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.”

Fuzzball and Other Bat-and-Ball Games

Aug 31, 2000 by Colby Vargas

On the south side of St. Louis, where I spent most of my childhood years, beer and baseball were and still are king. As kids, we had to turn to baseball. But it was a rare day when you could throw together two full teams of nine from the kids who floated around our neighborhood. On hot days, we were lucky if there were two of us to play catch.

The field was another issue entirely — there were plenty of asphalt schoolyards with bases painted on, but for the true hops of a grass field, all we could find was an abandoned church lot that was mowed once a month. We made do, even made some amateurish attempts at groundskeeping, but if one of the older kids got hold of a pitch going the opposite way, the ball was gone, possibly through an apartment window.

We played anyway, of course, when we could muster the players and the equipment; but it was hard to pretend we were the Cardinals when the pitcher had to lob the pitch in and back up as quick as they could to play the infield and hopefully chase the runner down.

It was Dave Cook, a squirrelly guy from two buildings down second only to me in his obsession with baseball, who came up with the rough idea for a game we would call “Fuzzball.” “My uncle from New York played it when he was a kid,” he said, grinning and bouncing a tennis ball in one palm. “All you need is a tennis ball and a bat — or even a broomstick. You pitch up against the wall, so you don’t need a catcher.”

I’d seen strike zones painted and scrawled up in back of our school, so we picked the lowest one and started playing every day, developing the rules of the game as we went. In Fuzzball, which reached its Zenith in fourth grade, when Dave hit 72 home runs and I struck out 350 batters, the focus was on the purity of batter vs. pitcher. We drew lines in the schoolyard for singles, doubles, triples. There was already a fence at perfect home-run distance. The pitcher could field anything on the fly or try to stop a ground ball, but there wasn’t any base running. After a double- or triple-header of Fuzzball, our hands were red, our arms aching. If other kids showed up, we played two-on-two or three-on-three, and every kid in the neighborhood did come out and play at least a little. But Dave and I were the Fuzzball gurus.

On the East Coast, they call it “Stickball,” and they bounce the ball, a pink Spaldeen, down the middle of the street. They actually run the bases. Grown-up (sort of) men play the game today in leagues. Chicagoans know it as “Strikeout.” In suburbs all over America, Wiffleball satisfies the same need — the space needed is similar and the threat of broken windows is less. Decades ago, inner-city youth tried to hit whirring bottle caps with their broomstick in the most extremely urban derivation of the game. For the solo player, stoopball and off-the-wall allow something close to baseball action.

The beauty of Fuzzball, and all the bat-and-ball games like it played all over the Western World, is its ease of play. The equipment, a tennis ball/Spaldeen/Super Pinkie and a bat/stick, are readily available to kids of all socioeconomic classes. The games are made to fit into the nooks and crannies of urban life. The rules are fluid, easily adapted to any city or milieu. Pick-up games are the preferred method of play. The essential skills of America’s Pastime are encapsulated in these games; if you can throw a curveball without seams on your ball, you’ve got something, and the 70+ swings taken by each player in a typical “Fuzzball” game have to help.

The popularity of basketball in most city neighborhoods has put a dent in the bat-and-ball games of my generation, but you might still come across a cluster of kids up against the back of a grocery store or scurrying between parked cars on a narrow street. If nothing else look for the strike zones painted or taped or scratched on brick walls in cities across the country.