have quite a few regulars, but it’s neat when we get somebody there who is new. They’re kind of amazed. It’s more than what they expect. … When you hear the crack of the bat echo through those trees, there’s nothing like it.
6. How much is show and how much is game?
We do more of the show before and after the game and sometimes between innings. During the game, you can get caught up in the competition a little bit. You can’t take that out of people who have been competing their whole lives. I guess it’s sort of like a Civil War re-enactment, but you don’t know who is going to win.
7. Ever feel awkward walking around in 1865 garb?
Quite often I’ll have to stop on the way to the game and get ice or food, and I’ll get some goofy looks. It doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers my wife. She’ll say ‘You’re going in looking like that?’ To me it’s no big deal.
8. What is the most difficult thing to get accustomed to in the old game?
Physically, catching the ball without a glove takes some time… and swinging those bats can be a chore – they’re huge. Some of them are 38 inches (and 40 ounces) and have no taper. It’s a big straight stick. But that’s what they used. That’s taken right from a sporting catalog in the 1800s.
9. When playing old-time baseball, how essential is a great nickname?
When we first started, everybody picked out a name for themselves – those are all gone. Eventually you earn your nickname in some dubious fashion. One guy shattered his finger and had pins put in it, and he became “Hooks.” On one of our overnight trips, everybody woke up because one guy was snoring up a storm, and he became “Sawmill.” Another guy is nicknamed “Buttons” because we had a club photo taken and he asked if we could take one more because his mom wanted a button.
10. How does it feel to be part of history?
I’ve always been a huge history fan, so this allows me to combine two of my favorite things. I’ve read all about Ty Cobb and other ballplayers from long ago. And this is a great opportunity to dress up and bring something unique to people. And it’s a lot of fun.