In summertime in the ’50s and ’60s, we kids had a ball.
And that was almost all we needed.
Sometimes it was a hardball, often, by the way, wrapped with electrical tape to keep the cover from coming off.
Other times it was a Whiffle ball.
And sometimes a rubber ball.
Each, in its own way, was central to the thing we did every single day: play baseball. The ball dictated how we’d go about it.
Once in a great while, it comes to mind, our ball might have been a “mushball.” That was our name for what folks today call a softball. If we had a mushball it was because the adults playing at Fourth Ward Park tossed us an old one after one of their games. With a mushball, we pitched underhand, just the way those old guys did. We didn’t like pitching underhand, or even fielding or throwing a mushball for that matter, but that’s the way it had to be done.
The girls in those days had a ball too. Sometimes it was attached to a flat paddle with a rubber band. That was called a Bolo bat. Girls used a similar ball — but no rubber band or bat — for playing a game called jacks. My sisters played a lot of jacks. Occasionally my mom or my Aunt Dorothy would join them. Mom and Aunt Dorothy were really good at jacks.
My sisters would also bounce a rubber ball on the sidewalk and sing songs that went with the bounces. Sometimes, while singing the ball-bouncing song, it was required that they toss the ball in the air and catch it. And sometimes while the ball was in the air, they’d rapidly clap their hands, count the claps aloud, and then catch the ball. I found it weird. But, hey, they were girls.
I found jacks weird, too, but if none of my friends were around I might have been talked into a game or two.
The bolo bat? Forget it. I could never make that thing work.
But back to baseball. Baseball was our world.
At 10, 11, 12, and probably 13, 14 and 15, I spent every summer day playing baseball.
If the game was hardball — and that’s what we’d say: “Let’s play hardball today” — it meant walking up to Fleming Park at the end of Butler Street. Hardball required more space … and no houses nearby. Hardballs and windows did not mix well.
As mentioned, the ball was often held together with tape. So, too, was the bat. And it wasn’t unusual for it to have a nail or two in it.
But none of that mattered. We used rocks for the bases and, when ambitious, sometimes used ashes from coal stoves to create baselines and batter’s boxes.
We’d choose up sides — that’s how we said it: “choose up sides” — making sure the two best players that day were on opposite teams. Determining who got first pick of the remaining players could be accomplished in one of several ways. A coin toss was usually out of the question simply because no one ever had a coin. Odds and evens, a system of throwing out fingers while calling odds or evens, worked well. Then there was always the baseball bat. One kid would put his hand around the barrell at the very end and hold it vertically. The next kid would put his hand around it just above the first kid’s, who would then put his remaining hand above that one, and so on and so on.
If that description is hard to envision, trust me, I know. It was even harder to try to write. But eventually, there would be no more bat to put a hand around and the kid with his hand on top got first pick.
It was never necessary to have a full nine players for each team because we almost never used a catcher. But eight players per team were not necessary either. We’d just deploy who was there and make up rules if we had to. For example, a right-handed batter hitting a ball to the “opposite field,” in this case right field, might be an automatic out.
Because there was no catcher there was usually no bunting and no stealing.
And usually no “plunksies” but that was not always the case.
“Plunksies” meant you could get a runner out by hitting him with the ball. As I said, there were usually no plunskies, but someone always had to call “no plunskies” before we started, or there might be plunskies. Plunksies were good if there were, say, only 4 or 5 players to a side. It was the only way to get three outs with consistency.
Whiffle ball was the preferred game if you had only a few kids, maybe three to a side, or four. We’d play a game of Whiffle ball in the craziest places. Where I grew up, there was a place called “The Back Field” and another known as “The Empty Lot.” These were prime Whiffle ball diamonds.
For those not familiar with Whiffle ball, it involves a plastic ball and plastic bat. The ball sometimes had holes in it which could be used to make it really curve when you threw it. I’ve been capitalizing Whiffle ball because it is a proper name. We didn’t know that back then.
A rubber ball was used primarily for two games: Against the Wall and Fast Balls/Rubber Ball.
You could play Against the Wall with as few as two kids, you and someone else. The school yard was best for this game because, as the name implies, you needed a wall. You’d throw the ball against the wall and the other person had to catch it on the carom, either in the air or on a bounce. If he missed, you had a “runner” on first base.
You also did not need a lot of kids for Fast Balls/Rubber Ball. This was also played in the school yard because the school would be the “catcher.” The pitcher would throw the ball with all his might and rarely would any of us hit it. Because it was a rubber ball, it didn not hurt much when it hit you. Not much, I said.
If anyone were going to go home crying, it was probably more from a game of Fast Balls/Rubber Ball that anything else.
A rubber ball was also useful if you were all alone. Then you could play your own version of Against the Wall. I used to put on my fielder’s glove and whip the ball against the concrete steps of our front porch. You never knew what angle it would come flying back at and I’d pretend I was a shortstop fielding grounders.
As a grown man I read once in a sports magazine that former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith used to do the same thing as a kid. He grew up to be a Hall of Famer. And I, to write silly summer newspaper columns like this.
By the way, jacks were inducted to the Toy Hall of Fame in 2000. The ball didn’t make it until 2009, one year after the stick. Somebody dropped the ball on that. Pun intended.