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First Person: Baseball in the street

Back in the day, we played the game on a field of pavement

Saturday, June 22, 2002

By Edward M. Anthony

The other day I came across an old but still sticky roll of electrical tape. It was in a box that also contained a baseball glove and ball my son used as a child 15 or 20 years ago. The combination of the three items took me back to a game my friends and I used to play more than 60 years ago. The memory coincided with the news story last week about a proposal to outlaw playing on the streets of Jefferson Hills.

   Edward M. Anthony, professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh, lives in Hampton (ema1@pitt.edu). 

Some time before 1937, when I proudly posed with the rest of the ninth-grade graduates of Harding Junior High School in Lakewood, Ohio, I had become reasonably proficient in playing baseball in the street. Actually it was softball -- the ball was a cantaloupe-sized, irregularly shaped sphere we called an indoor ball. "Indoor" was also the name of the game itself, but I can't remember playing "indoor" anyplace but outdoors -- in the street.

The ball we used was distinguished by its tendency to separate at the seams early on from bouncing on the pavement playing field. And here was where the electrical tape came in. Every member of the bunch of boys who played the game became proficient in wrapping electrical tape around the ball -- always enough for at least one more inning.

The tape had disadvantages. Electrical tape, circa 1936, was sticky on both sides. It stuck to many things -- including the hands of the players. This tended to slow down the game. The pitcher (throwing underhanded, of course) sometimes was unable to release the ball until he rubbed it in the dirt or grass adjacent to our playing field. I can remember that sometimes the pitcher wound up and tried to pitch the ball, but nothing happened except that the batter, often tempted into swinging, did so while the pitcher was detaching the ball from the palm and fingers of his hand.

On other occasions the tape, although carefully wrapped around the ball, came loose at one end and gave the ball a lengthening tail. This made it possible for the second baseman to pick up a grounder and throw it to the first baseman while inadvertently retaining the end of the tape. You can imagine what could happen in such circumstances during an attempted double play -- short, to second, to first.

But it made recovery from a dropped ball easy -- you just reeled it in and tried again for the putout. Dropped balls were, however, rare. Once the sticky ball touched your hand, it was there to stay.

The game, as I have said, was played in the street. Second base was usually a cap, sometimes a glove (but not a baseball glove) or, if we had come directly from school, a notebook or what passed for a briefcase in those far-off days.

We didn't pay much attention to assembling a complete team. The standard way to convene the neighborhood kids for a game of outdoor-indoor was to drop a bat on the pavement. The resultant clatter summoned forth the baseball-ready kids in the neighborhood. Alternatively, the instigator of the game might stand on the sidewalk in front of the house of one of his friends and holler his name -- "Oh JOHNNY" -- until he got an answer. Or didn't.

There was no reason to choose up sides -- the game was what we called work-up, and positions had to be decided only at the beginning of the game. If, as happened once in a while, we had more than nine players, we might have five outfielders or a couple of second basemen. If we had fewer, a position or two could easily be dispensed with.

The only positions that couldn't be eliminated were pitcher and catcher -- and batter, of course. There were pragmatic definitions of balls and strikes. If you swung and missed, it was a strike. If you didn't swing, it was a ball. Bases on balls never occurred. The pitcher pitched until the batter whacked one, had swung three times without whacking one, or until his mother called him home for dinner.

Outs were agreed upon in a gentlemanly way. There were few arguments. When consensus was reached that a batter was out, he trudged into left field (or left curb), and the catcher became the batter, the pitcher became the catcher, and the first baseman (if there was one, if not, the second baseman) became the pitcher. You worked your way up to become a batter, and you could stay a batter until you were out. Since there was only one batter at a time, a man on base functioned like an out; everybody moved up a slot.

It was thus possible, though uncommon, to have four batters and, especially around dinner time, to have more batters than fielders. On such occasions, one of the base-runners might catch a fly if it came near him, or field a grounder. Or voluntarily run out to left field.

It was not an age of athletic overspecialization. It wasn't a team sport, for there were no teams. Nobody could win, nobody could lose. Why, I guess we must have played just for the fun of it.

Nor were there time limits. In the summer, the game could begin in the morning and continue until dark, unless every kid ate lunch at the same time. But that rarely happened. Around noon the game had fewer participants, but one by one the players reappeared, routinely starting out in left field and moving over when a new player arrived or when there was an out.

Because of where we played, we had to suspend the game briefly when a car passed by. The first player to notice one coming shouted "Heads up!" and the players retreated to the curbstone. But in our residential street, cars didn't pass by that often. When they did, they drove quite slowly. We'd just stand on the curb like troops in review. Even as late as the mid-1930s, an occasional fruit-vendor's cart pulled by a horse would wander by. If the horse misbehaved on our playing field -- so what? We just moved up the street, taking our bases and our lumpy taped indoor ball with us.

Those were the days. When I found that roll of ancient tape in the utility room, in spite of my advanced age, I was for a silly instant tempted to run out in the street, drop a bat and shout, "Oh JOHNNY." But I live on a hill now -- it's not really a good street for a game of outdoor indoor.

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