O’Laughlin attended a Bay City Independents practice in 2006 just to see what Vintage Base Ball was all about. By the end of the day, the 66-year-old was part of the team.
“I got talking to (team captain Jayme Johnson) and I went out there for one of their practices,” O’Laughlin said. “He asked if I wanted to hit a few — and I hadn’t swung a bat in a long time. Then he asked me to play.”
This Saturday, O’Laughlin and the Independents host the Michigan State Base Ball Championship at Carroll Park. Games start at 9 a.m. and finish around 5 p.m. The tournament is free to the public.
This is the third year of the tournament, which features the same four teams that participated in 1865: Saginaw Old Golds, Greenfield Village La-de-dahs, Rochester Grangers and the Independents.
The first game of the day features the defending champion Old Golds against the Grangers, while the Independents take on the La-de-dahs.
Saginaw has won at least a share of the Michigan State Championship the past two years, sparking the rivalry between Bay City and Saginaw.
“They’ve gotten the better of us the last two times we’ve played them,” said Johnson, who organized the Independents in 2005. “They really want to beat us, and we really want to beat them.”
Richard Curry, the manager and catcher for the Old Golds, said it is usually a good game when the two play against each other.
“It’s a competitive rivalry, and we both respect each other,” Curry said. “They’re a fine ball club and we both have a competitive nature.”
While every team wants to win, many Vintage Base Ball teams focus on the education aspect of the game as well. The Old Golds and the Independents interact with the crowd during their games, answering any questions that fans might have.
“I’ve never seen people so happy, so giddy and so interested. We show them the ball and bats and talk to them about the rules,” Curry said.
There are a few differences between the way base ball was played in 1865 and the game people watch today, the most obvious being the lack of gloves for the players. The pitchs are also thrown underhand, and players are not allowed to overrun first base.
Johnson said he wants the games they play to be living examples of history, so they’ll use the correct language of the time and show the fans the difference between the game today and how it was played over 100 years ago.
Johnson and O’Laughlin have become unofficial historians for olde-tyme base ball in Bay City. They spend the winter searching old newspapers and books to find interesting stories of players from the Bay City area. Johnson and O’Laughlin use the stories to put together an eight-page newspaper they pass out at different matches throughout the year.
“It’s done for education, we are educating base ball fans on the way base ball was played in Bay City at one time,” O’Laughlin said.
When it comes to playing, O’Laughlin is still a gamer.
“On the field, I can’t run like I can in my head, and that’s a very frustrating thing,” O’Laughlin said, but added that he has never heard any negative comments about playing on the team. “I’m just one of the guys out there, and that’s something I never quite expected and it still amazes me after five years. These guys are by far the best group of people to play with.”
The Independents aren’t O’Laughlin’s only team. He played on Midland’s Vintage Base Ball team this year as well as a 60-and-over softball team. He hasn’t been without his bumps and bruises, including plans to get his right knee scoped in October, but O’Laughlin still plans on attending a Detroit Tigers fantasy camp this spring and playing with the Independents next year.
“I go out there to have a good time. I’m 66 and I get to play base ball,” he said.
“I told (my daughters) that if I die while playing base ball, don’t feel sad about it, just bury me behind second base. I can’t think of a better place to go if I have to go.”