Originally published in the Chicago Tribune.
January 23, 1989 | By Albert L. Grieve
Have you ever played corkball? You’ve never heard of it? It figures. For to merely mention the game is to court ridicule.
I first learned this truth during World War II. A small-town southern Illinois lad, I had become an on-the-spot infantry private in distant Camp Rucker, Ala.
Shortly after arrival, with a few hours of free time, I innocently suggested to companions, “Hey, let’s get up a game of corkball.”
In knee-jerk reaction, everyone within earshot began to guffaw, much as we did at Yankee-Rebel jokes, all the fashion then since we “sophisticated” Northerners had invaded rural Dixie. But this was no joke. They were laughing at my beloved corkball—laughing at me.
One cohort countered, “Sure, Lefty, we’ll take a piece of cork and play ball with it.”
Another chortled, “You sure you don’t mean ‘Let’s go fishing’? Gotta have a cork bobber, right?”
I was dumbfounded. In my provincial naivete, I had assumed that everyone played corkball.
I later learned that my boyhood avocation was limited to an area ranging northward from St. Louis to only as far as Springfield.
But the game indeed existed. A St. Louis sporting goods firm manufactured both bat and ball. The ball, a seamed mini-baseball, golf-ball size, was struck at—even hit at times—with a bat that resembled a broomstick.
I could give you the rules right now, but who really cares?
I wonder if corkball is even played these days. Yet in the 1940s around St. Louis, regular league games were played outdoors nightly, requiring lighted cages no longer than a common horseshoe pitch. And for the sheer fun of it, we played less formal games in an open field.
I may even mention my revered sport to my cronies one day. On second thought, I dare not. At 62, I no longer tamper with a fragile ego. Besides, maybe it’s all just an absurd dream, an old man’s fantasy.
Yet at times I’m once again a lad in far Downstate Illinois. And with that fervor owned only by the young, cherished pals of yesteryear are crying out so hauntingly, “Hey Lefty, let’s play some corkball.”
Filed under: Other Bat-and-Ball Games
Too many kids today don’t play enough pick-up games of baseball. There are many reasons for this. The obvious one is that kids, in general, just don’t go outside and PLAY enough… at least not as much as they have in generations past. There are too many other tempting distractions for them, like an almost limitless supply of television channels, the Internet, video games, handheld devices, and so on. In the last two decades, childhood has moved indoors. The average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen. And, as Mike Lanza points out in this great piece, Playing Ball With No Adults Around, parents too often delude themselves that their child can become a superstar athlete by playing in the most competitive (read: “Select”) leagues around, where they often have to try out for a team, as if they’re trying to make the varsity squad of their high school team. Hogwash, I say!
One of our jobs as parents is to try and encourage our kids to spend more time outdoors, by themselves, and as often as possible. It’s not only healthy for them to do so, but is good for their mind and spirit as well. I don’t really have to go into more detail about this, do I? I didn’t think so.
But expecting your kids to run out and play baseball, without some sort of overly competitive, organized league to belong to, is very problematic. For one thing, it takes too many kids! Even if you can make it happen with only 7 or 8 players a side, that’s still about 15 kids. And even in the most densely populated neighborhoods, that will most likely be too difficult to pull off, especially on a regular basis. In fact, your son or daughter may be lucky to find even two or three others in their general vicinity to play, either because that’s all there is, some of the kids simply don’t like playing outside (sad, but too often true), or the other kids’ time is just being over-managed by their helicopter parents.
But, let’s say that your kid is able to find a handful of others in the neighborhood with enough free time and appreciation of the sport to want to play it. Most people probably have a Wiffle Ball set, and that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with Wiffle Ball. It makes it easy to play ball in a smaller area and is lots of fun. But if you have a larger area to play in, say an open field, a big park or a vacant baseball diamond, then a game where they can actually use a baseball and a real bat would be better for them to learn the basic skills of baseball, like hitting and fielding.
This is why I recommend teaching them to play Indian Ball. Indian Ball is basically baseball without the base running, so that you don’t need a player positioned at every base. The great thing about Indian Ball is that as few as three players can get a game going.
But how do you play Indian Ball? Well, just like a lot of bat-and-ball games, there are many different variations. Some of them are quite complicated, while others can follow the simplest rules, such as those of Wiffle Ball. I happen to prefer the rules that some old timers who’ve been playing Indian Ball since the 1940s use, the only difference is I prefer to use a baseball rather than a softball. If you have a smaller lot to play in, or there are too many houses around, you can choose to use a tennis ball instead, making Indian Ball very similar to fuzzball!
In Indian Ball, the pitcher tosses the ball toward a batter from his own team. It’s a single if the fielders of the other team fail either to scoop up the grounder before it stops rolling or to catch it in the air. An out is recorded if they can do either of those or if the batter hits two fouls to the same side of the plate. If a batted ball is fair but doesn’t fly or roll past the pitcher, then it’s an automatic out (so, no bunting!). Three strikes is an out. There is no catcher, no umpire, there are no doubles or triples and, in fact, there are no bases; runs are scored by an accumulation of singles and home runs (hits that go over the fence) using “ghost runners” like in corkball or fuzzball. Likewise, there can be no walks, either, so a ball (a pitch not swung at by the batter) is recorded as a strike.
The game can be played anywhere where you have room to hit the ball and not interfere with parked cars, buildings with windows, or anyplace where the batted ball can cause damage or get easily lost. That’s why it’s best to play it in a sandlot, an open field, or an available baseball diamond with a backstop. But, no matter how you slice it, it’s fun, and a great way for kids to get outside, get some much-needed exercise, and spend a lazy summer afternoon.
The South St. Louis Corkball Club is holding its 34th annual Don Young Corkball Tournament this Saturday, August 4, at the Don Young Corkball Fields located in Jefferson Barracks Park in South St. Louis County, MO. This tournament represents the “World Series of Corkball’ for the St. Louis and surrounding areas. This is real corkball, not fuzzball or wiffle ball, so don’t be confused. This is a double-elimination tournament, meaning teams must lose two games before they are eliminated. The tournament usually starts around 9:00 a.m. and ends in the evening around 6:00 p.m. The big four corkball clubs will be present (South St. Louis Corkball Club, Lemay Corkball Club, Sportsman’s Corkball Club and Gateway Corkball Club) along with other teams. Food, soda and beer will be available. Come on out and enjoy seeing something really unique to the St. Louis area, and bring the kids! For more information, please contact Tournament Chairman Bob Young at:
Filed under: Corkball, Fuzzball, Tournaments | Tags: fuzzball, st. louis, tournament
Some guys in University City, Missouri, have been playing what they call “corkball” for quite some time… problem is, it’s not actually corkball. The game they play is really fuzzball (since they use tennis balls, not corkballs), but, for whatever reason, they don’t call it that. Now, there’s nothing wrong with playing fuzzball… hell, it’s a fun game! But if you’re gonna play fuzzball, call it fuzzball. If you’re gonna call your game “corkball,” then you should be using corkballs and helping to support a great local business, the last of its kind to make corkballs, Markwort Sporting Goods.
ANYWAY, these guys have an annual tournament in U. City coming up later this month (August 18-19) and they invite anyone out there interested in playing
corkball fuzzball to form a team and enter the tournament. Details are included in the flyer below and the rules will be posted after that.
Filed under: Corkball, Media Stories, Videos | Tags: brazil, corkball, st. louis, tv, video
Check this out! Brazilian TV show Cinquenta Por Um (50 by 1)—in a series of episodes where they visit cities that have hosted the Olympic games—introduces its audience to several interesting things unique to St. Louis (the Olympics were held here in 1904), including corkball! You can watch the episode at the link below (the corkball segment is right after the part about brain sandwiches at Schottzie’s Bar):
Too bad I don’t know Portuguese!
Filed under: Articles, Corkball, History | Tags: corkball, Culture, history, st. louis
Below is an article I wrote about corkball that was supposed to be included in a new baseball journal put out by the St. Louis Baseball Historical Society. The journal’s future is now in doubt due to conflicts between the publisher and the ad agency responsible for publishing it, so I’ve decided to go ahead and publish it here. Enjoy!
St. Louis’ love for the sport of baseball cannot be denied. By all accounts, it has been played in some form or another in our city for more than 150 years, which is precisely why the St. Louis Baseball Historical Society was founded. Baseball’s roots run very deep here, and those roots have at times sprouted to reveal different forms of the game that may not be as popular or well-known as the mother game.
One of these off-shoots of baseball is the game of corkball (or “cork ball” as it was originally written). Corkball is defined as a fast-pitch bat-and-ball (or “safe haven”) game. Bat-and-ball games are basically a much more primitive and simpler form of baseball that probably goes back centuries, or perhaps even thousands of years, as it essentially just involves hitting something small and round with a stick. It can be argued that people—children, mostly—have been hitting things with sticks for fun for a millennia. But, as we know, this practice didn’t really get recognized as a sport and become organized as such until the middle portion of the 19th century. But when it finally did become organized, it didn’t take long for it to catch on like wildfire. Nor did it take long for variations of the game to appear in certain parts of the country. Stickball, for example, became very popular on the streets of New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and elsewhere in the Northeastern U.S. Here in St. Louis, several games that are in some ways related to baseball began to emerge. Softball, obviously, has been played here in beer leagues for decades after first getting its start in Chicago in the 1880s. And, more recently, the former kids’ game of kickball—which got its start in Cincinnati—has gotten pretty huge (the “stick” in that game being one’s leg, naturally).
When I was growing up here in St. Louis, my father (who grew up in the ’20s and ’30s in Maplewood) would tell me stories of playing “Indian ball” as a kid when they didn’t have enough players to field a full nine per side. They’d just play ball without the base running, using “ghost runners” instead of the real thing. He also described corkball and “bottle caps” to me (the latter being a variation of corkball where you simply replace the ball with a cap from a bottle), and I managed to amass a rather large collection of bottle caps for playing that—along with corkball and/or Indian ball—at family reunions back in the ’70s. I was unaware, however, of any actual “corkball clubs” in St. Louis until I started investigating the game via the Internet probably about ten years ago. That’s when my eyes really became opened to the game’s rich history in St. Louis, having found that the first of these clubs, Gateway, originated in 1929. I was floored!
Digging deeper still, I learned that the game’s history is almost as old as professional baseball in St. Louis itself! Apparently it was first played at Mueller’s, a boardinghouse and saloon located at the corner of Grand & Greer on the city’s north side. Chris Von der Ahe, the owner of the St. Louis Browns (later to be renamed the Cardinals), was the saloonkeeper at Muellers, and the story goes that, sometime in 1890, one of the Browns’ players pulled the bung out of a keg of beer, carved it into a ball, and began pitching it to a teammate using a broomstick as a bat, while three other players played behind him and another served as catcher. It probably didn’t take long (perhaps a few busted windows, pint glasses and mirrors) before the game was relegated to cages which were erected adjacent to these establishments, of which there were many, and in just about every part of town. As the years went by, players started organizing leagues, and, with that, actual manufactured “cork ball” equipment became commercially available thanks to a number of enterprising local sporting-goods manufacturers. No one is sure exactly how many companies produced “official cork balls” as they all seemed to have been stamped, but we know some of these names include Rawlings, Wilson, Worth, Leacock, Sisler Hummel, Murson, Proline, Anchor, and, more recently, Markwort. R.H. Grady Company is credited as being the first to develop a horsehide-covered, stitched ball, which dates to 1920. And a few Major League ballplayers from the area are known to have played the game as kids, including Yogi Berra, Joe Garagiola, and Pete Reiser.
Despite its longevity and almost cult-like following in St. Louis, however, corkball hasn’t had much success spreading to other parts of the country. Oh, it’s happened, sure. There’s a club in Chicago, and I’ve also heard of outcroppings of games being played in several locations in Illinois, as well as Denver, Texas, California and in various spots in the South, including Jacksonville, Florida, where Butch Trucks and Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band are known to have played the game as kids. During World War II, Howard Rackley introduced the game to his fellow servicement on the deck of the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill, which did a lot to disseminate the game to other parts of the country, as many of those guys brought the game home to their hometowns. But lacking the history and cultural connections in those towns, it has struggled to survive, much less blossom and grow.
I quickly became intrigued by the game and its inherent connections in St. Louis, and decided I wanted to do a couple of things. First, I wanted to play it! It had been over 30 years since I’d held a corkball in my hand—much less attempted to hit one with a stick—but I always considered myself a fairly decent ballplayer, so utilizing some social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, I pulled together some friends to start playing some recreational games at the abandoned corkball fields located along Arsenal in Tower Grove Park. Secondly, I thought it would be a good idea to try and pull all of the information that I had found out about the sport together under one virtual roof and create a website, and thusly, PlayCorkball.com was born. The site serves as a blog where I can share information about the sport, as well as provides plenty of information on its history, rules, where to purchase equipment, and even includes a discussion forum.
For me, recruiting enough people interested in playing the game recreationally week-in and week-out proved pretty challenging. While a lot of people may have heard of it—or are curious about it—it’s been quite a struggle to find a good core of players who are committed to keeping it active throughout the course of the spring and summer. Most of the players I was able to recruit were already participating in similar area sports, such as softball and fuzzball. Corkball’s appeal for softball players is that it equates to less wear and tear on one’s aging legs, and for fuzzball guys, who are used to swinging at the larger tennis balls, it means a bit more of a challenge. But it feels good to actually put the corkball fields at Tower Grove Park to use in their intended purpose. These fields used to be home to the Sportsman’s Corkball Club before they hightailed it to Jefferson Barracks Park in 2000, which they’ve shared with the South St. Louis Corkball Club ever since. The other two established St. Louis clubs are Lemay (established in 1947), which plays its games at the Santa Maria Knights of Columbus on Mt. Olive Road in South St. Louis County, and Gateway, which has its own clubhouse and fields on Walsh St. in the city’s Dutchtown neighborhood.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the corkball scene in St. Louis, there’s a culture surrounding the game that can be a bit hard to crack. While the established, older, and more competitive clubs often have open enrollment tryouts, it really helps if you know (or are related to) someone there first. But I believe it’s because of that closeknit culture and its (for lack of a better word) “cliquishness” that these clubs are seeing a dwindling interest in the sport, which equates to less participation. The guys who have been playing it the longest are getting older, and it’s not as easy to transfer the love of the game on to their children and their friends as it was in generations past when our youth had fewer distractions. Baseball in general has been experiencing similar issues.
When speaking with “Corkballman” Bob Young on the phone recently, I was able to get a little bit more history of corkball, especially in South St. Louis. Bob is the grandson of Don Young, who was known as “Mr. Corkball” for more than four decades and whose name adorns the tucked-away corkball playing fields at Jefferson Barracks Park. Don’s father, Bill, co-founded the Grupp (which later changed its name to South St. Louis) Corkball League in 1936. The Don Young Corkball Fields at JB Park are the nicest you’ll find anywhere, and they’re shared by both Sportsman’s and the South St. Louis Corkball Club, with the latter beginning play there in 1965. The cages of yesteryear, though, are all long gone. One of the last remaining corkball cages that I’m aware of was removed by owner James Russell from BJ’s Bar in Florissant after almost 30 years of use in 1985 and sold to the Ferguson Church of the Nazarene for $125.
I caught a tone of concern in Bob’s voice when I asked him about the future of the game. He told me that, at its inception back in the 1970s, their annual August tournament at Jefferson Barracks Park would include as many as 30 different teams. In recent years, they’ve been lucky to recruit teams from each of the “big four” St. Louis clubs. Corkball is need of a shot in the arm, a big boost that could help attract a new generation of young players forming their own teams and leagues and reverse the trend. Bob did remind me, though, that every Sunday afternoon throughout the spring and summer, they have pick-up games of corkball at Jefferson Barracks Park, and he stresses that ANYONE is welcome to come play, which is probably the easiest way for those curious about the sport to get involved.
There are quite a few culturally significant things that makes St. Louis a pretty unique city. Everyone knows about Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, St. Louis-style pizza and barbecue, toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake, and, to a lesser extent, brain sandwiches, but as unique to St. Louis as the game of corkball is, it’s largely unknown here these days, and that’s a bit sad. Especially when you consider how popular the game obviously used to be. But, that being said, it’s still got a much larger level of participation here than in any other city of the country, and for that, we should be thankful.
Jeff “Kopper” Kopp
Filed under: Fuzzball, Videos | Tags: "south st. louis", fuzzball, st. louis, video
Cool video of some guys playing a pickup game of fuzzball in the parking lot of Kennard CJA in South St. Louis…
Filed under: Corkball, Fuzzball, Media Stories, Videos | Tags: corkball, fuzzball, st. louis, tv, video
Thanks to Shane Kinzel for sending this along!
Filed under: Corkball, Photos | Tags: corkball, Gateway Corkball Club, Photos, st. louis
These photos are from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch site, photographed by J.B. Forbes sometime last summer. Some of these are really nice photos and I wanted to make sure thy were linked from here. Click the link below and then “View Slideshow”:
Corkball is a St. Louis tradition that dates back to about 1900. The original balls were carved from cork stoppers used in beer barrels. The bat was a broken-off broom handle. The game has evolved a little. The ball looks like a baseball and the bat is now a bat, but both are significantly smaller.
Filed under: Corkball, Tournaments | Tags: annual, corkball, Don Young, Jefferson Barracks Park, tournament
The South St. Louis Corkball Club is holding its 33rd annual Don Young Corkball Tournament this Saturday, August 6, at the Don Young Corkball Fields located in Jefferson Barracks Park in South St. Louis County, MO. This tournament represents the “World Series of Corkball’ for the St. Louis and surrounding areas. This is real corkball. Not fuzzball or wiffle ball, so don’t be confused. This is a double elimination tournament meaning teams must lose two games before they are eliminated. The tournament usually starts around 10:00 a.m. and ends in the evening around 6:00 p.m. The big four corkball clubs will be present (South St. Louis Corkball Club, Lemay Corkball Club, Sportsman’s Corkball Club and Gateway Corkball Club) along with other teams. Food, soda and beer will be available. Come on out and enjoy seeing something really unique to the St. Louis area, and bring the kids! For more information, please contact Tournament Chairman Bob Young at: