ODD-BALL ST. LOUIS DISPLAYS “A LOVE FOR MUTANT BASEBALL”
PubDate: Sunday, 8/20/2000
Category: EVERYDAY MAGAZINE
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.”