When I was a kid growing up in a very small town on the edge of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, my favorite toy, the one I couldn’t be without, was probably what we called a sponge ball that I could get for a few cents from Hefner’s down on Main Street. It was a soft, bouncy ball we used to play on the field by the elementary school or to bounce off the brick chimney of my parents’ house in an elaborate game called wall ball (fire it off the chimney and past the imaginary line demarcated by the blue spruce without your opponent gloving it and you scored a double; hit the dirt road farther back and you homered).
Later, in middle school and early high school, we spent Sundays, the off day from hard ball, playing a highly choreographed game of Wiffle Ball, which I wrote about more than a decade ago in one of my favorite essays.
The full essay is here.
Here’s an excerpt:
It was the early 1970s, a time before merchandising began to muscle aside imagination, before the joystick started to crowd out the hitting stick. When playing was still an active verb. Before selling major league merchandise became a multi-billion-dollar annual business. Back when the only guys who wore major league jerseys were major leaguers. And long before teams changing uniform styles commissioned marketing surveys to determine the colors likely to earn them the most in sales.
Today, my Wiffleball buddies and I would have been considered fan fashion disasters, the sporting equivalent of wearing Gap, not Armani, to the Oscars. In those days, we thought we’d invented the coolest game west of Yankee Stadium.
City kids had stickball or stepball. As small town teens in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, we had wall ball to play alone and a mutated version of Wiffleball for the neighborhood crew. Auburn Wiffleball — as opposed to boring, lightweight regular Wiffleball — was the brainstorm of a guy named “Scooter” Raring, who lived down the hill. Where he came up with the game’s many idiosyncrasies, I never asked.
It was Wiffleball merged with hard ball and a dash of Rotisserie League Baseball, though that fantasy sport hadn’t been invented. And it was all about losing yourself for hour after hour in the game.
Our version required some exotic equipment. Like electric tape. We wrapped Wiffleballs in electric tape so they would carry farther. Sometimes, just for fun, they were purposely misshapen so they’d dance on wind currents on the way to home plate. Our bats, too, were homemade. We modified a plastic Wiffleball bat, slipping a broomstick inside and wrapping the bat handle in tape to give it heft, again to make the game more like hardball.
How outs, singles and doubles were recorded is too complicated to explain. Besides, it shifted depending upon how many guys took the field. Sometimes, we pitched to teammates if the other guys didn’t have enough players. Sometimes the pitcher was also the first baseman. It didn’t matter. What mattered was playing, just playing.
Playing and, of course, dressing properly. We bought cheap plastic batters’ helmets, replicas of our favorite major league teams. When our allegiances shifted, we painted over them, changing colors and logos faster than Lou Brock could swipe a base. One day a helmet bore the colors of the Chicago White Sox, the next day it was the Atlanta Braves. No one had real jerseys in those days. We made our own. A few were homemade sewing projects; others were crude replicas drawn with permanent magic marker. More than one mother screamed when those colors turned out to be less than permanent in the hot cycle.
Making our own rules and equipment were just small parts of our industrious obsession with bringing the major leagues home to our town. We created a playing field in a weedy meadow lined on two sides by forest. Just to make it official, we liberated a home plate from an unused local field and borrowed a red picket snow fence from a local highway for the summer.
Our expanse of green, like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, had its own quirks. The ground sloped up in right field. Great for making a break to catch that sinking line drive downhill from you. Tough to go back uphill to snag a long fly ball. A rotting garage formed part of the short porch in right field. Along the lines, overhanging pine trees were in play, occasionally turning sure singles into easy ground outs when a branch reached out knock down a screaming liner.
It goes on, but you get the idea.
What’s important to note is we were a bunch of kids playing until sun down with no adult supervision. No umpires. No drivers. We met on a field near my house and just played. Similarly, in the winter, my basketball buddies would get a key from a guy named Gump and be allowed into an unheated local gym to play hoops all day. Again, no adults, no referees, no supervison. That, of course, us unfathomable in today’s market of highly organized practices, liability suits, and parents who hover.
On Sunday, the New York Times had a sports page op-ed about what is a novel and sadly revolutionary. It’s called Sandlot Day, a day when adults cede control of games to players for one day each season. You can read the entire piece here.
I’ve facilitated pick-the-sides Sundays for my Little League team as well as parents vs. kids games. But this goes further. I think every coach and every parent with a child in sports should give it a shot.
I’m as guilty as anyone of trying to make every trip to the ball field or the court or the soccer pitch be productive for my budding athletes. But I think this is a great idea. Let them play merely for the joy of it. Let them deal with the logistics, pick teams, make the close out and safe calls or call their own fouls.
I realize I grew up in another time. Not everyone has a backyard the size of a football field (yes, we played unsupervised touch and tackle football). And I know our kids and their friends too often don’t live within walking distance of each other. But let’s send them out on the field, step back, and let them have fun and learn about life.