We had the largest backyard in the subdivision. The entire neighborhood was filled with kids. On one block of my street alone there were 29 kids all within 5 years of age. Young families swarmed to the prefab houses built out on the east side of town. Cheap affordable housing marked the boom of the mid 1960's.
Near the back corner of the house was home plate. The light pole marked first, the skinny tree was third and second was a dirt spot near the tractor tire that served as a sand box. It was a slightly lopsided diamond, third being a little nearer second than first was and somewhat further from the large bare spot that marked home. The out field was our back yard and that of the houses behind. They did not care, that street was full of kids too.
It did not take long before we had to leave off hard baseballs and go to a tennis ball. Even an eight year-old kid can throw a tennis ball hard enough you need a glove to catch it. In those dinosaur days tennis balls were brown or grey, not the florescent greens of today. You could throw a curve, a sinker and a fastball. It did not take long for the fuzzy to wear off and the smooth ball would dart through the air on the way to home.
The pitcher's mound was close. maybe 25 or 30 feet, just in front of second base and you learned to react quick at the plate. We used wooden bats. Aluminum bats did not come to my part of the world until I was 11 or 12, and at that I never used one until I played softball in college intermurals. Usually the bats were old ones the neighborhood Dads brought home from fast-pitch softball. They were cracked in the handle. A nail and some tape on the handle and they worked fine on a tennis ball in the hands of a nine year old.
In the summer the games started early. We all played outside all day. No one had an air conditioner and it was hotter inside. There was nothing to do inside anyway. We would split into teams, based on the number of kids who showed up. Balls, strikes,and outs were kept as the innings flew by. Ritchie would leave to go to the bathroom or eat lunch. Jay would show up after spending the night at his grandmother's. You would join whatever team was short, or needed help. Otter and I would go in to eat lunch and supper and the game went on in the backyard anyway. Sometimes Mom would bring us all Kool Aide, loaded with sugary goodness.
I may be wrong, but I remember few arguments over outs and and strikes. You tried to be honest because you would be at the plate the next inning. Paybacks were hell. The catcher served as ump, and there was an unwritten code of agreement on safe or out at the bases. usually democracy ruled if there was a dispute.
In the evenings we played the same kids in Little League, the next morning we were the Cubs, the Reds, the Cards, whacking the ball in the backyard. By the time we were 11 or 12 we had to switch to a wiffle ball. When the home run became hitting past the houses on the next street, broken windows became a problem. We moved the games a few blocks to the park, where we played on a real field against teams from the whole subdivision. Real baseball. But it was not the same. You met for a game and moved on, the marathon sessions could not work the same when you were riding a few blocks as opposed to walking down the street.
It was not until I was an adult and coaching my own boys did I realize how much baseball I learned in my youth. Coaching against guys who played in high school, I knew as much or more. I understood the nuances, the flow of the game in ways some of them did not. My own skills did not last much past Little League (size does matter in sports), but I knew how to play the game.
Much of that knowledge I learned from my own Dad, an excellent player. He played fast pitch softball on some very good teams. He coached us in Little League and practiced with us in the backyard. I also learned a lot of baseball in the backyard league. When you play eight, ten, twelve hours a day for summer after summer, you are bound to learn something.
My baseball experience was not unusual. Kids of the sixties played a lot of ball. There were no video games, the three channels on TV had no kids entertainment. We could not afford to go to the movies all the time. There was no shopping mall.
Today kids play ball in organized leagues. Little League and Cal Ripkin. There are Boys Club games and travel teams. We want the best for our young players. But you don't see the kids at the field, hitting, running, stealing. Chants of "hey batter, batter" do not fill the neighborhood evenings. My neighbors have a couple of Elementary aged kids. I hardly see them outside.
It is nostalgia. I am yet young enough to know my memories make the times better than they were. I know the late 1960's were not better, they were different. But in my mind I can still feel that big brown bat in my hands, choked up about six inches so I could swing it, as it cracked against that ball. I can hear the pop off the ball in the leather glove, smell the sweat and leather on my hands. I can hear the voices shouting, laughing, cheering. I can see Jon, and Ritchie, and Vida, and Jeff. In my memories I crouch behind the plate. I pop the big catchers mitt with my fist. I wave two fingers between my legs. Here comes a bender...