Looking back, Part I: Kids used to have more fun playing ball in the old days
I saw some kids in my neighborhood playing ball in their front yard — two kids on each team, a pitcher and a fielder. They used a tennis ball instead of a baseball. A bush, the edge of the street, and a tree became first base, second base and third base.
With the prevalence of organized youth leagues, I didn’t think kids did that any more. Reminded me of my sandlot days …
No scoreboards, no stands, no chalk foul lines, no catcher’s equipment,
no cleats, no dugouts, no on-deck circles, no pitching machines
The kids in my Framingham, Massachusetts neighborhood rode bikes or walked the two blocks to Lincoln Elementary School at the end of Oliver Street. The baseball field had a home plate, a chain-link backstop, and a huge grass outfield that extended uninterrupted all the way to the teeter-totters just inside the fence at the other end of the playground. There were always stories about how one of the Sullivans had hit one over that fence. Just no one ever saw it happen.
We made bases by digging the heels of our sneakers into the dirt and making squares, careful of putting first and third in line with home plate and parallel with second. We usually had enough gloves for just one team. So, in between innings, the guys coming in to bat flipped their gloves to the players taking the field.
We kept score in our heads or in the dirt in front of the backstop. Innings got lost track of; we played until it got dark.
Summer days, my younger brother and I went to Lincoln all the time. We ate breakfast, played baseball, came home for lunch, went back to Lincoln, took a break for supper and then went back to the ball field. At twilight, the sound of my mother’s voice came from her back porch two streets away, “Mark and Jimmaaayyy … Time to come HO-oooo-mm.”
Every day. All summer. Who needs batting practice when you come up to hit 27 times a day?
No leagues, no standings, no uniforms, no coaches, no practices,
no batting averages, no bases on balls, no parents, no fans, no umpires
Thanks to the Baby Boom, our neighborhood sandlot regularly welcomed David Arrigo and Frankie Martino; Hoot Chapin; Buffy and Kevin Gibbons; John Hobin; Jack, Jimmy, Mark and Michael Moran; Rico and Carlos Mackinob; Jimmy, Mark and David Sullivan; Peter Christie; Ronnie and Ricky Hoag; Dean, Dave and Doug Tappan; Richard and Billy Bowman; Tom and Barry McCarthy; and the Farley twins, Peter and Gerard.
We chose teams not by naming captains and having them take turns picking players. One of the older kids would look around and try to come up with two fair teams.
“Me, Buffy, Arrigo, Mark, and Gerard, against Rico, Kevin, Hoot, David and Peter,” one of the big kids would say.
“No,” some else would say. “Me, Rico, David, Peter, and Bo against Buffy, Arrigo, Mark, Hoot, and Gerard.”
And on until settled. Different teams every day. My older brother, Michael, was good at picking fair teams.
Nobody called balls and strikes. The idea was to let the batter hit the ball, not strike out or walk.
Opposing team members argued about fair and foul balls, or runners being safe or out. But it wouldn’t take long for one of the baserunner’s teammates to say, “Yeah, he was out.” Or one of the fielder’s teammates to say, “Yeah, he was safe.”
When the ball, sometimes warped by then, has taken its last beating from a bat and could hold no more tape, we all pitched in our quarters, dimes, and nickels, walked downtown to Fuzzy’s, and paid $1.15 for a new baseball. Sometimes we bought a rubber-coated hardball. I remember thinking, “What a great invention. With this ball, we can play in the rain.”
No tryouts, no schedules, no age groupings, no playoffs,
no sponsors, no trophies, no bench warmers
Everybody played, every game. This could present a hazard, big kids playing with little kids. One time skinny Richard Bowman, about eight, was doing fine at pitcher, lobbing them in and letting his teammates make the putouts. Then up came Ronnie Hoag, 15, with strapping muscles and the biggest bat he could find. Ronnie screamed a line drive into Richard’s right thigh. We heard a yelp, like a dog, come out of Richard. After that, Richard played the outfield.
Still, everybody played. If someone brought their little brother, he played, too. We let him go out in the field every inning and take his turn at bat every time through the lineup — just like everybody else. And all his errors and outs counted. The pitcher would throw underhanded and, despite all the coaching from his older brothers, he’d usually swing and miss or hit a weak ground ball back to the pitcher. Then he’d run as hard and as fast as he could while his teammates urged him on: “C’moooon, run!” But his short legs and tremendous effort couldn’t carry him to first base before the ball got there.
I suppose that little kid walked pretty tall on his way into the house for supper when he told his mother he played with the big kids today. In fact, I’m sure he did. Because sometimes that little kid was me.
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I bet nobody remembers dropping a fly ball that let in the winning run. Or striking out with the bases loaded. Or the score of one single game.
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Several years ago, Lincoln Elementary School closed and was remodeled for doctor’s offices. The backstop was taken down, the baseball field paved, and is now a parking lot.
How to play baseball with only six kids (or fewer)
When not enough kids showed up to play a regular game, we modified the rules:
Six kids, three-on-three. Use half the field. Each team has a pitcher, a shortstop, and a left fielder (pitcher, second baseman, and right fielder for left-handed batters). The imaginary foul line continues on a straight line from home plate, through second base, and into center field. A ground ball to the empty field is a foul ball. A fly ball to the empty field is an out. No such thing as an opposite-field hit.
On a fair grounder, the infielder throws to the pitcher, who doubles as the first baseman. If the pitcher catches the ball before the batter reaches first base, the batter is out. On other throws, the pitcher and the infielder cover second base, third base, and home plate.
Five kids, three-on-two. Same rules as above, only the team with two plays without an infielder, and all the opposing team’s fair ground balls are outs. The team at bat must provide a catcher for plays at the plate. (Conflict of interest? Nope. The prospect of tagging out a runner at the plate—a great play—overrides the desire to help your own team get a run.)
Four kids, two-on-two. Same rules as 3-on-2, only neither team has an infielder, so all fair ground balls are out. If this setup provides too much offense, make it two outs per inning.
Or, turn around and bat lefty. The team in the field has a pitcher and an outfielder. Use imaginary runners and “automatic” hits. All grounders are outs. Fair flyballs that drop in front of the fielder are singles; flyballs that drop to the fielder’s left or right are doubles. A flyball hit past the “fence,” made of jackets and hats, is a homerun. As in tennis, where the server announces the score before each serve, as in, “40-Love,” the batter announces the runners and outs before he hits: “First and third, two outs.”
Three kids, one-on-one-on-one. Either: Play one of the four-kids games with imaginary runners and 3 one-man teams — two kids in the field, one batting — and have three scores (4 to 3 to 1, for example). Or: Play one of the two-kids games (below) with three, one-man teams.
Two kids, one-on-one. Off the Steps. Played in the front-yard (cement steps required). The kid on offense throws the ball against the steps and it bounds or flies toward the kid playing defense at the end of the sidewalk. A grounder fielded cleanly is an out, bobbled is a one-base error (imaginary runners advance one base). A flyball that drops past the bushes is a double; into the street a homerun.
Wiffle ball. Use a Wiffle Ball and Wiffle Bat, play in the front yard (with the steps acting as catcher), and change one rule from Off the Steps. A fly into the street is only a triple. A homerun must go over the telephone wires.