The older generation always tends to wax nostalgic about the good old days. Corner stores, kicking the can, rushing the growler, sandlot baseball, the neighborhood theater and your local cop. Times change, but not everything changes so much that it no longer resembles what once was.
Pickup games of any sport have changed dramatically from the days when Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola would play pickup baseball anywhere from Sublette Park to Tower Grove. Today, most unorganized pickup games consist of fast-pass, back-alley basketball. Baseball was easily the most popular sport back in the day and has died down to an all-organized form. However, the less-complicated cousin of baseball has not only continued as a raw and sometimes loosely organized sport but also thrived.
Fuzzball is the classic street game of St. Louis. The game is derived from forms of corkball and bottlecaps, both games that were played on the city's streets in the '20s and '30s. The game is relatively simple, a sort of lazy man's baseball. This traditional game has survived the evolution of the urban sport, and has survived on its own merits. It is easy to play, needs few players and has a simplified strategy. Just as in corkball, the game consists (in its basic form) of a hitter who uses the skinny, broom-handle style bat and a pitcher who uses the "fuzzy" tennis ball. This short form allows games to be played with as few as two people, but on occasion, fielders and catchers may fill out the team. The strategy is simple. The field is laid out in consideration of the particular design of a schoolyard, with the emphasis on the pitching and hitting. The batter has five balls and two strikes, with schoolyard rules of outs being tip fouls, caught on a strike or caught on the fly by the pitcher. There is no running, and the number of bases taken in a hit depends on where the ball lands.
The popularity of fuzzball is evident in the warm, summer months, in late afternoons with most city schoolyards having at least one game in progress; on the finer fields or on Saturdays, there are often three or four games in the same yard. In this urban game children are not the predominant players; instead, the age range tends to start at about 11 and will go up to 40 and higher. The bulk of the players are in their early- to mid-20s, nearly all male.
"Forty-one!" That's the traditional call of the full count of fuzzball. The sights and sounds of a full yard of multiple games are rich: at least one radio with the sounds of Buck and Shannon, a fair amount of cussing, Slurpees, hit tennis balls in the far reaches of the field, a cooler of beer and an unused glove serving as homeplate. Often players will engage in brash wagering over simple balls and strikes. Just as in street basketball, games can be rough and competitive. It all depends on who's playing.
The schoolyard of Kennard Classical Jr. Academy in South St. Louis is the site of what is called the "Fenway of fuzzball fields." The back wall of the lot is akin to the famous green monster of Fenway Park, with home runs only counting if the hit ball is launched over the 30-foot fence. If the ball is batted well, it will hit the tin awning of the house with a satisfying metallic pop, or it will bounce onto Brannon Avenue, just like homers would bounce onto Grand Avenue at the old Sportsman's Park. There are many other popular fields, such as "Busch Stadium" at Lindenwood School or the "Astrodome" at Our Lady of Sorrows.
While this activity is relatively harmless, the sight of large groups of men behaving in such ways is often disconcerting for neighbors. While they reminisce fondly about the days of games being played in the streets and schoolyards, many still do not tolerate such behavior. A new sign has been placed at the backstop at Kennard, outlining rules from barring liquor to times of use and banning unacceptable language. The back wall now even has an additional row of fence at the top, which makes it harder for the homeowners to get the thump on the roof that notifies them of another fuzzball homerun.
While most fuzzball is a pickup summer game, there is one organized league that plays during the winter, at the South Broadway Athletic Club in Soulard. The most competitive of the pickup summer gamers enroll in this league. Indoor fuzzball has been played there for decades. Indoor nets line up in this streamlined version of fuzzy, with two games going on simultaneously in the hall. The air is acrid with the odor of burnt tennis balls. (Somewhere along the line, a team began to burn the tennis balls with a propane torch, which allows a much more cutting pitched ball and also a much more difficult-to-see ball.)
The indoor version tends to amplify the intensity of the schoolyard game. The mood can swing from friendly to callous from strike to ball. It all depends on the pace of the game and who is winning. Most take the game very seriously, with some even going to the step of hand-rolling their own bats.
The players are in the most skilled echelons, with many honing their ability in the more refined game of corkball over the summer. Players proudly wear their championship jackets from their summer leagues. The beer is imbibed heavily. Tennis balls are placed on top of empty beer bottles or ashtrays and burnt until slick. Girlfriends patiently cheer on their boyfriends. Cigarettes are smoked. Sons of players wander around aimlessly trying to get attention. The odd bunch of players will consist of fathers and sons, guys with neck tattoos, some young, straight-laced-looking mortgage bankers and hardworking pipe fitters.
The sport is likely to continue in its pickup form. The popularity of organized baseball in this town assures a spot for this easier-played version. It will never become successful like its big money counterpart, but will likely continue on its own merits: easy to play and inextricably linked to the community.
Steve Smith sells underwriting for KDHX-FM 88.1 by day, and plays competitive fuzzball by night.