It’s called corkball, and it’s kind of like baseball, only better
by Charles P. Pierce | Esquire Magazine– June 2000
ONCE, BEFORE EVERYTHING WAS a commodity, the rules for every sport were drawn up like this—drawn up by the people who actually played the game, drawn up in the basement of an actual tavern in an actual neighborhood, like the Haven in South St. Louis, where the Sportsman’s Corkball League is meeting on a misty night as spring comes slowly down the Mississippi. This is how sports used to change—behind history’s back, when the world wasn’t looking.
For nearly fifty years, the league has played its games in Tower Grove Park, a lovely, sylvan spot with little bright gingerbread gazebos peeking out from between the trees. This season, though, the club is moving to the fields at Jefferson Barracks, because a lot of the players have become “uncomfortable with the neighborhood” around Tower Grove, says one club member, corkball being a predominantly white and predominantly male exercise in a nation that’s becoming predominantly neither one. For good and ill, corkball’s history is now full of the history of the city in which it was born.
“It wasn’t like we wanted to leave,” says Lee Renfrow Jr., a second-generation corkballer. “There’s a little bit of a problem with some element, but nothing had ever affected us. But then, if guys are telling you in your ear, ‘Well, we’re not going to bring our kids down here because we’re scared to,’ that makes you start thinking.”
The move to Jefferson Barracks has prompted the club to discuss an adjustment of the rules no less profound than that which baseball had to make when people began building ballparks with fences in the outfield rather than strands of rope. The Sportsman’s Club is deciding whether to begin the millennium by allowing players to hit something besides singles. It is the second month of the new century, and extra-base hits may be coming to the league.
“All right,” says Renfrow, the club’s president, fighting to be heard over the chiming beer bottles. “You’ve got three choices: singles only, singles and home runs, or singles, doubles, triples, and home runs.”
Corkball did not begin as an outdoor exercise. It began in St. Louis bars, where the Germans and the Italians and all the other people who worked at the city’s numerous breweries came to consume their own product. One night around 1900, some brewery worker or another popped the cork—or “bung,” which is the last time it will be referred to as such here, by the way—out of a barrel of beer, wrapped it in tape, and threw it toward one of his colleagues, who tried to hit it with a broomstick. Soon, corkball cages had sprung up inside dozens of saloons, or in the alleys outside of them. St. Louisans who joined the Navy during World War II rather famously played corkball on the flight decks of aircraft carriers, and returning veterans helped spread the game throughout the South. “Basically,” says one old corkballer and Navy vet, “the Pacific was a home run.”
It is a simple game. It involves a pitcher, a batter, and a catcher. There are no bases and, therefore, no base runners and, therefore, a great number of men who play corkball into their fifties and beyond. There are three outs, and every swinging strike is an out, provided the catcher hangs on to the corkball, which looks like a baseball shrunk to the size of a Titleist 4. Five balls is a walk. Foul balls and caught fly balls are outs, and any hit that travels fifteen feet, on the ground or in the air, is a single. Four singles equal a run, making corkball as much a station-to-station game as the D train. Runs are scarce, however, because the ball is small and the bat is thin and because the pitchers are encouraged to bring it with speed and movement only a touch below that seen downtown in Busch Stadium.
“No kidding,” Renfrow explains. “We’ve got some guys that can part your hair with that thing. They have to be able to, because everybody in this league can hit a fastball.” Nevertheless, a .250 batting average is a good season; in 1950, though, Dutch Weissflug hit .576, a mark that is still spoken of with reverence and awe.
At Tower Grove, the Sportsman’s Club played singles only, not least because nobody ever quite figured out how to parcel out the extra bases when somebody hit one up into the branches of a tree. However, at the Jefferson Barracks fields, there are no trees to complicate play, and the distances for doubles, triples, and home runs actually are set out in lines burned into the ground. (A home run has to carry 250 feet.) The game can change there.
Moreover, Jefferson Barracks for years has been the home field of the South St. Louis Corkball League, the city’s most famous loop, long the domain of the late Don Young, whom the papers always called “Mr. Corkball.” Moving the Sportsman’s Club to Jefferson Barracks is very much like moving the Mets into Yankee Stadium, and there is an under-current of mildly outraged traditionalism about the balloting.
“We had thought about just going down there and playing with the simple rules,” Renfrow explains. “But with such a big move, we decided to bring it to our membership and let them decide.”
The game changes by a vote of 13 to 10 to 3. They will play with the full panoply of extra-base hits. There is some moaning from the assembled pitchers, because pitchers will get blamed. Pitchers always get blamed. You can imagine Alex Cartwright in a place like this basement, puzzling out on a napkin the notion that the bases themselves should be ninety feet apart, perhaps struck suddenly by the rationale that, with four bases, a runner would score after having traveled the exact number of feet as there are degrees in a circle.
“Circling the bases,” Cartwright would muse with a smile as baseball is born so that, a few decades later, some brewery workers in St. Louis can develop a recombinant form called corkball. There is cold beer in a tin tub and trophies on shelves along the wall. Two darts have been stuck in the dartboard for so long that nobody remembers who tossed them there, and Abner Doubleday, that useless old fraud, is nowhere to be found.
BEFORE YOU UNDERSTAND corkball, you must understand its birthplace. There is no element in the history of American sports more underrated than the influence of the city of St. Louis. It is here that the very name of the sport is distinctly pronounced: The o becomes a harsh, almost corvine a sound that stops just short of a full Gaelic brogue. “Caharkball” is close. It is southern, but it’s filtered through all the German and Italian and Irish accents that came down the river to work.
Moreover, the city of St. Louis has been giddily creative in constructing games around the concept of hitting a thrown object with a bat. In addition to corkball, the people of St. Louis have also devoted themselves to other, even more esoteric variations on baseball. There is fuzzball, in which the batter tries to hit a tennis ball with its bristling cover burned away. There is also the strange competition in which the batter attempts to make contact with a bottle cap, which can be made to dip and spin and confound the player with its gnat-like aerodynamics.
Fuzzball often is considered a minor league system through which young players pass on their way to their corkball careers. (Old-timers regularly bemoan the future of corkball on the grounds that not enough young people play fuzzball anymore, and they sound like old baseball writers wailing about the diamonds that lie empty throughout the suburban summers.) The game of bottle caps, on the other hand, is simply nuts. “You can really get carved,” explains Renfrow.
So St. Louis has a love for mutant baseball that is richer and more diverse than even that of New York, which has produced stickball, which hardly anyone plays anymore. New York has had it easier, however, simply because so many of its former stickball players grew up to be gifted writers. Hence, the literature of stickball is far more vast than that of corkball, despite the facts that: A) because of its speed, corkball is more interesting; B) because it is played in peaceful parks and not on busy streets, corkball is safer; and C) corkball is still vibrantly alive, having spread at least in a small way from St. Louis southward.
In fact, down in Macon, Georgia, in the house where they all lived before they got famous, the members of the Allman Brothers Band engaged in notoriously rowdy corkball games; the late Duane Allman, it is said, was a helluva catcher. In sum, through its professional teams and provincial pastimes, St. Louis may have touched more people in places far more widespread than even New York did through the Yankees.
The mighty signal of KMOX Radio made Cardinals fans out of Tennessee moonshiners and Iowa wheat farmers, New Orleans rounders and Alabama Baptists. It made a lifelong Cardinals fan out of a poor boy in Indiana named Larry Bird. The New York ball clubs may have owned the urban salons of the Northeast, and, in their avaricious migration, those same teams may have conquered the West Coast, but for most of the century just concluded, between baseball and corkball, St. Louis owned almost everything in between.
There is very much a connection there, the present hooked to the past and not dislodged and floating the way it is in so many places. Consider, for example, not the Cardinals but the old St. Louis Browns, now d/b/a the Baltimore Orioles. In the early 1900s, the Browns were owned by one Chris Von der Ahe, a manic German publican who went so spectacularly broke that one of his creditors had him hauled off to jail in Pennsylvania. He was an owner, and he lost all his money. His team now plays in Baltimore. In his saloon, the employees played corkball. Their great-grandchildren play it today. Something, at least, abides.
IN THE OLD DAYS, Herb Markwort used to be a hot tennis player in the parks on the city’s south side. He couldn’t afford to have his racket restrung, however, so he learned to do it himself. Gradually, word got around to the other players, and Herb began to make a living for himself stringing tennis rackets on his back porch. From this came the Markwort Sporting Goods Company, tucked into an old factory-warehouse district just off the interstate. Today, it is the country’s—nay, the world’s—leading supplier of corkball equipment.
“The cork from the barrels is what they started using in the taverns, and outside the taverns later on,” explains Herb Markwort Jr., the founder’s son. “Then they started putting tape around it to get it more spherical, and then some of the guys decided, Well, let’s just start making little baseballs, then. So some of them were actually made in homes here in St. Louis.” A man named Bill Pleitner is credited with making the first corkball with a proper cover on it, in 1936, and he kept on making them until he retired in 1995. Some leagues—most notably the South St. Louis League—refused to play with anything except a Pleitner ball.
For a while, the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company sold corkballs, most of which were made by hand in St. Louis. The Markwort company would buy its corkballs from Rawlings. In the 1960s, however, Rawlings moved out of the corkball market and the Markworts began having their own corkballs manufactured—first in Haiti and, later, in China. Today, the company markets corkballs and bats with an eye toward the nostalgic haze that surrounds everything remotely connected to baseball. Each corkball comes in a box with Smithsonian lettering that seems taken directly out of Chris Von der Ahe’s saloon.
“This style, with the pinstripes, is supposed to convey the history of baseball,” Markwort says, admiring one of the boxes. “This is trying to portray its longevity in the history of American baseball. Our sales were up 40 percent last year. And this year, we expect another jump like that.”
To hold a corkball is an odd sensation, especially to anyone accustomed to the feel of a regular baseball. The stitches are too close together and in the wrong places. The whole thing can disappear into the palm of your hand. “Stan Musial came to our banquet once,” recalls Joan Young, the widow of Don Young, who was Mr. Corkball for nearly forty years. “It just amazed him, that little cork ball.” And when she says it, it sounds like the ancient chorus from a forgotten folk song, “That Little Cork Ball.”
Don’t she roll.
ANOTHER BASEMENT, then, this one in a neat little home in a neat little neighborhood tucked down into the gentle slopes of a hill now crowned by four-lane blacktop and every franchise known to God, man, and the onion ring. The history of St. Louis corkball is here, tucked into boxes and hanging on the wall. “When my husband died last year,” explains Joan Young, “at the funeral, one of my daughters said that you couldn’t die or have a baby, or do anything important, on Wednesday, because Wednesday night was for corkball.
“They always put things in for the wives, because they were kind of neglected in the summertime. But we used to have a picnic every year. We always teased that we were going to put in an application to join the league, but we never did.”
They met at the Casa Loma, an old ballroom down on Cherokee Street. Don Young was a second-generation corkballer. His father, Bill, helped found the Grupp League in 1936, and Don began playing in 1945. (His son still plays, making the Youngs a third-generation corkball family, which is not unusual.) After he retired from active play in 1976, Young set about documenting a systematic history of corkball in St. Louis. He compiled reams of scorecards. He chased down ancient team rosters.
He even pursued and recorded the game’s creation mythology back beyond the brewers and their barrels, all the way back to 1763, when Pierre Laclede landed his men on the banks of the river, and the Indians threw dirt clods at them, and Laclede’s men hit them back with spears. Of course, this would make Pierre Laclede the father of baseball, corkball, fuzzball, and bottle caps, which would make, say, Father Jacques Marquette look like something of a piker, discovery-wise. Don Young didn’t necessarily believe this story, mind you, but he told it anyway, which was the important part.
He told all the stories, wrote them all down, and told them again: about the time he played in the lowest-scoring game in corkball history because the ball broke in half and he was awarded only half a run. About long balls and shutouts. About a hundred other games and a thousand other players. About how he got both the 1964 and 1967 world champion Cardinals teams to sign a corkball for him. About how when one of the players died, he would send a wreath, and at its heart would be a corkball bat. When Don Young died, the funeral procession detoured on its way to the cemetery and brought him back for a lap around the grounds at Jefferson Barracks, one more time.
“He became disabled when he was seventy-six, and he couldn’t play anymore,” his widow recalls. “So he began to put all the records together.” It was the social aspect of the game that kept him coming back on all those summer evenings, which was all right with his wife, who had become accustomed to a life grown tight as a vine around a little local game.
COME BACK IN AUGUST, THEY SAID. Come back when all the teams get together at Jefferson Barracks—Sportsman’s, the South St. Louis guys, the people who play in Georgia and Florida—and come back for the picnic and the barbecue, and the spinning, running, laughing children, and come back for the corkball, too. For the World Series of corkball, at the Barracks, where the Sportsman’s Club now has decided to play.
“My first memories of corkball are the picnics,” says Lee Renfrow. “I can remember going out with my father and brothers and sisters, and we’d watch the guys playing bottle caps. We still do that at our annual picnic here. We get out a big bucket of bottle caps and old broomsticks and go to it.”
There is no snobbery here. Corkballers are proud to play bottle caps, and vice versa, but it is corkball that has flourished beyond the other games. “I mean, corkball’s in my blood, and I’ve been in the club since ’91,” Renfrow says. “There were times when I thought about leaving, but I don’t know what I’d do with my summers. I’m thirty-four, and my arm’s gone. I can remember going home every Wednesday night, icing it up, laying there with it, just agonizing, just trying to get it ready to go again the next week.”
The meeting has adjourned. The membership has gathered upstairs at the Haven, where a light Thursday-night crowd is talking over the NCAA basketball tournament on the big-screen television and somebody keeps playing Fleetwood Mac songs over and over on the jukebox, drowning out the commentators on the television, but not the conversation, which flows and eddies in the past and the present. There are legends to corkball, most of them apocryphal, as though that ever matters for the best of them.
There is the remarkable tale people tell about Hammering Hank Stoverink, who fills a spot in the history of corkball roughly akin to that held by John Henry in the history of the American railroad. Seems that one day Hammering Hank got hold of one and drove it out of the Barracks grounds entirely. The ball rolled down a steep slope and into the Mississippi, which carried it, rolling and tumbling, down into the Gulf of Mexico and off to Cuba, to Venezuela, to memory and the misty isles, to Avalon.
Is the story very likely an aged and mellow crock of beans? Of course it is, and I don’t believe a word of it, just as I don’t believe in John Henry, except when Mississippi John Hurt sings about him, and then I so believe in him that I expect him to come up my walkway and ring my doorbell, and I’m disappointed when he doesn’t. I don’t believe for a second that Hammering Hank Stoverink once hit a corkball out of Jefferson Barracks and off toward eternity, until somebody tells me the story, and there’s a thrill in his voice, and then I believe in Hammering Hank. In my bag, there’s a corkball now, and I roll it in my fingers, and it seems to disappear in my palm, and it’s as though baseball itself is shrinking, as though the game has become manageable again—as though, somehow, in this strange, beloved mutation of itself, you can get a grip on it again.