McHenry County Team Plays 1859 Baseball

Jun 28, 2019

It’s a Saturday morning at Prairie Grove’s Village Hall Park, and a few members of the McHenry Independents are getting ready for their next game.

But the Independents are not your average baseball team. 

Kurt Begalka is the administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society, and he also manages the Independents. The team plays the game by its 1859 rules.

“This is a way to get a piece of history back out there to different communities,” Begalka said.

The sport was very different back in the 1800s. Pitchers always threw the ball underhanded, nobody used gloves, and women played on teams.

According to Begalka, games were community pride events that drew in thousands of people.

“You had a whole vibe around these communities and games, and they took them seriously,” Begalka said.

It’s an atmosphere that the team carries over to their games. Begalka says the team tries to be very interactive with their audience.

“We encourage them to cheer and jeer, like I say, you know, rally for your team,” Begalka said.

It all started a few years ago when one of Begalka’s friends invited him to play in a game in Grayslake.

“I really liked it. I thought it was quite fun, and I thought it was something that we could do here,” Begalka said. “We immediately set about creating our own team.”

Kurt Begalka catches the ball from Dave Skowronski.
Credit Christine Hatfield

The Independents are hardly alone in keeping the history of baseball alive. Begalka calls it a cottage industry.

According to the Vintage Base Ball Association, there’s over two hundred vintage base ball teams across the country. 

Ellie is the owner of the Chicago Salmon. She says she doesn’t use a last name. Her team plays by the game’s 1858 rules. Since different teams play by different historical rules, that can mean having to adapt and play by the rules of the opponent.

“We're all very good sports about it,” Ellie said. “We say ‘hey, what rules are we playing today?’ ‘Oh, today we're playing the rules of 1864.’ ‘Okay, remind me what those are.’ And we, you know, we go over them and the different changes that have happened.”

Even the slang has changed.  In nineteenth century baseball, fans are known as kranks and kranklets. Villainous players are called lobsters.  And surprising plays elicit the reaction “wasn’t that a corker?”

Ellie says it’s all for the love of the game.

“You're out, it's sunshine, it's a beautiful day,” Ellie said. “You’re with nice people. It's a very wholesome sport.”

She remembers the time when Second City co-founder Bernie Sahlins came to watch one of the team’s games. 

“He looks at it for a minute. He watches the game and he goes ‘It's athletic theater.’ And it is, it's athletic theater. That's exactly what it is,” Ellie said.

Paul Skowronski throws out a pitch.
Credit Christine Hatfield

Back at Village Hall Park, the Independants get ready for their game against the Salmon. Ed Urban’s one of the players there. He says it’s fun to get together and get into the game.

“It’s sort of a learning experience of how things used to be, so if you’re a history buff like I am, I find this somewhat appealing,” Urban said.

Begalka says the whole experience is meant to be a fun day for the people who watch the games. 

“It's a way for them to experience a little bit of the past,” Begalka said. “And hey, everybody still loves baseball, right?”

The McHenry Independents take on the Chicago Salmon this Sunday at 1 p.m. at Algonquin Road Elementary School in Fox River Grove.