The Jersey City Skeeters Resurrect a Dead Team, All in the Name of Vintage Baseball

Skeeters organizer David Kerans

Conan O’Brien is decked out in a ruffled shirt, fake mustache and mutton chops, long stockings, a fully wool outfit. The TV funnyman watches a baseball sink into the dirt in front of home plate, pitched by a man dressed as a late 19th century farmer, and says to the pitcher in his best old-timey affected scorn, “Why not build a trench?” as he motions to the dirt in front of the plate and the scuff mark left by the baseball in the soft ground. “Then the ball can go as low as you wish it to be.”

This was likely your first encounter with the revival of vintage baseball, if you were even aware such a thing existed in the first place. In this case it’s baseball played by 1860s rules with 1860s clothing and equipment, spoken in a manner that one might guess to be associated with the era.

Conan mocks as Conan does, and you laugh if you’re into that kind of thing. But if you’re David Kerans, a former late 19th century Russian historian turned amateur baseball aficionado and organizer of the Jersey City Skeeters, you might have thought after the laughter, “Why can’t I do that too?” And also, “Shouldn’t I do this?”

And thus was born the revival of the 1930s-era Skeeters.

Formed in the late 19th century, baseball’s original Jersey City Skeeters — short for mosquitoes, apparently, and named such for the neighboring swamplands’ most persistent pest — share perhaps only a few things in passing with their contemporary revival team: they’re nothing if not understated, not to mention persistent.

In the early baseball days, (or “base ball” as would be the more accurate spelling for the time period), maybe names like “Skeeters” were more common, but in the shadow of the coming of Major League Baseball, the name left something to be desired as compared to the New York Giants, Brooklyn Dodgers, or Philadelphia Athletics. Which seems only appropriate for a team destined to not survive.

Of course, none of the other aforementioned teams survived intact either.

Money, the growing popularity of baseball, the consolidation of rules, gloves and bats, the Negro League and the overcoming of segregation. Libraries of books and films dedicated to the sport, the national fervor of the pastime’s most significant myths, of Branca and Thomson, curses, gambling and goats.

These things all added up to a growth spurt for baseball, to its colonization of the expanding West Coast market — the “Manifest Destiny” of the American pastime, if you will — and a bigger league. Not to mention one much more streamlined, leaving little room for the once commonplace smaller, regional leagues.

But at what consequence to the game, at what expense to regional culture? These are the questions the Jersey City Skeeters and other revival dead ball teams seem to address, directly and not, in their persistence in the face of an ever directed momentum towards efficiency.

Two years old and (hopefully) counting, the Jersey City Skeeters bill themselves as a “living history project.” They’re a throwback to the past, from the wool uniforms they wear to the smaller gloves (or sometimes no gloves at all, or gloves no bigger and not much thicker than oven mitts) to the squatter, heavier bats, and, of course, the so-called dead ball, which in its original incarnation didn’t have the bouncy cork center that allows all those home runs to be hit (also missing from the time period referenced are steroids and speed pills, the lack of which couldn’t have helped the ball’s trajectory either).

But, for however much these revival teams reference, respect and admire the sport’s history, the Jersey City Skeeters still want to play baseball.

“Just another adult baseball league, albeit one with an eye for the past,” is how Kerans describes it. In a sport where it’s not uncommon for fans to still fill out score cards, telling the story of the game in abbreviations of letters and numbers in little boxes, this connection with the past seems if not only natural than essential.

But Kerans doesn’t play anymore, citing age, ache and his back’s bulging discs. This is his pet project, however, which he oversees with a certainty of its importance.

April 10 is the Skeeters’ first practice of the year in only their second year of existence, and just shy of half the squad shows up — a squad, it should be noted to readers, that is still open to players joining. The weather is warm for early April, and a handful of players are in their wool uniforms, all of which are owned by Kerans, an extraordinary investment of time, and money, and a story unto themselves.

Kerans was looking for accuracy in the uniform, and for once the near-ubiquitous availability of reference information on the internet wasn’t sufficient. He says he spent hours studying a library’s collection of microfiche from the 1930s, the only place in which any uniform pictures were available, to get the look, feel and colors correct. But, of course, the photographs were in black and white.

“It was the first game of their season,” he says. “But it was a rain out, so there wasn’t much for the reporters to write about. Instead they described the uniforms and the colors, and if it wasn’t for that, there wouldn’t have been a way to know what they looked like with any certainty.”

It was serendipity, or singular dedication, or some commingling of the two. Kerans uneasily admits that he then funded the production of uniforms for a team he had yet to form, in a league that seemed in an uneasy truce with stagnation, to play a version of a pastime most didn’t know existed — and as it would turn out, only few would care about.

‘How About a Scrimmage?’

The Skeeters get to Jersey City’s Metro Field on West Side Avenue — not their usual practice spot — a few minutes after 10 am on a Sunday, but there’s already a team there practicing. It’s a group of high school kids along with two coaches running the drills. They’re a team affiliated with the Police Athletic League — a league that attempts to form a bond between inner city youth and the city’s police, keeping kids from lesser pastimes. Lovers of the game, clearly, but perhaps not as sympathetic to the nuances of the past and the uniforms some of the team are wearing.

The older generation watches the younger generation run drills on the field, and no one is quite sure what to do about the taken baseball diamond — the Skeeters were granted a permit to use the field, but the Department of Recreation failed to send the actual documentation.

There are a few tense moments as the team, sans Kerans, discuss options — how to kick them off, what other fields might be available and so on. It’s then they notice that Kerans has already walked up to the fence around the diamond and is trying to get the attention of the man who appears to be in charge. We can hear their coach, a police officer no less, asking him if he has a permit, which is exactly the question they don’t want to be asked.

“How about a scrimmage?” Kerans responds, changing the subject. And like that they ease on by yet another potential setback, and a half-full squad of Skeeters plus the two coaches from the other team field a temporary team.

“This isn’t common, but it’s not uncommon either,” Sam Delay, a film colorization specialist by trade, explains about the field issues.  Just 40, he’s already stretching with the help of another player.

“I was out for 3 months last year, my first sports injury,” he says. “I just took off and came up limp, and since then I’ve always stretched. I’m not 19 anymore, I can’t jump out of bed and play.”

Earlier Delay tells me that he assumes kids, perhaps like the ones the Skeeters are about to scrimmage — and he pauses to find a more delicate way to put it — “think lightly and expect us not to be as skilled.” Which happens to be the case sometimes, but not today.

“I’m 40 and I’m quite aware my skills have slowed, but I still want to play and I still can,” Delay says. “And at least I’m not playing softball.”

“A lot of guys just want to play ball and will play however they can. If it’s a guy throwing 90 or a guy in a farmer outfit throwing underhand, they don’t care, they just want to hit,” he continues.

It’s clear that the kids in question don’t quite know how to respond to the team and their uniforms the first time through the top of the lineup, which is retired in order, and quickly. Kerans sends his side out with the smaller 1930s gloves, which puts them at a clear disadvantage, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

“It’s just a scrimmage,” he says, “who cares if we lose?” Which seems an easy thing to say from the dugout. But then the kids’ side is quickly retired as well, despite the obvious difficulties of the smaller glove (that’s the point, he implies). And the next time up the Skeeters turn a slow grounder into a base hit and then more.

“It’s a lot like little league because of the small size of the gloves,” Skeeters assistant manager Peter Harrison says, describing the game play. “There’s no such thing as a routine play, you have to be constantly aware of what’s going on.”

Which seems to be true even when playing a team with regular sized equipment. The Skeeters begin to put on a clinic on base running, on those stolen moments — and those stolen bases — that occur in the time spent on the slow windup of the non-professional.

Steve Culbreth, a construction worker by trade and often the team’s catcher, excels at this, and before the other team realizes it he’s well on his way to second. Their throw is a little too late and a little off target and he watches it roll into the outfield as he sprints to third. When he makes it home (on a steal, no less), he’s shaking an injured finger and shows it to the team.

The old-time catcher gloves, in particular the practice one the team uses for scrimmages, doesn’t quite have as much room for error as modern gloves. Not to mention the pitcher they’re using for the scrimmage, borrowed from the other team since theirs couldn’t make it this day, is throwing wildly. The result is Steve’s bloody finger from a pitch that clipped his free hand as he tried to keep the ball in the glove. He takes it all in stride, but the next time he steps behind the plate he switches to a modern glove.

This is vintage baseball, sans the over-the-top speech and facial hair that Conan mocked in his sketch.

“Some of the teams we see are just historical societies in costume,” explains Kerans, who is not the biggest fan of their affected speech and less than serious approach to baseball. “But a lot of the teams we see can really play.”

He talks about pitchers hitting the 80s and more on their fastballs, college players who join the team when they’re home for the summer. And the scrimmage just played he dismisses with a skeptical look. “We see much better talent than that.”

This talent ideally comes in the form of fellow vintage league baseball teams, the competition representing eras and their respective rules from the 1860s through the early 20th century, all playing with a similar dead ball but with equipment and uniforms appropriate to those specific years. The home team’s era is in effect, but if they play a doubleheader then they switch for the second game.

But obscurity is a burden, and there aren’t always enough old-time teams to play, so sometimes the Skeeters will find themselves in a situation similar to the scrimmage, playing against a team in modern day uniforms and playing by modern day rules. No one seems to mind though. Baseball is, as the team points out repeatedly in their play and in their discourse on its history, still baseball.

As the team begins to pack up the equipment after the abbreviated scrimmage, I see Kerans talking to the coach of the PAL team, inviting him to come out to play for their team. It remains to be seen if he will, but as Kerans tells me, they’re still open to players joining — people who can play and have an appreciation for the game’s history.

The Skeeters’ first game is Saturday, May 22 in Lincoln Park in Jersey City. For more information, visit jcskeeters.weebly.com.

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.