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I grew up in a baseball family. Back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, my dad was a Little League coach and manager. My brother Eddie played Little League, Pony League, and American Legion ball as well as community softball until his catcher’s legs gave out in his thirties.
My brother Billy, a pitcher and catcher, was a Little League All Star. He recently reminded me of his all star team’s celebrity: “We won the whole Pittsburgh shootin’ match at Brentwood under the lights.” Billy went on to play Pony League ball as well.
I could hitch a ride with my dad, manager of the Tigers, to any of Billy’s games that I wished. My reasons for tagging along were three:
1. I loved baseball—the sights, the sounds, the smells (no, not the sweaty bodies but the leather scent of a new Rawlings glove)—and could experience them up close and personal on a little league field. The unmistakable crack of the bat, a frozen rope hurtling toward the outfield fence, a head-first slide into home plate, creating a cloud of dust that would make Pig Pen proud. I was intrigued by the boys’ infield chatter, encouraging the pitcher while heckling the batter: “Come on, fire it in there; fire it in there. Come on, Babe.” “Hey, batt-uh, batt-uh!” “Easy out, easy out.” “No, batt-uh, no batt-uh!”
2. I could watch unencumbered my heart throb, who shall remain nameless. (Hint: He was a Tigers pitcher.)
3. Along with the team, I got to reap the occasional post game benefits: A trip to the Maple or Castle Inn, where the dads would have a beer and bring outside a bottle of “pop” (sorry, Pittsburghese) for each kid. Other times we’d stop for a soft serve cone at the Dairy Queen! My dad couldn’t just leave me behind, now could he?
My book The Crab Hollow Chronicles is a mostly fictitious memoir about a nine-year-old girl growing up in a neighborhood teeming with boys in the early 1960’s, but many of the anecdotes are actually true. Here is a peek at one such incident: “I may have been the only girl in the fifth grade who knew how to keep score of a baseball game officially, using a scorecard. And this year, for the first time, my dad let me keep score of the Tigers/Senators game by hanging the metal squares with painted numbers onto the huge scoreboard. Sitting there in command of the scoreboard, fancying myself as the team mascot, I was as cocky as Buster the Rooster (our neighbor’s feisty pet that crowed its wake-up call every morning before dawn).”
Playing ball didn’t begin and end on the field of the Milliken Brick Company during Little League Baseball season. Back in the day, it was not uncommon to drive past a group of boys gathering themselves for a makeshift wiffle ball game, especially on those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. Most of us kids spent the day out there from early morning until the street lights came on (minus lunch and supper). So, in many neighborhoods, there were enough kids to comprise two teams—maybe not enough for nine players on each team, but enough to make a go of it. (Unchanged photo by Andrew Malone —License)
Infrequently, you would see a girl among them, and I was one of them in my neighborhood. I have two sisters as well as two brothers, but Shirley and Sandy never contracted the baseball bug like I did. Sometimes the boys let me play; sometimes they didn’t. But if there was a wiffle game in progress, I was usually there along the sidelines, watching or playing with some toy or other and often being enlisted to retrieve the ball from the creek alongside our field, “the empty lot.” Day in, day out, we assembled on the empty lot for the umpteenth game of wiffle ball.
Of my triumphant childhood memories, one that stands clearly in the top five is “the miraculous catch.” The following is a true incident from The Crab Hollow Chronicles. “Hey, just last week I had caught a screeching line drive in the outfield with my gloveless hands, resulting in a third out and abruptly ending a rally, all to the amazement of even the hardcore disbelievers. It wasn’t so much that I had caught the ball but that it had somehow wedged itself into my open hands. It was a purely lucky catch, but I would never divulge that and usurp that glorious moment. Although the play didn’t quite elevate me to gold glove status, maybe that bit of instant celebrity would secure me a spot on the roster, for a day at least.”
Back then, spring did not truly arrive until the voice of Pittsburgh Pirates’ broadcaster Bob Prince could be heard wafting through the house. “The Gunner’s” raspy voice emanating from the transistor radio was Red Bull for the baseball lover’s soul and, for me, aloe vera for the summer vacation lover’s soul. “That ball was foul by a gnat’s eyelash.” “He couldn’t hit that with a bed slat.” “You can kiss it good-bye.” The iconic Prince had a grab bag full of his own personal baseball jargon.
The summer of 1960 was a downright awesome time to be a Pittsburgh kid. I was eight years old that summer when the Pittsburgh Pirates won their first National League pennant in 33 seasons. That season the boys would play wiffle ball in the empty lot with some extra “hidden vigorish,” as Bob Prince would say, emulating their heroes, the ones who still have a special place in our baby boomer hearts to this day: Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Dick Groat, Vernon Law, Harvey Haddix, Roy Face, and more.
The wiffle ball brigade considered ourselves members of the privileged class because Elroy Face lived a mere half-mile from our home; why, we were practically next door neighbors. We would often drive by his house, hoping to catch a glimpse of him. We should have had our names listed in Pittsburgh’s social register or the Who’s Who of the Sports World for that distinction.
Well, just about every baby boomer in the U.S. of A. knows what happened that October of 1960. The Pirates beat the heavily-favored New York Yankees in a World Series for the ages. Roberto and Company beat Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra and crew in seven games, thanks to a stunning ninth inning, tie-breaking home run by Bill Mazeroski.
Some say it was the greatest game ever played, and I was a part of it, at least in my eight-year-old estimation. It was October 13, just after school had been dismissed, when my brother Billy and I jumped off the school bus and ran down the long, steep hill to home just in time to watch Maz slug that legendary homer in the bottom of the ninth, making our Pittsburgh Pirates the 1960 World Champions. We were whooping and hollering and bouncing around the living room like a pogo stick on 5 Hour Energy, never realizing that we’d still be celebrating that feat 54 years later.
Baseball hoopla in our neighborhood did not end with the World Series. One time, Dick Groat, Elroy Face, and several other World Champion Pirates attended a cookout hosted by a neighbor a few houses down from me, and the boys managed to wheedle their way into a spot where they could observe the goings-on from almost as close as fuzz on a tick’s ear. Of course, they didn’t inform me of the plan, and I lost the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to witness our superheroes in person.
I had visions of becoming a Pirates bat girl, sitting right next to my faves in the dugout, drinking from the same water cooler, even spitting in the dirt if it would ensure me the job. Alternately, if the team would have enlisted the services of a ball girl back then, I would have welcomed that position so that I could sit on the sidelines and rein in foul balls hit by Hammerin’ Hank Aaron or Wille Mays.
I could have started off early honing my officiating skills so that I could come to be the first female major league umpire. Except that I hate the cold, hate standing in the rain, and hate having 99 mph fastballs bouncing off my face mask. I doubt that would be a concern anyway, considering that Mickey Mouse will probably be elected to the White House before Major League Baseball hires a female umpire. (Sorry, Mickey, I don’t mean to discriminate against rodents.)
With the furor of major league baseball at its peak in Pittsburgh, acquiring baseball cards was paramount. They came in packs of six for a nickel with the added bonus of one large slab of pink bubble gum. Every red-blooded American boy (and tomboy) craved a stockpile of baseball cards. Boys studied the players’ stats, which were listed on the back, and a select few could rattle them off verbatim. Purchasing from drug stores and five and tens, my brothers amassed milk cartons filled with thousands of them, including football cards. My husband, who lived twenty minutes away but whom I had yet to meet for another 14 years, kept his in shoe boxes–multiple shoe boxes.
I accrued a little stash, keeping my favorites in a metal Bandaid Plastic Strips can. I longed for milk cartonfuls—even just one carton would do—but I didn’t have easy access to stores, and my piggy bank was woefully malnourished.
Some boys had doubles, triples, and quadruples. The expendable cards might end up being traded, clothespinned to the spokes of their bikes, or sacrificed to a game of flipping, where they could pick up a sought after card or two. Many a day I would go outside to encounter the boys flipping baseball cards on the side of the road. Sometimes they would let me try my hand at it; sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes I didn’t want to, so there. Oftentimes, I played with my best friend Patty, but I treasured my sparse collection and did not like taking risks with them. I have never been a gambler. Nobody was putting his grimy mitts on my Ted Williams or Roberto Clemente or any of my Pittsburgh Pirates for that matter.
Swat the cobwebs out of your brain and hearken to those steamy summer days when you flipped baseball cards with your best buddies. Flipping cards was an art, and to be a master, you had to practice at flipping your wrist with particular finesse.
Perhaps you played “topsies,” where players stand behind a line and alternate turns flipping until one player’s card lands atop another’s. Winner takes all. The winner below is the flipper of Don Hoak.
My brother Bill adds, “The granddaddy of the games was called ‘special topsies.’ In that game, the first card flipped was the mark to win the game. Only when that particular card was touched did you win. The game could get long and involve a heap of cards.”
You may have tried your hand at “matchies,” where players try to match “heads” to “heads” (card facing up) or “tails” to “tails” (card facing down). Let’s say the first player flips a card to the sidewalk, and it lands on heads. If the second player matches with a head, he wins both cards. If he flips a tails, the first player wins both cards. When using multiple cards, the first player flips several cards down and then the second player tries to match the exact head/tails arrangement.
For example, the player on the left flips two heads and three tails. Then the player on the right flips one head and four tails, which is not an exact match. Therefore, the first player wins.
Other games were “Toppling the Leaner,” where cards are leaned against a wall and players flip their cards to try to knock them over, and “Farsies,” where the player who flips his card the farthest wins all cards laid.
All of these card flipping games can be played with variations and with multiple players. If you’re a novice at card flipping and would like more detailed instructions or variations of games, read more at streetplay.com.
If you prefer a visual reminder of flipping cards, you will enjoy the video below, where baseball enthusiasts and former flippers from Media, PA, share their stories and rejuvenate their flipping prowess. One man tells of getting into a fistfight and giving a friend a bloody nose, all due a dispute over whose card was closest to the wall! Who would like to step up to the plate like the Mickey Vernon Sports Museum and start the first annual baseball flipping contest in your neck of the woods? I’m in.
Do you have any wiffle ball, Little League, or card flipping stories to share? Did you witness the 1960 World Series? To comment, click on “Leave a Response” under my title.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.