"Car!" someone would call, and we would all duck, fall on the ground or hide behind a tree. At twilight or shortly after dark the sight of a car cruising our neighborhood streets would send us scurrying. So the whole thing started with a fear, the uneasy feeling that somebody's parents would pull into a driveway and begin calling us home: "Bob-by!" "Dav-ey!" "Jay-ay!" (Even one-syllable names were split during those evening roll calls.) When our parents stood on their porches and called out our names, it was the worst possible news: Another summer day was over. So we'd hide. It was the urge to avoid being caught in the headlights that gave birth to car baseball in early August of 1959 on the west side of Salt Lake City, where we all grew up.
This is an article from the June 3, 1985 issue
Baseball was our passion then, and we invented many variations on the theme. Oh, we played the real thing at the Little League field across the street, but we spent our free time developing a wild baseball underground: wallball, strikeout, sockball, bottlecap. And we ended every day with car baseball, a game that had us running as if for our lives.
As I look back, wallball strikes me as the strangest invention of that wild summer. I've never heard of a game even remotely similar. We played wallball, like strikeout, against the house in Butch's backyard. Apparently, his parents didn't care that we were out back wrecking their house. Strikeout resembled stickball: The pitcher fired a tennis ball to a batter holding a broomstick beside the house, 40 feet away. The fielder stood way out back in the weeds of the alley. Strikes and balls were easy to call because at one place on the wall there were about five shingles missing; that was the strike zone. A strike made a distinct bip! as the ball hit the bare wall. If something clattered, the pitch had hit a shingle: ball. But strikeout had disadvantages: Solid base hits often soared over Mr. Quail's shed and vanished. A lost ball could set us back a whole day. We were not tennis players, and our supply of tennis balls was precious.
So Butch invented wallball. One day as he was pitching to me in strikeout he simply said, "Turn around."
"Turn around and face the wall."
I did, and the rules began to evolve. The batter faced the wall about four feet from the house, the pitcher stood 40 feet behind him and the fielder was somewhere behind him in the yard. The pitcher tossed the ball against the house; the hitter tried to clobber it off the wall as it rebounded into the field. While the batter ran to the porch and back, the fielder came up with the ball and threw it to the pitcher, who was covering home for the force out. However, the fielder's throw had to bound once off the wall before the pitcher could catch it. The appeal of wall-ball was that it could be played full speed, no choke-up, no soft throws, in one-tenth the space required for strikeout, and you never lost the ball.
Fenn was a creative pitcher. He developed a spitball for strikeout using dog saliva. Tiny, Butch's weird German shepherd, would lounge near the mound and Fenn would let him gum the ball between pitches. Then Fenn would fire a shot that would drop or rise or fall away and float eerily. I tried to outlaw the pitch but couldn't get the votes. Fenn liked it and Tiny was Butch's dog.
Fenn used the same pitch in wallball. After a distracting windmill windup, he delivered straight overhand. The tennis ball, old, worn and black as an 8 ball, would lob up and fall sharply through the strike zone. It was the best pitch in the game: the slow drop. However, because the ball was wet from Tiny's mouth, I could see the spot on the wall where it had hit, and I adjusted my stance.
When Butch played in the field, he liked to hide in the weeds. He figured that if he concealed himself, the batter wouldn't know where to push the ball.
"Come on, Butch!" I called one day.
"No way!" his voice came back from the thicket.
"It's a rule!"
"It's not a rule. We didn't vote. I can hide all day. Hit the ball!"
I choked up and the next pitch slapped off the house and fell toward me: a swing and a miss, strike two.
"No problem with this guy!" Fenn announced to the weedlot.
"I don't care where you are, Butch! I'm going to hit this over Quall's!"
Fenn wound up and pitched, another slow drop. I timed it and stepped close to the house, swinging almost straight up as the ball fell: contact! The black ball ripped up the wall, popping high into shallow center. It looked like an easy play, but who knew where Butch was? I tore for the porch and saw him as he broke through the four-foot brambles, dived, tassels of weeds flying from his hair, and made the catch, narrating all the way: "...off his shoestrings, ladies and gentlemen. It's a great play by a great centerfielder!"
We had less trouble replacing bats than replacing balls. A discarded mop handle was good for about a day of wall, but the soft wood was no good for strikeout or sockball. Push-broom handles were excellent, having more heft than mop handles. They were longer and we had to saw off about 10 inches to get a sturdy club. The best bat we had, though, was a rake handle we found in a vacant lot. It was smooth and comfortable in our hands, and it lasted three summers.
All these bats were potentially dangerous because they had no bottom knobs, and there were two or three thrown bats per day, but the only casualty I can remember came during a game of strikeout in the rain. I was pitching to Butch, who was hitting lefthanded at the time. There was a light rain, the kind that made sliding into home a pleasure. When Butch swung at my changeup, the savagery of his swing sent the bat winging into the alley, where it took Lane, one of our classmates, off his bike like a scythe. He landed in the wet weeds. I remember we had an extended game-ending argument about whether throwing your bat that far was an automatic out, as Lane sat there with his arms folded over the ribs that had taken the blow. We never saw him take the alley shortcut again.
Sockball had a short season at my house. We were loitering around my yard on one of those never-ending summer days. Nobody had a tennis ball. Nobody had an idea. We got into a three-way grass fight, picking clippings with our fingers, and suddenly we had talked Fenn out of one of his socks and were stuffing it with fresh green grass. Packed solid and tied, it made an excellent, though oblong, ball. The tail could be left to dangle for a loopy, uneven pitch that looked harder to hit than it really was, or the tail could be folded back over the body of the sock for a fair fastball.
We hit from the corner of the yard toward the garage, running to a sprinkler and back for a base hit. Because the sock died when it hit the ground, we added crossouts—throws in front of the runner—to the rules, and had a game.
Sockball met its demise as a league game fairly early. The ball had a tendency to become baggier and baggier, until the batter could almost catch it on the rake handle and throw it into the field for a hit. When Butch caught a pitch and swung a line drive into deep left, smashing the little garage window, we were encouraged to find other pursuits. I remember my father standing before us, exasperated, Fenn's sock in his hands. The sock looked like a dead rat. My father couldn't understand why, with a ball park across the street, we had to be jammed into my backyard breaking windows with socks stuffed with his lawn. These are the risks of underground baseball.
In case of rain or an absolute equipment shortage, we often switched over to bottlecap, which I have heard is played throughout the country under a dozen other names. We cleared a six-foot space in Butch's basement, and Butch would draw a chalk diamond on the cement floor. Then he'd draw the foul lines and the broad arc of the home-run fence. In centerfield he'd scribble "400 feet" just outside the line. Our men, of course, were bottle-caps. We all carried our teams in our pockets or in paper sacks. Caps from pop bottles were smashed into concave plates; this made them better fielders. The pitchers were plastic medicine bottlecaps or metal aspirin caps.
The pitcher flicked the bobby pin, which was used as a ball, toward the plate. The hitter was pushed into the ball, sending it into the outfield. The fielder slid toward the bobby pin, hoping to stop it. The batter slid toward first. If he tried for second and the leftfielder had the ball, the throw had to be dead-on and stopped by the second baseman for the out.
The game was hard on the knees, but could be played all afternoon. Butch kept a hammer nearby so we could make adjustments to our players, bending them to hit or field as necessary. Ironically, the stoic, untampered-with pitchers were the best hitters, their solid bodies sending the bobby pin out near the fence every time. I had several favorites, among them a beautiful Milk of Magnesia cap and a Nehi cream soda cap that I found on the road folded like a clam. That guy always hit over .400, and he could play the long ball like a genius. I buried my entire team in a vacant lot on one of the last nights of my 14th summer. I remember thinking: Some of these guys are six years old.
In my neighborhood the last thing you saw in the sky before stars was the smoke from Mr. Wilkes's burning garage. Mr. Wilkes had discovered his daughter, Linda, and Parley, an older kid, in there one time doing something, and he pulled the whole garage over with a chain attached to his Plymouth. He burned it board by board over the course of one entire summer. Parley was one of our heroes, and we were all vaguely aware of the grudge Mr. Wilkes bore old Parley. There was a thrilling rumor that Mr. Wilkes had been seen from time to time trying to run Parley down. The smoke and the rumor gave the whole neighborhood a doomed quality, which we thought of as just another part of growing up.
We saw the smoke a lot that summer because we were trying for the sleep-out record. And it wasn't long into that record attempt, maybe the third or fourth night, that car baseball developed.
At first we were just ducking away from cars; it is an age-old instinct in all preadolescent wild animals to avoid light at night. Then we would run to the swing set in my yard and back to our sleeping bags before the car had passed, once for a single, twice for a double and so on. Fenn and Butch and I would stand or kneel with our fingers on the fence, our heads swiveling as we watched for traffic, and when a car would turn onto Twelfth West, we were gone, racing for base hits. If a car came around the short corner on Wasatch Avenue, it was a mad dash for a single. You almost always had to slide in. If you were off the bag when a car passed, you were out. If a car turned our way from clear down on the other side of Indiana Avenue, it was easy to nab a triple, standing—if the car came all the way past. If you ran on a car that turned away before passing in front of us: You were out. Other rules developed. If you sat on the bag while a car passed: strike.
One night, after Fenn and I had been arguing about how many different ways there were to pull a triple play, Butch was gone, to the swings and back for a single on the first car of the evening. The game—and a memorable night—had begun.
A kid of 11 can run a long time, no matter how much he has played during the day. The car lights would swing onto our street, and we would run back and forth, making singles, doubles, triples and always sliding in safely.
One time, on a sure single off of Indiana Avenue, Fenn and I collided at the swings. I turned into him and we both went down in a pile. The car whipped past. We were out.
There were other outs. Fenn tried for a double home run on a car that turned into a driveway four houses up the street. Butch got caught by a surprise car while he was running on one the other way. We were forced to slow down, play more conservatively. Three outs and you lost all your runs.
I knew it was an extraordinary night when I ran for a double on Fenn's dad's car. He was going to work. It was morning! Clear across the park we could see Old Man Wilkes raking his garage fire.
Fenn said, "He's going to be sorry when it's all gone. He won't have anything to burn tomorrow."
"It is tomorrow."
"Yeah, well, if I ever pull over my garage and burn it, I hope somebody puts me away."
"What about chasing kids in your Plymouth, trying to run them down?" Butch asked. He was lying on his sleeping bag with his elbow over his eyes against the new light.
"Yeah, well, that part might not be too bad."
"How many runs you got?" I asked Butch.
"Sixty-three. Man on second. Isn't that what you've got?"
"Yeah, but man on first."
We could hear the birds singing. A car turned toward us from Seventh South.
"You want to quit?" I asked him.
"I'll quit if you do," Butch said to me.
"What a night," Fenn said.
We threw our sleeping bags over the swings and headed toward Butch's house for a game of wallball....
It was a good neighborhood, in retrospect a great neighborhood. We had baseball in a thousand variations all summer long. "It's the only game," Butch used to say, "but there are a lot of ways to play."