The step ball tournaments were mysteriously promoted. It would just feel like a good day for it, and then all these guys would start showing up at our house, with their Vada Pinson and Jim Bunning gloves hanging from the handle bars. There were other venues, but at our house, it seemed, there was the best balance of front step setback, street slope, and curb height. It felt right, like the 90 feet between bases on a major league field, or the six extra inches added to the 60 feet between home plate and the rubber. We could have played anywhere in a pinch, which is one of the beauties of step ball, but the game was perfectly suited to the century-old layout and slightly softened edges that our corner house presented.
It was always hot, with a summer swelter that felt like punishment for the sins committed by long-gone ancestors. If my mother had to move the family Fairlane forward or backward to clear the playing area, she was met with highly complimentary and slightly oily greetings whose ulterior motives would have made Eddie Haskell jealous. Then on a piece of cardboard box we would scratch out a bracket and begin to play. The loud thwock of tennis balls echoed up and down Poplar Hill Ave., and spectator kids would begin to show up, drawn by the sound that no green Wilson ball ever made rebounding from racquet strings.
Those shots were known as pointers, when you would wind up something like a stutter-legged cricket bowler and fling the ball with all your might at the outside edge of our third front step. If the ball’s equator was properly indented by the brick it would sail up and out over the street, and land beyond the reach of the defender, who was not allowed to exceed the opposite curb in the attempt to field the ball. A tater. A dinger. A blast. We lived for those shots. And in the heat of a closely contested game, we’d often waste out after precious out trying to hit pointers instead of playing small ball, moving runners around with well-placed singles and doubles. Those were achieved when a less flamboyantly tossed tennis ball would rebound off the steps and find its way past the fielder as a grounder or line drive. An out was recorded whenever he fielded it cleanly, tossed it back against the steps from the spot where he caught it, then fielded it cleanly a second time. The rules were fairly simple. Interpretation and judgment of those simple rules sometimes turned our humble stadium into an annex of the Supreme Court.
Freckle-faced small town lawyers would throw their hats and kick their gloves, and invoke with great passion phantom shadows and smudge marks, or even the gravitational pull of a daylight moon, to support their positions on fair balls, clean hits, and errors. My mother had a way of appearing with trays of drinks and fresh fruit during the climax of such debates, rewarding the Eddie-ized behavior of the tournament participants just like they knew she would. Play always resumed. We took turns surrendering. It was easier to do when you were sucking on an orange slice.
It’s tempting to recall those ball-battering marathons with cheap nostalgic reverence, and lather them up with clichés about innocence and timelessness. Bunk! It was baseball at the street level, away from the organized game we played in flannel uniforms for pot-bellied coaches and the bellowing herds of local Moose, Elk, and Lions. We played step ball to untangle ourselves from the rigors of practice, team photos, and the melting boxes of fundraiser candy. We owned it, and we operated it like a tar-papered original franchise. Those boyish voices hollering out in the dusky haze—that wasn’t poetry they were spouting. That was Gooder Bratten relating to Benjie Gasque how his appearance might be improved with tennis balls implanted in all four cheeks. And Benjie, in return, expressing his distaste for Gooder’s mother’s choice of footwear.
Thwock! That was the exclamation point. And it’s still a reminder of the basic drama that drove our game, and our lives. We could settle for moving the runner station to station, or we could go for the pointer. You never knew. I still don’t.