BY RAY WYCHE
When I was a boy, eons ago before the advent of television and organized youth baseball, our summer ball games were far different from today’s by-the-rules contests, using store-bought equipment, planned and overseen by adults. Youth baseball today is far more organized and is played with good, professionally made equipment; years ago in the Great Depression our equipment for pick-up, cow pasture baseball was normally homemade.
There were no leagues, no umpires, no coaches (other than the players), nor age limits in the early day country youth baseball. Rules and decisions were made as the needs arose, particularly if the ball were hit down the first or third base lines (which were not delineated) that always raised a long-argued question: fair or foul?
The Great Depression years of the 1930s provided little money to spend on such frivolous things such as baseballs and bats in most Columbus County households, but the ingenuity and the desire to play baseball led youth of the day to make our own equipment.
What we came up with was crude but it beat throwing wet corncobs and clods of dirt.
For bats, a reasonably straight section of a sweet gum sapling with the bark scraped off was utilized. An attempt was made to smooth the wood with an ax and pocketknife. These homemade bats worked just fine, even though they had a limited useful life, tending to break and split after the wood dried out .
Gloves were the precious part of our limited equipment. Unfortunately, despite our inventiveness and best efforts, we were never able to come up with a usable glove that we made ourselves. It was the one item that you had to buy unless you had an older brother or friend who had aged beyond sandlot baseball. Most of us made use of a discarded and well-worn leather work glove, its palm padded with old rags or even newspapers.
The balls we used (and made) were masterpieces of craftsmanship and inventiveness. The best center for our homemade ball, around which we wrapped tobacco twine, was a golf ball or the hard rubber center of golf balls of the day.
Since the game of golf was not high on the list of recreational activities in our neighborhoods, golf balls were a scarce commodity. Reasonable substitutes were utilized, and the best we found was a rock from the nearby railroad.
The lads among us who had developed reputations as being good at stretching the twine to almost the breaking point were assigned the task of wrapping the string around the rock in the center, giving the ball a solid, hard feeling while keeping their work approximately round.
Our homemade balls had a short lifespan. A few encounters with the homemade bat tended to loosen the string that formed the bulk of the ball. It was not unusual to see some boy’s handiwork flying through the air or bouncing along the ground trailing a few strands of white cotton string.
But we had a remedy for these mishaps that occurred with regularity. If among us we could raise the necessary 10 cents (a rare occurrence), we could purchase a roll of tire tape, a black cloth tape sticky on both sides, that served as the duck tape of the day. Instead of white, our baseballs were black — until the tape lost its stickiness and gave up its job of covering and protecting the string-wrapped ball.
The equipment for our so-called ball games was expendable, with the exception of the glove. The leather glove, black from dirt and frequent oilings, usually with hog lard, was guarded carefully.
The one item that was in great supply for our summer pastime was a place to play. Many families kept milk cows and consequently had grass and weed covered lots that served as pastures. If a reasonably smooth and level field was not handy, a little-used section of dirt road would pass as a reasonable substitute.
Bases normally were simple pieces of boards, and the pitchers’ mounds were non-existent as were backstops. If the catcher muffed a pitch, he had to chase down the ball while base runners, if any, were free to run as many bases as they could.
Since there were no umpires, the game was often interrupted while the players held lengthy and sometimes heated arguments about certain aspects of recent plays.
Until most of our players reached the ages that qualified them to be tobacco croppers or handers, an uninterrupted baseball game could last until suppertime. We never bothered with keeping a count of the number of innings.
Since ball-playing skills varied from boy to boy, choosing players by each team could often be a lengthy process. Most teams consisted of five or six players, sometimes fewer, sometimes more. It was an unwritten law that player selection was done on an alternating basis to prevent one team from ending up with the biggest and most experienced players. Those remaining were the younger, less skilled youth who were usually assigned to right field..
But like most things important to 10 to 15-year-old boys, our summertime pickup games came to an end. There was always something that mothers found for their growing sons to do around the house and garden, things that were not as joyful as playing what we called baseball.
Our homemade baseball enterprise was fun, cost effective, and in the case of a few our best players over the years, good preparation for greater things. A handful of our rag-tag athletes went on to play on lower classification professional teams. A few earned college athletic scholarships.
For the rest of us, it was great fun at little or no cost.