The Way it Was: Playing baseball with other kids in the street

by JOHN STRAKA | CORRESPONDENT Published:

In the 1930s, baseball was the national sport. That is as far as I was concerned.

Football wasn't popular as a neighborhood activity because it was more complicated than baseball. A soft surface would be needed if the game included tackling. An actual football would be much more expensive than an indoor baseball. Football needed a lot more space between goal lines and more players than a bare minimum of maybe six for a baseball game.

There were different kinds of games that could be played with a baseball. Just playing catch was fun. A batter and an outfielder could make up their own rules and enjoy a pleasant hour or more outdoors getting exercise and developing some hand/eye coordination.

We played in the street in front of our house. The minimum requirement would be that someone brought a bat and that we could somehow get a usable baseball.

Some boys would hesitate to bring out their fairly new bat or ball because one swing of a bat could break it and one swat at a new ball could tear part of the cover off of it. Most of the time, we played with a bat that had been broken and repaired, either with glue or nails and almost always with yards of friction tape wound around the broken part.

The cover on an indoor baseball didn't last long on a paved city street. Since it was common to see a ball that had the cover replaced by yards of friction tape, there were times when a ball flying through the air trailed a length of tape that looked like the tail on a kite.

I RECALL there were two kinds of indoor baseballs. One was the conventional kind, with stitching like a regular baseball, and the other had raised seams that took some of the punishment from the cover itself. That kind of ball lasted longer but was more difficult to catch.

If it was spinning when it made contact with your hand, you could get some pretty sore scrapes from those raised seams. Thinking back over the years, maybe the indoor ball was never meant to be used outdoors and the raised seam ball was. If that was the case, then maybe that ball was intended to be used by outfielders wearing baseball gloves.

In high school we sometimes played baseball in the gym and the ball didn't get all torn up. I never liked playing baseball indoors. A varnished floor just wasn't right for the game.

Setting up a diamond in the street was a matter of using whatever was handy. For bases, we used manhole covers, pieces of cardboard, linoleum, tarpaper, shingles, and rocks and bricks. I'm not sure, but a piece of chalk could mark second base, too, but I don't think we ever did that.

I remember reading a book that stated home plate was one foot square and 17 inches wide. That didn't make sense until I used my geometry training to figure that the diagonal of a one foot square is 17 inches.

With that knowlege, I got hold of a big enough piece of rubber, maybe from an old doormat, and cut it to size. We had a full-size home plate that didn't need to be picked up everytime a car came down the street.

One problem that was never really solved was the catch basin that drained rain water from the street surface and into the storm sewer. Anything we might use to cover the opening might fall in.

ASSIGNING one player to stand there and catch or deflect a ball headed for the sewer didn't work, either. Most of the time we just hoped the ball wouldn't go down the sewer.

When it did, a long handled rake would sometimes get the ball out. If not, then the smallest kid available would be lowered head first into the hole with two bigger kids holding onto his ankles.

If there were enough players, the game would start with choosing sides. Two captains were selected and they would take turns choosing players. No one wanted to be the last one chosen, but that didn't really matter as long as you were in the game.

The ones who brought their own ball and bat, of course controlled the game. If they were not satisfied with the arrangements and rules, they could pick up their ball or bat and go home and that ended the game.

We played in the street in a residential area with houses nearby, but I can't recall there ever being a broken window. Houses were set back a bit from the street and there were fairly wide tree lawns. Just about every house had a front porch and a railing. Some had flowers growing on a trellis. Porches and railings formed natural window protection.

None of us players could hit the ball hard enough or far enough to break a window. There were few objections to kids playing in the street, mostly because the possible objectors had their own kids in the game.

One of the strictest rules of the game was that any ball hit into a flower bed or a hedge or landscaping bushes, was an automatic out. Even just having a ball land in someone's front yard might be ruled as an out.

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