White Suburban Youth

White Suburban Youth—it was an adjective. A lot of hardcore bands wrote about all kinds of things we had no real experience with, and guessed a lot of them didn’t either, so we didn’t see the point in it, well, at least I didn’t and I wrote the lyrics. We put “youth” in the name, as a bit of a joke, too, since there was no shortage of bands with that in their name.

The band started in the Ritenour High School radio station after hours. It was just Rob Wagoner, myself, and another friend, Keith. This would have been very late 1982. We banged around, recording to a two track until the school year ended, then moved to the basement of Keith’s parents’ house, since they were in California for the summer. Prior to that we had also added Tom Sutter on bass. It was during this summer of 1983 that we really started putting a set together and writing more songs. There were a lot of comps out at the time and Rob commented we were better than most of those bands already. Considering these were mostly Mystic comps, that wasn’t really a great feat. It was also during this time that Rob declared we would play Mississippi Nights. I can’t remember if he said within the year or not but we did accomplish that in August of 1984 opening for MIA.

The next phase was the fall of 1983 when we had to move from Keith’s basement to Rob’s house, where we set up in his room to practice and record to a cassette with two microphones. I’m guessing those tapes are someplace if they didn’t get recorded over later. We had a lineup change during the early months of 1984, losing Keith and replacing him with Fritz Noble, who we had met at Mr. Records. We were amazed by his playing because he had hi-hats, having him with us increased the momentum. After playing with Fritz for a month or so, we recorded the first demo, mostly just pulled songs from the practice tapes and dubbed them to one tape, made copies and sold them at New Values. At this point we had still not played a show.

Our first show was the infamous Offenders gig that was raided by the vice squad at the Bernard Pub. Up until then we knew a couple of people from hanging out at New Values and going to a few shows but we didn’t hang out in the scene. Rob and I spent our Saturday nights hanging out at the community college station, KCFV, for the Radio One/Faster and Louder show. It was through the DJ for the show, Rob Meirhoffer, that we got on the Offenders gig. After that show, we were pretty much immersed into the scene over night. We played a lot of house parties and then got our second show opening for the Rude Pets and The Unconscious Five at the Tivoli. Before that I had been reluctant to get involved with people outside our own band. Fritz and Rob had to actually come to my house one night to talk me into playing our first party. But from that Tivoli show on we played more parties and I was more than happy to do it. The other highlight of that early summer was a New Values basement show with Drunks With Guns and Proud Young Men.

During the summer we pretty much lost our bass player, Tom, due to his schedule, so we played a lot of these parties without a bass player, then in August added Gary Yoxen. I think the first show was with MIA at Mississippi Nights.

Going into the fall of ’84, we played some pretty cool shows, 45 Grave/Vandals, Stretch Marks in KC, TSOL, and more house parties. We did a huge New Year’s Eve party at Bob Thurmond’s house in Overland. He joined the band when Gary moved to Atlanta a few months later. We played more shows than I can remember right now. The next really big one was with Battalion of Saints at Mississippi Nights in June of ’85. We hit the road a few more times to Columbia, MO, Topeka, KS, and Springfield, IL.

In January ’86 we played with Naked Raygun at SIU-Edwardsville, and that made us enough money to record in a real studio. Well, in a guy’s basement in St. Charles, anyway. This would be the second demo that we didn’t really sell for very long since we broke up not long after we made it available. We did a lot of shows at Turner’s Hall in between but ended up doing our last show with Naked Raygun at Turner’s in April ’86. Fritz was more interested in doing Culture Shock and Rob and I had been talking to Mike Doskocil about doing something, which led to the forming of Ultraman.

–Tim Jamison, Summer 2014


White Suburban Youth members:

December 1982 through January 1984:
Tim Jamison vocals, Rob Wagoner guitar, Tom Sutter bass, Keith Ubelien drums.

January 1984:
Fritz Nobel drums.

August 1984:
Gary Yoxen bass.

April 1985:
Bob Thurmond bass.

“So This Is Apathy” recorded February 1984 with Tim, Rob, Tom, and Fritz.

“February 1986 demo” (I don’t know that it ever had a name) with Tim, Rob, Bob, and Fritz.

Catalog number: TIRC-013

The History and Culture of Corkball in St. Louis

Below is an article I wrote about corkball that was supposed to be included in a new baseball journal put out by the St. Louis Baseball Historical Society. The journal’s future is now in doubt due to conflicts between the publisher and the ad agency responsible for publishing it, so I’ve decided to go ahead and publish it here. Enjoy!

St. Louis’ love for the sport of baseball cannot be denied. By all accounts, it has been played in some form or another in our city for more than 150 years, which is precisely why the St. Louis Baseball Historical Society was founded. Baseball’s roots run very deep here, and those roots have at times sprouted to reveal different forms of the game that may not be as popular or well-known as the mother game.

One of these off-shoots of baseball is the game of corkball (or “cork ball” as it was originally written). Corkball is defined as a fast-pitch bat-and-ball (or “safe haven”) game. Bat-and-ball games are basically a much more primitive and simpler form of baseball that probably goes back centuries, or perhaps even thousands of years, as it essentially just involves hitting something small and round with a stick. It can be argued that people—children, mostly—have been hitting things with sticks for fun for a millennia. But, as we know, this practice didn’t really get recognized as a sport and become organized as such until the middle portion of the 19th century. But when it finally did become organized, it didn’t take long for it to catch on like wildfire. Nor did it take long for variations of the game to appear in certain parts of the country. Stickball, for example, became very popular on the streets of New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the Northeastern U.S. Here in St. Louis, several games that are in some ways related to baseball began to emerge. Softball, obviously, has been played here in beer leagues for decades after first getting its start in Chicago in the 1880s. And, more recently, the former kids’ game of kickball—which got its start in Cincinnati—has gotten pretty huge (the “stick” in that game being one’s leg, naturally).

When I was growing up here in St. Louis, my father (who grew up in the ’20s and ’30s in Maplewood) would tell me stories of playing “Indian ball” as a kid when they didn’t have enough players to field a full nine per side. They’d just play ball without the base running, using “ghost runners” instead of the real thing. He also described corkball and “bottle caps” to me (the latter being a variation of corkball where you simply replace the ball with a cap from a bottle), and I managed to amass a rather large collection of bottle caps for playing that—along with corkball and/or Indian ball—at family reunions back in the ’70s. I was unaware, however, of any actual “corkball clubs” in St. Louis until I started investigating the game via the Internet probably about ten years ago. That’s when my eyes really became opened to the game’s rich history in St. Louis, having found that the first of these clubs, Gateway, originated in 1929. I was floored!

Digging deeper still, I learned that the game’s history is almost as old as professional baseball in St. Louis itself! Apparently it was first played at Mueller’s, a boardinghouse and saloon located at the corner of Grand & Greer on the city’s north side. Chris Von der Ahe, the owner of the St. Louis Browns (later to be renamed the Cardinals), was the saloonkeeper at Muellers, and the story goes that, sometime in 1890, one of the Browns’ players pulled the bung out of a keg of beer, carved it into a ball, and began pitching it to a teammate using a broomstick as a bat, while three other players played behind him and another served as catcher. It probably didn’t take long (perhaps a few busted windows, pint glasses and mirrors) before the game was relegated to cages which were erected adjacent to these establishments, of which there were many, and in just about every part of town. As the years went by, players started organizing leagues, and, with that, actual manufactured “cork ball” equipment became commercially available thanks to a number of enterprising local sporting-goods manufacturers. No one is sure exactly how many companies produced “official cork balls” as they all seemed to have been stamped, but we know some of these names include Rawlings, Wilson, Worth, Leacock, Sisler Hummel, Murson, Proline, Anchor, and, more recently, Markwort. R.H. Grady Company is credited as being the first to develop a horsehide-covered, stitched ball, which dates to 1920. And a few Major League ballplayers from the area are known to have played the game as kids, including Yogi Berra, Joe Garagiola, and Pete Reiser.

Despite its longevity and almost cult-like following in St. Louis, however, corkball hasn’t had much success spreading to other parts of the country. Oh, it’s happened, sure. There’s a club in Chicago, and I’ve also heard of outcroppings of games being played in several locations in Illinois, as well as Denver, Texas, California and in various spots in the South, including Jacksonville, Florida, where Butch Trucks and Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band are known to have played the game as kids. During World War II, Howard Rackley introduced the game to his fellow servicement on the deck of the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill, which did a lot to disseminate the game to other parts of the country, as many of those guys brought the game home to their hometowns. But lacking the history and cultural connections in those towns, it has struggled to survive, much less blossom and grow.

I quickly became intrigued by the game and its inherent connections in St. Louis, and decided I wanted to do a couple of things. First, I wanted to play it! It had been over 30 years since I’d held a corkball in my hand—much less attempted to hit one with a stick—but I always considered myself a fairly decent ballplayer, so utilizing some social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, I pulled together some friends to start playing some recreational games at the abandoned corkball fields located along Arsenal in Tower Grove Park. Secondly, I thought it would be a good idea to try and pull all of the information that I had found out about the sport together under one virtual roof and create a website, and thusly, PlayCorkball.com was born. The site serves as a blog where I can share information about the sport, as well as provides plenty of information on its history, rules, where to purchase equipment, and even includes a discussion forum.

For me, recruiting enough people interested in playing the game recreationally week-in and week-out proved pretty challenging. While a lot of people may have heard of it—or are curious about it—it’s been quite a struggle to find a good core of players who are committed to keeping it active throughout the course of the spring and summer. Most of the players I was able to recruit were already participating in similar area sports, such as softball and fuzzball. Corkball’s appeal for softball players is that it equates to less wear and tear on one’s aging legs, and for fuzzball guys, who are used to swinging at the larger tennis balls, it means a bit more of a challenge. But it feels good to actually put the corkball fields at Tower Grove Park to use in their intended purpose. These fields used to be home to the Sportsman’s Corkball Club before they hightailed it to Jefferson Barracks Park in 2000, which they’ve shared with the South St. Louis Corkball Club ever since. The other two established St. Louis clubs are Lemay (established in 1947), which plays its games at the Santa Maria Knights of Columbus on Mt. Olive Road in South St. Louis County, and Gateway, which has its own clubhouse and fields on Walsh St. in the city’s Dutchtown neighborhood.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the corkball scene in St. Louis, there’s a culture surrounding the game that can be a bit hard to crack. While the established, older, and more competitive clubs often have open enrollment tryouts, it really helps if you know (or are related to) someone there first. But I believe it’s because of that closeknit culture and its (for lack of a better word) “cliquishness” that these clubs are seeing a dwindling interest in the sport, which equates to less participation. The guys who have been playing it the longest are getting older, and it’s not as easy to transfer the love of the game on to their children and their friends as it was in generations past when our youth had fewer distractions. Baseball in general has been experiencing similar issues.

When speaking with “Corkballman” Bob Young on the phone recently, I was able to get a little bit more history of corkball, especially in South St. Louis. Bob is the grandson of Don Young, who was known as “Mr. Corkball” for more than four decades and whose name adorns the tucked-away corkball playing fields at Jefferson Barracks Park. Don’s father, Bill, co-founded the Grupp (which later changed its name to South St. Louis) Corkball League in 1936. The Don Young Corkball Fields at JB Park are the nicest you’ll find anywhere, and they’re shared by both Sportsman’s and the South St. Louis Corkball Club, with the latter beginning play there in 1965. The cages of yesteryear, though, are all long gone. One of the last remaining corkball cages that I’m aware of was removed by owner James Russell from BJ’s Bar in Florissant after almost 30 years of use in 1985 and sold to the Ferguson Church of the Nazarene for $125.

I caught a tone of concern in Bob’s voice when I asked him about the future of the game. He told me that, at its inception back in the 1970s, their annual August tournament at Jefferson Barracks Park would include as many as 30 different teams. In recent years, they’ve been lucky to recruit teams from each of the “big four” St. Louis clubs. Corkball is need of a shot in the arm, a big boost that could help attract a new generation of young players forming their own teams and leagues and reverse the trend. Bob did remind me, though, that every Sunday afternoon throughout the spring and summer, they have pick-up games of corkball at Jefferson Barracks Park, and he stresses that ANYONE is welcome to come play, which is probably the easiest way for those curious about the sport to get involved.

There are quite a few culturally significant things that makes St. Louis a pretty unique city. Everyone knows about Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, St. Louis-style pizza and barbecue, toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake, and, to a lesser extent, brain sandwiches, but as unique to St. Louis as the game of corkball is, it’s largely unknown here these days, and that’s a bit sad. Especially when you consider how popular the game obviously used to be. But, that being said, it’s still got a much larger level of participation here than in any other city of the country, and for that, we should be thankful.

Jeff “Kopper” Kopp

Article on Gateway Corkball in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

St. Louis corkball combines competition, camaraderie and family
by Susan Weich of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Click here for story page w/ comments & photos.

Some of the ballplayers who gathered on the grassy lot behind the metal products factory were barely past their teens; others were past their prime, but it didn’t matter — they came to share in the competition and camaraderie.

The game is corkball, which locals say was invented here around 1900 by a group of brewery workerslooking for something to do on their break. A beer barrel stopper carved into a ball and a broken-off broom handle were the first equipment in a game that has all the allure of baseball without base running or the need for nine players.

The game became so popular that leagues sprouted up at taverns, where cages were erected, but eventually, most of the play moved to county parks. Only about five local clubs exist today.

The competition last Wednesday was at the oldest of these, Gateway Corkball Club at the corner of Walsh Street and Ulena Avenue in south St. Louis. The three fields share an outfield wall rivaling the one at Fenway Park. Hitting the ball over the 30-foot-high Blue Monster is a home run; hitting the wall a double.

On this muggy August night, dozens of dragonflies hovered over the fields, their up-and-down flight mimicking the movement of the knuckleballs crossing home plate.

Blaine DeCambaliza, 42, of south St. Louis, was waiting his turn at bat. He grew up in Minnesota, where a puck and a different kind of stick is the preferred sport, but after his first season of corkball, he’s found a new passion.

“The first time I saw this place I couldn’t believe more people didn’t know about it,” he said. “It’s a Field of Dreams in the city.”

In corkball, players try to hit a ball that’s two inches in diameter with a bat that’s only 1 1/2 inches wide. Pitchers throw a whole arsenal — including spitballs — at batters who get just one swinging strike if the catcher holds onto the ball. A foul ball is an out, and five balls are a walk.

Tony Minor, 30, of St. Louis, has six relatives playing in the club, so corkball is a way to stay connected to family and good competition.

“To play in a league that still keeps the stats is just kind of fun,” he said. “It takes you back to those days when you were growing up, and it did matter if you had a good night or not.”

Wayne Cupp, 75, is the oldest playing member of Gateway’s club, and his batting average of .428, illustrates that even older players are no easy outs.

“I just look for a fastball,” he said. “I refuse to swing at a curve unless I get a strike on me.”

Marty Kirner, 48, of St. Louis, is a member of his club’s “All-Century Team,” and he spent much of the doubleheader trying to instruct and rally his teammates.

“Watch this pitcher’s speed. If you don’t square it up, you’re going to foul it off,” he said.

Like any other contest, the play can get pretty heated, but things rarely get out of hand at Gateway because no drinking is allowed on the field, and anyone who throws a punch at another member is shown the door. On this night, the chatter was all good-natured.

Players razzed Tim Goedeker about his batting slump and his bats, one named Mr. .888 (to reflect his batting average for part of a season) and the other Mr. OBP (to tout his on-base percentage).

“I guess we’ll let Tim make all the outs this inning too,” chirped Kirner.

Goedeker said when you’re having a year like he is, you better be coming for more than just your batting average. Clearly many of the men were.

After the game, the men retreated to their clubhouse, a no-frills place where players could rehash the game over a bottle of beer. The walls are lined with stats dating back to the club’s founding in 1929. They highlight Gateway legends like Tom Niemeyer, who threw seven no-hitters in a row.

Many of the members are second- or third-generation corkballers, who grew up watching their dads play and earned soda money by shagging foul balls.

Joe “Pepe” Greco, 41, of south St. Louis, has fond memories of Christmas parties at the clubhouse and picnics that featured barbecue, games and a swimming pool.

“That was almost better than a week-long vacation,” he said.

At the end of every year, the club has an awards banquet that honors not only the top players, but those who made the goofiest plays, like Mike Goedeker, 47, of Sunset Hills, who got hit by a pitch to win a game against his cousin and his nephew.

“I got a booby prize for that because there was a big uproar,” he said. “They gave me a plaque and poem that told the story of how it upset my cousin Bobby.”

When players retire from corkball, they become social members and still come up to the clubhouse to play cards or watch sports on TV.

Gateway is hoping for a youth movement to beef up its membership, which now stands around 90, to keep the St. Louis classic going.

“There’s just not much known about corkball anymore,” said Mike Goedeker.

He said the Jefferson Barracks tournament a week or so ago, which used to have dozens of teams, was down to seven.

“It would be nice to get the game revitalized a little bit,” Goedeker said.

Corkball: The Sport That Time Forgot

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.”

Lord, lord.

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.

A Love for Mutant Baseball


PubDate: Sunday, 8/20/2000

By John M. McGuire of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Indian ball is just one of the peculiar games that have made St. Louis the center of the odd-ball universe. Or as Esquire magazine noted, “St. Louis has been giddily creative in constructing games around the concept of hitting a thrown object with a bat.”

The best known and oldest is the hardball variation called corkball, a game so St. Louis that it gave the city a curious reputation during World War II when local corkballers played the game on the decks of aircraft carriers or on military parade grounds. Back then, homegrown corkball was played in “cages,” most of them attached to the side of a tavern.

Other local variations are fuzz-ball, featuring a singed tennis ball that moves like a sphere possessed, and perhaps the oddest game of all, a batter-pitcher diversion called crowns or caps. In this game, usually played against the exterior wall of a saloon, the batter uses a broomstick and tries to hit a beer-bottle cap that is hurled with a vengeance, bobbing about like a crazed dragonfly.

These distinctly St. Louis games have one thing in common – kegs of beer, taverns and buckets of chili.

How did it all begin? The most precise story is that corkball was born at Mueller’s, a boardinghouse and saloon at Grand Boulevard and Greer Avenue. The year was 1890, and the story is that some members of the St. Louis Browns — an American Association team that a few years later would be rechristened the Cardinals in the National League — were sitting on the porch at Mueller’s polishing off a keg of brew. Chris Von der Ahe, a colorful saloonkeeper who called himself “Der Poss Bresident,” owned the team, which featured a player who would go on to become a baseball legend. He was Charley Comiskey, founder of the Chicago White Sox.

Comiskey might have been there the night that one of the players decided he needed exercise. He took the bung out of the keg, carved it into the shape of a ball, while another Brownie found a broom handle for a bat. Five players, not so tipsy, set the ground rules: One would be a pitcher, the other a catcher, with the remaining three playing the outfield. Like Indian ball, there was no running.

Eventually, the game evolved into organized leagues and manufactured equipment. For a time, the corkballs — baseballs slightly larger than golf balls — and slender bats used in the game were made by Rawlings Sporting Goods. Rawlings, based in St. Louis, dropped the line years ago, and now Markwort Sporting Goods on Forest Park Boulevard carries on the tradition.

Leagues such as Sportsman’s Corkball, South St. Louis and Santa Maria or Lemay Corkball became so identified with St. Louis that Bill Vaughn, the late Kansas City syndicated columnist, wrote: “St. Louis without corkball is San Francisco without cable cars, Baltimore without crabcakes or Boston without spaghetti,” noting that Bostonians eat more spaghetti than beans.

Corkball’s popularity has faded, but it’s still played at Jefferson Barracks Park, and there are seven teams and some 42 players, according to Len Renfrow Jr., 34, of Oakville, a second-generation corkballer with the Sportsman’s organization.

In June, corkball and St. Louis were featured in an Esquire article headlined “The Sport That Time Forgot.” Writer Charles P. Pierce noted that “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.”

Corkball: About the St. Louis Game

From the South Saint Louis Corkball Club site:

There is no pastime more native to St. Louis than the game of Corkball. While experts disagree on the date and precise location of the first game; one thing is certain; it was played right here on the banks of the Mississippi River sometime around the turn of the century. Forty-five years ago, journalistic accounts estimate the game’s disciples in the thousands. As noted by the Late Don “Mr. Corkball” Young, there are several hundred players in a number of leagues around town, and corkball is beginning to flourish as far away as California, New Jersey, and Florida.

World War II did much to disseminate the game. Howard Rackley, of the 66-year-old South St. Louis Corkball League (formerly Grupp Corkball League) located at Jefferson Barracks Park, introduced the game to non-St. Louisians on the deck of the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill during the war. But basically, the games remains a local pastime passed down from father to son. In fact, the South St. Louis Corkball club currently has two grandsons and one great grandson of the founders playing.

All that is required to play are a bat (34″ to 38″ long and 11/2″ wide), a ball (2″ diameter 1.6 oz. miniature baseball) and at least two players per team. This is what makes the game so great; you can play with just two players, or, as many as you wish. The same goes for the field. You can play on an open field, or, in an alley or, as in the old days, a cage. There is only one distributor of corkballs and corkball bats in the country and that is Markwort Sporting Goods located in St. Louis Missouri.

There are three outs per inning, as in baseball, but unlike baseball, just one swinging strike is an out, if the catcher does not drop the ball. Two called strikes constitute an out, again, if the catcher “holds” the ball. Five called balls is considered a walk. Foul balls and any fly ball caught are outs. Any ground ball is a hit, provided it travels 15 feet and remains in fair territory. There are no base-runners (an aspect of the game which makes it well suited for the hot St. Louis summers) hence, all hits are singles unless otherwise designated in the league rules as at Jefferson Barracks Park (home of the South St. Louis Corkball League) where chalk lines designate distances from home plate that represent double, triple, and home run zones. A batter hit by a pitch is given a base.

Base runners are kept track of on paper and advance as many bases as the hit. For example, batter #1 gets a base hit and is on first. Batter #2 hits a double. The man on first advances two bases and you now have a man on second (batter #2) and third (batter #1). Batter #3 walks. Since there was an open base, batter #3 did not “force” the runners, and you now have bases loaded. If batter #3 would have gotten a base hit, all runners would have advanced one base and there would have been a first and third situation with a run scored.

St. Louis corkball is a fast-pitch game. The distance from home plate to the pitching rubber is 55 ft. (60 ft 6″ in baseball). Pitchers throw overhand, from a mound, and feature fastballs, curveballs, knuckleballs, changeups, and, in some leagues, are even allowed to add substance to the ball.

Because of the miniscule size of the bat and ball, hits are relatively rare, and runs even more so. The late Don “Mr. Corkball” Young claims to have set the record for the lowest score ever recorded in a corkball game. “I hit a ball one time that split down the middle. One half of it went for a home run, but the other half was caught by Butch Stege for the out. After some debate it was decided to give my team a half run, and we wound up winning the game one-half to nothing.”

There has never been a St. Louisian found willing to contradict this story; but then again no St. Louisian has ever denied that “Hammering” Hank Stoverink once hit a ball over the road at Jefferson Barracks, down a long LONG hill into the Mississippi river where it floated down to the golf of Mexico and out into the Caribbean and eventually lost in the Bermuda Triangle … Talk about the long ball!!!! Yeah!

Corkball fanatics are absolutely addicted to tales like these, and there was no one better, or, who had the stories to tell than Don Young. No one has put more energy into tracing the origin of Corkball than Don. Don told us the game originated from a game brewery workers and tavern goers used to play. At that time, beer was packaged in wooden barrels plugged with a cork called a “Bung”. Players would use the bung for a ball, and a mop handle for a bat. Others maintain the game evolved from another St. Louis game called bottle caps in which a batter tries to make contact with a pitched bottle cap. As time goes on it only becomes a more a mystery.

The mystery of corkball is exciting. You can have twenty guys in a discussion about corkball, and you might come up with 15 stories on its origin. As stated before, no one has put as much time and effort trying to trace the game of corkball than Don Young. He had rulebooks and articles right at his fingertips. He had a photo album dating back to the early 1930s. Don had stacks of articles on corkball, and even a catalog from Rawlings Sporting Goods store from 1903. He once used this to prove to a reporter that there was electrical tape in those days used to tape up a cork.

Additionally, there were a couple more whimsical explanations of corkball origin stated by Don: It is claimed that the early Spanish explorers played a similar game with small wooden balls and long poles, before Pierre Laclede Liguest founded the city of St. Louis in 1763. Don Young has always maintained that might be so, but what about the Indians along the northern border of the U.S. that used tree branches and gum-balls made from the bark of the trees?

Maybe—just maybe—that was the start?????

Needless to say, corkball aficionados just eat up this sort of stuff. When a reporter once mentioned to Don about the 6,000 year old fertility rites involving hitting stones with sticks, Don responded: “Yeah? Hey, that’s great”. Nobody knows exactly when the game started. I mean, I know I talked to an old gentleman who played the game as a young boy in 1910, and he told me his father played before him. It may have started much earlier than this, and, you know if I could tell you exactly when and where, I’m not sure I would; a little mystery is good for people”.

From Don’s records the following chronology in the evolution of the sport has been obtained:

  • 1900–1910 — First game played, either with bottle caps or beer barrel bungs.
  • Circa 1910 — First ball, a fishing cork weighted with BBs and covered with electrical tape.
  • 1920 — First modern ball, horsehide covered, designed for R.H. Grady Company by Bill Pleitner.
  • 1930 — First organized leagues began to form.
  • 1940–1950 — First cages, Howard Rackley introduces the game to servicemen aboard the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill.
  • 1941 — Balls and strikes introduced in the old Grupp Corkball League by former Cardinals player Heine Mueller.
  • 1965 — Introduction of extra-base hits by the South St. Louis Corkball League.

We know Alexander Cartwright invented baseball, and that newspaperman Henery Chadwick, through his coverage of it, became known as the “Father of Baseball.” But, we shall never know who invented the game of corkball, and perhaps that’s as it should be.

My STL Scene Report for MRR (1989)


In the summer of 1989, before I left St. Louis for a miserable year in commercial radio in Chillicothe, Missouri, I wrote this scene report of the local punk/underground rock scene and submitted it to Maximum Rock’n’Roll. I was working at Streetside Records in Hazelwood at the time, had a weekly punk/hardcore radio show on KYMC in West St. Louis County, and was pretty plugged into what was happening locally. This piece ran in the October issue (MRR #77) and you can download it below… Bands featured in the report include ULTRAMAN, DUCK DUCK GOOSE, WHOPPERS TASTE GOOD, LAFFIN’ STOCK, STRANGULATED BEAT-OFFS, THE JETSONS, SINISTER DANE, THE NUKES, DEAD PLANET, TUFF NUTZ, STONED WALLS (who would later morph into THE CRIPPLERS and then on to TOMORROW’S CAVEMAN and LONG JOHN THOMAS & THE DUFFS) and more. It’s pretty long! Enjoy.

Props to the PUNK ZINE ARCHIVE for archiving this one!

My Embarrassing Radio Past, Pt. 2

Now this is seriously embarrassing shit. In fact, I can’t believe I’m even posting this, but what the hell… This is from a cassette tape recorded from radio station AM 1450 KOKO in Warrensburg, MO, in October 1984. For some reason I decided to go by the name of “Jeff Copeland” on this, and I’m on the air here with my former KYMC cohort and, at the time, my freshman roommate, Bruce Clayton, on the radio at AM 1450 KOKO in Warrensburg, playing some pop hits of the time following the completion of a Royals/Tigers ALCS game. I think this is the only time we did this, at least together… haha. But it was enough. It’s pretty bad!

Aircheck (MP3)

As if there’s ever been any doubt, this will once and for all prove that I’m as big a dork as you will find anywhere on the planet.