At the end of my street is a Little League baseball field, actually four fields, usually with a game on each every evening this time of year. The fields are very official with dugouts, bleachers, outfield fences and a warning track. Floodlights come on after sundown and the main field has a lit scoreboard. After each game, a small tractor smooths out the infield dirt by dragging a section of chain-link fence. The players all have clean uniforms, gloves, hats and batting helmets. The bats are aluminum filled with high-tech composite and can cost over $200. By the end of June it is all over and the fields are empty for the next ten months.
I never played on a baseball team. I was unaware of any baseball teams for my age until high school, and by then I was on to other things. I lived across the street from the East Lansdowne schoolyard that had the only ball field in town, so I would have known. I do remember seeing an occasional team with uniforms, perhaps with Ralph Russo as catcher, but that memory may have been misplaced from high school.
Even with no teams, baseball was very popular and we played some form almost every day throughout the summer, but we arranged it all ourselves. No father was ever involved. Just having a glove was a luxury that was expected to be shared. More than once we played with a “tape ball,” a baseball that had lost it’s cover and was wrapped with electrical tape. The tape would invariably come lose with a solidly-hit fly ball and the outfielder would catch a handful of twine trailing a long streamer of black tape. We all wanted to play as Del Ennis, Richie Ashburn, or Ozark Ike.
The standard form of baseball was what we called “Ins and Outs.” My friend from nearby Primos called the same game “Workies-Up.” It was how we played with only five or six kids, which often was the most we could gather. Two or three would be batters with one pitcher, one first baseman, and the rest assorted fielders. One of the idle batters would be the catcher, or if none were idle, we would find a little kid or a girl to do it. It was more retrieving the ball from the backstop than actual catching. The worst scenario was when the batter had to retrieve the ball himself, although he would then swing at anything, even stepping into the infield to reach a short pitch. There was no batter’s-box. Anything that moved the game along was tolerated.
There were no called balls and strikes. The best pitcher was the one who could throw the ball where the batter could hit it. Any batter waiting too long for the right pitch would be quickly jeered by the other players. Base stealing was not allowed.
You were a batter until you were out, and then you moved to the outfield. Everyone else moved up one position, so the pitcher became the new batter. Any other rules had to be made up as we went along, whatever it took to keep the game going, fair or not. Someone’s mother would call them home. (Not by cell phone, of course, but by yelling from the front door, or by sending a kid sister as a messenger. “Mom says to come home right away!”)
We would then have to revise the rules, such as using a “phantom runner,” an imaginary base runner that moved ahead the same number of bases as the batter. As a last resort we would even eliminate third base. A departing player always took his equipment with him: his shared glove, and even the bat or ball, which.of course, ended the game. We were mostly strangers to each other, and no one could be trusted to return equipment later.
The ebb and flow of players was constant. New kids wandering by who wanted to play, often total strangers, were welcome and started in the outfield. For a while, they would be enough to replace the ones called home. We could never have too many. We learned to adapt. Sometimes we would accept a permanent pitcher, if that were their demands, but never a permanent batter.
There was no score. The point was to be the batter as long as possible, and that was its own reward. And, there was very little argument. Everyone wanted to move up, so the batter was always outvoted on any question. Anyone who strongly disagreed just went home.
If only two or three players were available, the game was hose ball, played with one batter, one pitcher, and maybe an outfielder if you had one. It was played with a three-inch piece of garden hose and a broomstick as a bat. Just one discarded garden hose provided enough pieces for the whole summer. The hose piece was pitched in a slow, overhand arch so it rotated end-over-end. You were out by one strike, one foul, or by a caught fly. It was played facing an inside corner of the school. On the roof was a home run, hitting the heavily screened windows was a double, above the windows, but not on the roof, was a triple. Anything else was a single, except down the basement window wells were out because they were deep and hard to climb down. One day, we saw a human turd lying in the shadows below. We knew what dog turds looked like and what our own human turds looked like. This was definitely human. We were shocked and stunned at such depravity. After that, no one would climb down, and we just cut off another piece of hose. There was no base-running, and teams, even of one, changed places after three outs, unlike Ins-and-Outs. Innings were not counted. Everyone lost interest well before nine anyway. No one kept score beyond the current inning and there were no neighborhood hose-ball heroes. It was just something to pass the time.
I found to my shame that batting a hose ball ruined your eye for regular baseball. The broomstick was so light that you waited until the spinning hose section was right where you wanted it, then swung. A regular bat was much heavier and you had to start your swing earlier, even with a slow-pitched ball. It took about a week to adapt to the difference.
You could get distance only by hitting the rotating hose section exactly on its center. Anywhere else would spin it ineffectually. A more famous version in many cities was “pimple ball” played with one half of a cut-up common pink rubber ball with bumps all over it, but the rules were the same depending on the location. The balls were a nickle in any 5-and-10 such as Woolworth’s or Kresge’s (the ancestor of K-Mart).
I am not claiming those were great times, when kids were free to be kids. A little adult supervision and organization would have been helpful and welcome. But even today, with any problem of personnel organization, I try to find an accommodation for everyone thanks to that early experience. I am always afraid a player will take their ball and go home.