Before the whole world and everything done on it got completely organized, homogenized, and made into video games, we were often called upon to improvise our own fun. Back when he was still considered funny, Bill Cosby recorded a hilarious bit about playing football on an urban street with parked cars and lamp posts and other obstacles not generally associated with a playing field. You could seldom count on having enough players to field a regular side whether it was football, basketball, or baseball. My brother Jimmy and I even had an improvised game of “golf” which featured a ball (not necessarily a golf ball),a baseball bat (usually cracked) and a small hole dug into the ground in our backyard with the heel of one of our feet. No driving, just putting.
Most often, though, we played “stocking ball”. The equipment was pretty easy to obtain. We needed an old sock or two, the kind that came up over the calf. An old rag or the other sock was stuffed inside and a round shape was created. No stitching was involved; the ball was held together with a strong rubber band. The rubber bands that came with the boxes of wieners to our meat market were the treasured ones for this purpose. Before the first inning was over, these balls were not round at all but rather flat and roughly square. This affected the pitching more than the hitting but nobody cared. The bat was sometimes an actual baseball bat but most often we used a pick handle, which wasn’t round either but great for bat speed. Gloves were extraneous and disdained. The batter’s box was at the foot of the back porch steps. The pitcher’s “rubber” was on a line with the second garage window, the one farthest from home plate. We would mark a line with our feet but you could tell that you were in the correct position by looking at your reflection in the garage window. There were no bases unless you had teams but generally it was one on one with me and brother Jimmy, who was a year older. Occasionally it would become more of a family affair with my brother Paul joining Jimmy’s side against me and our dad. In those cases, the corner of the garage became first base and we would go first to home, sort of like cricket.
The layout of our backyard “field” was even stranger than the Polo Grounds that the New York Giants played in. We had a two car garage with wooden doors that swung open east and west and halfway across the door closest to us was the right field foul line. The left field line was extremely narrow for political reasons. Facing the pitcher as a right handed batter, to your left would be our next door neighbors’ back yard. The Sherbines’ driveway was on the border line, so to speak, because they entered from the alley whereas our driveway was accessed from the street and was on the other side of our house. Therefore the bushes planted next to our yard just before theirs became foul territory because, while the Sherbines were somewhat tolerant of our shenanigans, they were not amused by the fetching of foul balls into their backyard. That’s how I learned not to be a pull hitter. Now, if you hit one on a fly to the alley past their property, it would be fair. There were lots of ground rules like that.
So without bases, how did Jimmy and I determine hits and runs? It was the length of the hit before the stocking ball hit the ground. If you got it past the sidewalk that ended just before the garage, it was a single. Past that second window toward the alley was a double. Into the alley on a fly was a triple. Beyond the alley and into the neighbors’ yards on the other side was a home run. It was doubly important not to yield a homer to center or right because then the pitcher would have to deal with a feisty dog in order to retrieve the ball and often, in those cases, re-wrap the sock. Any ball caught on the fly was an out; balls not making it as far as singles territory were ground outs.
I lost a lot. Jimmy was just a year older, but he was a lot better. We both threw pretty hard for adolescents but he was more accurate. Despite being younger and less skilled, I was not necessarily learning to be a better sport. It got rather antagonistic at times. He would start bragging about how far that last homer had gone and I might be tempted to throw the next pitch at him. Getting hit wouldn’t hurt much unless our ball had been rained on and hardened up a bit, but of course it was an insult. We would sometimes be in angry moods anyway. The games would start on Sunday afternoons after we had been altar boys at 7 AM Mass so that we could finish our Sunday paper route before noon so we’d be a bit tired going in. Plus we umpired the games ourselves and balls and strikes had to be agreed upon, so to speak. His strategy was to let me walk him two or three times and then blast one. In retrospect, that was a good strategy but at the time I was kind of Puerto Rican as in, “Swing the bat, asshole!”. The fights sometimes got physical but then the commissioner, our mother, would threaten to call the game and we would try to cool off. Most of the time the war was peaceful, though.
When I was batting I also liked to be the stadium announcer as in “Now batting, number 9. Bill Mazeroski, etc. The other thing I liked to do was mimic the form of players I’d recently seen on television. I would try to pitch like Jim “Mudcat” Grant or affect the batting stance of Roberto Clemente or Dick Stuart. I’d watch an inning or two if a game was on TV but not be able to sit still anymore and go out to mimic those players. I could keep Jimmy in a better mood in this way but he would usually still pound me. We lived between Pittsburgh and Cleveland so those were our guys to root for and try to emulate.
Whiffle ball came along one day and, while that was fun and funny in a different way, stocking ball somehow seemed more like the real thing. I’d like to play today.