Jack Leigh (1948-2004) This time of year — it’s cold outside! — baseball fans start watching the calendar for that uplifting date in mid-February, the one marked “pitchers and catchers report.” It’s always a welcome harbinger of spring that warms the heart, if not the rest of the body. Of course, given the recent news about this […]
Jack Leigh (1948-2004)
This time of year — it’s cold outside! — baseball fans start watching the calendar for that uplifting date in mid-February, the one marked “pitchers and catchers report.” It’s always a welcome harbinger of spring that warms the heart, if not the rest of the body.
Of course, given the recent news about this being the final season for the Richmond Braves to play at The Diamond, thinking about professional baseball is not necessarily the tonic for Richmonders it might have been in previous winters. So, to cheer us baseball fans up anyway, what follows will draw from the sidebar realm of kids’ inventions derived from baseball.
The National Pastime has been the inspiration for many a variation on the same theme — baseball-like games. The most obvious is softball. However, this piece is about a pair of much more esoteric games, taken from the long list of variations on baseball. Both were knockoffs created by children. Most importantly, they were played without adult supervision.
About the time I was nine years old, knowing about baseball — it’s rules, strategies and lore — became the most important thing in life. That lasted a few years; eventually pretty girls, basketball and a short list of other things would also eclipse baseball.
When there weren’t enough boys around to play a baseball game, with two opposing teams, we often resorted to playing games based on baseball. There was one called Instruction, played by groups of eight to a dozen, or so. The players rotated from one defensive position to the next, until they earned the right to be one of the four hitters. Other games, such as Whiffle-Ball Home Run Derby, were played with special equipment and usually in backyards instead of on baseball fields.
At 12, I began playing a two- or three-man game that we called Strikeout. However, that same spring I was a pitcher on the Robert E. Lee baseball team, which meant playing Strikeout during the season was forbidden. Our coach told us it was bad for our arms.
Naturally, to some, that the activity was outlawed only made it more attractive. The coach told us he especially didn’t want the pitchers playing Strikeout. That’s because the game was played with a tennis ball, which is much lighter than a baseball, and repeatedly throwing it blurs one’s feel for throwing a baseball effectively, for a day or two afterwards.
Of course, the lure of being able to throw exotic pitches, such as a drop or a screwball, was irresistible to me. In case the reader doesn’t know, it’s a lot easier to make a tennis ball break sharply than a baseball.
And, of course, I was one of those kids who had to learn the hard way that the coach was absolutely right.
In the summers of 1960 and ’61 my friends and I played Strikeout for hours at a time on Albert H. Hill’s schoolyard. The batter stood in front of a rectangular box, drawn with chalk on the yellow brick wall. The box represented the strike-zone for boys roughly our age/size. The pitcher worked from a chalk-mark on the blacktop at an appropriate distance from the batter.
If the batter didn’t offer at the pitch, it was up to the pitcher — on his honor — to call balls and strikes, based on where the ball struck on the wall. If there was a third man on hand he could act as an umpire, or as an outfielder in a three-way game.
Hitting the tennis ball with a baseball bat was fun, because it really took off.
Any hit-ball that didn’t fly past the pitcher in the air was an out. As well, a caught fly ball was an out. Balls hit past the pitcher in the air were deemed singles; a ball hit off the high fence along Park Avenue was a double; a ball that cleared the wall was a homer.
However, the most interesting miniaturization of baseball I’ve encountered in my travels is a game called “Half-Rubber.”
Jack Leigh, a co-worker at the time, introduced me to Half-Rubber back in the early days (1973) in which I was managing the Biograph Theatre. Jack was from Savannah, Ga., where he said the game originated.
Leigh, who was a top shelf photographer, died four years ago. He was best known for the graveyard picture we associate with “Midnight in the Garden of Good Evil.” That photo was used both on the cover of the book and on posters promoting the movie of the same title.
Half-Rubber was played with a broom handle and half of a red rubber ball. The key to pitching was to throw the ball sidearm with the flat part down. Then it would zoom around, somewhat as a Frisbee flies. While throwing the half-ball with any accuracy was difficult, hitting or catching it could be maddening. (more…)