Softball was the sport of choice during the long summers of my youth.
We played it Chicago-style, in the street with a 16-inch (in circumference) ball, a size favored in the greater Windy City area. I don’t believe anyone in the entire neighborhood actually bought and owned a new ball or bat. Instead we used old balls, soft as pillows, and cracked wooden bats, pockmarked from hitting rocks and held together with duct tape.
It was the early ’60s. John Kennedy asked what he could do for his country; Johnny Cash fell and burned into rings of fire; Marshall Dillon cleaned up the Sodom and Gomorrah of the plains with smoking guns; and Hula Hoops spun around waists, necks, arms and legs everywhere.
It was also smack in the middle of the baby boom, and there were plenty of kids to field a team. The sewer drains on either curb were first and third bases, and pieces of cardboard made up second and home plate. Fielding balls was a constant challenge as curbs, shrubs, trees and signposts could turn the arc of a line drive into a complex zigzag, like a shot on a bumper pool table. Once, while going deep for a fly ball, I knocked myself out on a lamppost. Sycamore trees substituted for foul ball markers. If an automobile happened by everyone yelled “car” and play was suspended for the time it took it to pass.
When there weren’t enough kids around to get up a game of baseball, we played basketball on the cement pad in front of the garage, where Dad screwed up a hoop.
I use the expression “played basketball” loosely as the game only laxly resembled the official game. There was a ball, a hoop and a backboard but after that things got a little wobblier. We employed the phantom pass, for example, which involved lofting the ball over a defender’s head and catching it on the other side on your way to a layup. Fouls were called only if blood was drawn or a concussion administered. Ricocheted passes off the garage, fence or opposing player were allowed. Bounce passes off the house were strictly outlawed, however, as we had aluminum siding that dented.
Mostly, however, we played a game called Horse. Competitors took turns taking shots. If an attempt was made, then the next player in line had to make the same shot or get a letter starting with H followed by O, R, S, and finally E. When you spelled horse you were out. If it was getting late we’d switch to Pig. Why animals were chosen for names, I’ll never know, perhaps something to do with our roots on the farm.
Play could get quite creative.
Bounce shots, over the head backwards shots, and between the legs like a center hiking a football shots were all commissioned. My favorite was the shot taken while standing on one leg atop the milk box. It couldn’t be made often but when it was made it was a killer.
For younger readers I should point out that the milk box was a convention of the days of yore when a milkman brought milk daily to homes because there was a lack of good refrigeration in many households. Deliveries were typically made in the cool of the early morning. Rather than wake up the occupants, the milkman left the milk in an insulated tin box, perfect for keeping the liquid cool and convenient for concocting weird basketball shots.
Milk delivery was eventually stopped, and Mom kept careful tabs on where it was being sold for the cheapest amount. Dad would pick it up on his way home from work or one of the kids would be dispatched to make a buy. My favorite place to go was a garage-sized vending machine on the edge of town. You’d put three quarters into the slot and the machine would rattle, rumble and grind before a gallon of prime, grade A, whole milk slid down a chute.
As more and more people switched to getting their own milk, the milk box became obsolete, except for my patented horse shot.