Let’s Play Corkball—You Know, Corkball?

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune.
January 23, 1989 | By Albert L. Grieve

Have you ever played corkball? You’ve never heard of it? It figures. For to merely mention the game is to court ridicule.

I first learned this truth during World War II. A small-town southern Illinois lad, I had become an on-the-spot infantry private in distant Camp Rucker, Ala.

Shortly after arrival, with a few hours of free time, I innocently suggested to companions, “Hey, let’s get up a game of corkball.”

In knee-jerk reaction, everyone within earshot began to guffaw, much as we did at Yankee-Rebel jokes, all the fashion then since we “sophisticated” Northerners had invaded rural Dixie. But this was no joke. They were laughing at my beloved corkball—laughing at me.

One cohort countered, “Sure, Lefty, we’ll take a piece of cork and play ball with it.”

Another chortled, “You sure you don’t mean ‘Let’s go fishing’? Gotta have a cork bobber, right?”

I was dumbfounded. In my provincial naivete, I had assumed that everyone played corkball.

I later learned that my boyhood avocation was limited to an area ranging northward from St. Louis to only as far as Springfield.

But the game indeed existed. A St. Louis sporting goods firm manufactured both bat and ball. The ball, a seamed mini-baseball, golf-ball size, was struck at—even hit at times—with a bat that resembled a broomstick.

I could give you the rules right now, but who really cares?

I wonder if corkball is even played these days. Yet in the 1940s around St. Louis, regular league games were played outdoors nightly, requiring lighted cages no longer than a common horseshoe pitch. And for the sheer fun of it, we played less formal games in an open field.

I may even mention my revered sport to my cronies one day. On second thought, I dare not. At 62, I no longer tamper with a fragile ego. Besides, maybe it’s all just an absurd dream, an old man’s fantasy.

Yet at times I’m once again a lad in far Downstate Illinois. And with that fervor owned only by the young, cherished pals of yesteryear are crying out so hauntingly, “Hey Lefty, let’s play some corkball.”

34th Annual Don Young Corkball Tournament

The South St. Louis Corkball Club is holding its 34th annual Don Young Corkball Tournament this Saturday, August 4, at the Don Young Corkball Fields located in Jefferson Barracks Park in South St. Louis County, MO. This tournament represents the “World Series of Corkball’ for the St. Louis and surrounding areas. This is real corkball, not fuzzball or wiffle ball, so don’t be confused. This is a double-elimination tournament, meaning teams must lose two games before they are eliminated. The tournament usually starts around 9:00 a.m. and ends in the evening around 6:00 p.m. The big four corkball clubs will be present (South St. Louis Corkball Club, Lemay Corkball Club, Sportsman’s Corkball Club and Gateway Corkball Club) along with other teams. Food, soda and beer will be available. Come on out and enjoy seeing something really unique to the St. Louis area, and bring the kids! For more information, please contact Tournament Chairman Bob Young at:
Phone: 636-677-7534
E-mail: corkballman@att.net

“Corkball” (read: FUZZBALL) Tournament in U. City

Some guys in University City, Missouri, have been playing what they call “corkball” for quite some time… problem is, it’s not actually corkball. The game they play is really fuzzball (since they use tennis balls, not corkballs), but, for whatever reason, they don’t call it that. Now, there’s nothing wrong with playing fuzzball… hell, it’s a fun game! But if you’re gonna play fuzzball, call it fuzzball. If you’re gonna call your game “corkball,” then you should be using corkballs and helping to support a great local business, the last of its kind to make corkballs, Markwort Sporting Goods.

*Sigh*

ANYWAY, these guys have an annual tournament in U. City coming up later this month (August 18-19) and they invite anyone out there interested in playing corkball fuzzball to form a team and enter the tournament. Details are included in the flyer below and the rules will be posted after that.

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Corkball on Brazilian TV!

Check this out! Brazilian TV show Cinquenta Por Um (50 by 1)—in a series of episodes where they visit cities that have hosted the Olympic games—introduces its audience to several interesting things unique to St. Louis (the Olympics were held here in 1904), including corkball! You can watch the episode at the link below (the corkball segment is right after the part about brain sandwiches at Schottzie’s Bar):

Too bad I don’t know Portuguese!

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
PlayCorkball.com

Gateway Corkball Club Photos

These photos are from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch site, photographed by J.B. Forbes sometime last summer. Some of these are really nice photos and I wanted to make sure thy were linked from here. Click the link below and then “View Slideshow”:

http://stltoday.mycapture.com/mycapture/folder.asp?event=1059801&Category…

Caption reads:

Corkball is a St. Louis tradition that dates back to about 1900. The original balls were carved from cork stoppers used in beer barrels. The bat was a broken-off broom handle. The game has evolved a little. The ball looks like a baseball and the bat is now a bat, but both are significantly smaller.

33rd Annual Don Young Corkball Tournament

The South St. Louis Corkball Club is holding its 33rd annual Don Young Corkball Tournament this Saturday, August 6, at the Don Young Corkball Fields located in Jefferson Barracks Park in South St. Louis County, MO. This tournament represents the “World Series of Corkball’ for the St. Louis and surrounding areas. This is real corkball. Not fuzzball or wiffle ball, so don’t be confused. This is a double elimination tournament meaning teams must lose two games before they are eliminated. The tournament usually starts around 10:00 a.m. and ends in the evening around 6:00 p.m. The big four corkball clubs will be present (South St. Louis Corkball Club, Lemay Corkball Club, Sportsman’s Corkball Club and Gateway Corkball Club) along with other teams. Food, soda and beer will be available. Come on out and enjoy seeing something really unique to the St. Louis area, and bring the kids! For more information, please contact Tournament Chairman Bob Young at:
Phone: 636-677-7534
E-mail: corkballman@att.net

Adam Allington’s Corkball Story on KWMU

Click the player below to hear Adam Allington’s story on corkball from our local NPR affiliate, KWMU (St. Louis Public Radio). Adam interviewed me a few months ago about corkball after I contacted him suggesting that they run a story on it. It always seems to me like the other, more hipper sports in town (you know, softball, kickball, roller derby, etc.) always get the press, but, Rene Knott’s story on the game last year on Channel 5 aside, rarely ever does corkball ever get a chance to receive some prime-time exposure.

Adam wanted to do the feature on me and the River City Corkball Club, but I told him we hadn’t started playing yet and that I was unsure if we’d even play at all this summer due to conflicting schedules and me spending extra time coaching my son’s little-league baseball team. So I suggested he get in touch with one of the other local clubs and gave him contact info, and he chose Gateway.

I wanted to correct a couple of mistakes Alan made in his story regarding the sport’s history. First being that, according to a June 2000 story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s “Everyday” section, corkball dates as far back as 1890, and that it was members of the St. Louis Browns (the American Association team that would later become the Cardinals of the National League)—not brewery workers—who legend says invented the game by taking cork beer barrell bungs and swatting them with broomsticks at Mueller’s Saloon at Grand & Greer. In fact the earliest hand-stitched corkballs supposedly first appeared in the 1910s.

I was also a little disappointed that he didn’t mention the other local clubs by name or the fact that there are still corkball fields at both Jefferson Barracks and Tower Grove parks. But all in all, it’s a good, entertaining story and great exposure for the sport!

Starting a Corkball or Fuzzball Club

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If you live in a city or town with no known corkball or fuzzball action and you’re itching to get something started, then this article is for you. I’ve taken some time to list pretty much everything you should consider when starting up your own club, whether it be a really laid-back squad for the occasional pickup game, or a more serious, competitive league with separate teams, stats, standings, and a final championship game. What it all boils down to is you need to find some people to play, and recruiting enough players, from the recreational to the serious, can be pretty difficult. But don’t get discouraged; these tips should make it easier for you to get something started.

RECRUITING PLAYERS

If you’re trying to start up a corkball or fuzzball club or league in your city, you might be wondering how you’ll be able to find enough people to play. After all, it’s not like a whole lot of people anywhere have even heard of the game before! Well, I thought I would post about some of the ways I went about recruiting people so that others may try the same thing. It worked for me, so it will probably work for you, too. Give it a shot! There’s no harm in trying. And you’ll become an ambassador for a game that could really use some extra exposure.

First and foremost, come up with a plan. Know where you’ll want to play your games (find a good local park or ball diamond that’s not being used, or even a school playground or church yard—preferably one with some sort of backstop). Locating a good ball field may be harder than it seems, but if you investigate some area parks first, you should be able to find one that will work. It’s always a good idea to check with the park officials first, too, to make sure no other games or activities will be scheduled when you’ll want to play. It’s also good to start doing this early, like in February or March, so that you can hope to start playing by mid-April. Make sure you allow plenty of time for organizing and recruiting.

Estimate how much money you will need for equipment. You have to consider a few boxes of balls, plus a few bats, at least two sets of catcher’s gear (masks and shin guards, especially), batting helmets, home plate, pitcher’s rubber, and some way of marking the field, either with chalk, paint, or orange cones. And don’t forget an equipment bag to put it all in. You might also want to invest in a new cooler or Gatorade dispenser. Total everything up and try to come up with a fair amount to charge everyone for dues (to help pay for all of this stuff). You also need to allow enough time to locate and order this stuff online if you don’t live near a sporting goods supplier that carries it locally.

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You will also need to come up with a name for the club or league. Name it after your neighborhood, park, suburb, city or town. Or pick a name that is completely unique and different. Just be creative and be sure to include the word “corkball” or “fuzzball” in there so it’s obvious what it is. A logo to go along with the name would be nice to have off the bat, too, but it’s not crucial. If you have a friend or relative who’s skilled at illustration, art, or design, you might consider asking them if they’d whip something up for you. Having a logo to display on a flyer for your club will attract a lot more attention than not having one, and is something you can put on a T-shirt later, too.

Create an email list. A Yahoo or Google group work great because they use people’s e-mail addresses. You can also set up a discussion group on Facebook. Facebook is good to use since so many people are on it already, and it’s easy enough to create a group there and invite your friends.

Make a flyer! You can do this by hand (old school!) or use MS Word, Adobe Illustrator, Powerpoint, etc. Include the name of the club, a brief description and history of the game, where you plan on playing, dates, times and contact info (don’t forget to include your phone number). Also include a link to your email list and/or Facebook group (above).

Next, talk with all of your friends, coworkers, neighbors, drinkin’ buddies—basically anyone you see on a regular basis—and tell them what you’re up to. And don’t be shy to come right out and ask them if they would be interested in playing! But be prepared to answer their questions. If you already play softball or baseball then you can ask the guys you usually play with, too. Or if your kid plays little league ball, check with the parents of his teammates. Invite the ladies as well as the guys; remember that you may find a couple of women to play who are as good as (if not better than) some of the men. It’s best to start off as a “recreational league” and tell everyone that so they know it’s not going to be competitive. You can always make it more competitive later, but at first, to attract newbies, just tell them it’s just for fun and to get out and learn a new game. Give each of them a flyer, too, to help them remember. Then keep bugging them about it until they commit or tell you they’re just not interested.

Post your flyers in local bars and taverns near the park where you’re going to be playing. Sports bars are especially key, since so many of the folks who go there are already fans or may already play some sort of recreational sports. It’s a good idea to ask the manager of the bar where you can post the flyer, though. You don’t want to create any enemies. Heck, the manager might even be interested in playing, too.

Check to see if your local sporting goods stores have some sort of bulletin board. Many may have one and you can just tack it up there, too. And then keep checking back every week or so to make sure the flyers haven’t disappeared. Same goes for the bars mentioned above. Someone might see your flyer and take it home with them (which may be a good reason to include little tear-off strips at the bottom with your phone number or email address… that way people can just tear those off and take them home instead of the whole flyer).

Hit some local ballfields, recreational centers, athletic clubs, gyms, libraries, grocery stores, and the YMCA and look for bullletin boards at those places, too. Keep tabs of all the places you flyer so you can make the rounds and check them in the upcoming weeks.

Post about your new club on Craigslist. Craigslist is completely free and a LOT of people use it. This can be done in the “activity partners” section under “community.” Like this.

Do a search online for local message boards/discussion forums that have some sort of sports-related forum (and don’t forget the Corkball Forum!). Community/neighborhood email lists are also good to use. And your local daily newspaper may have a forum you can use. Check other local media outlet sites (radio, TV, entertainment and online news sites) to see if they have something like that. Yelp.com is good to use for this, too (look for the “Talk” section for your city or town). Then post all of your info there and watch them periodically for replies (some people may have questions about it, esp. since it’s not a really common sport). Just like flyering, make sure you keep track of all the places you post about your new club online, so you can check back at each site again in a few days or weeks.

If you do all of the above, you should not have a problem in recruiting a good group of people to start with. You will find that some stop showing up after a while, but others who get really into it might start inviting their friends to come check it out.

The next step, then, is to get everyone together, go over the rules (make copies for everyone to take home with them) and start playing. Remember to start off slow with some basic catch and batting practice first. Get them used to handling, throwing, catching, and hitting the ball. Tell your pitchers to ease up and not to throw blisteringly fast, at least not right away. Getting the ball over the plate so the batter has a chance to connect with it is more important. Let everyone feel how fun it is to smack those little balls!

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Good luck!