My friend Tom and I, seventh-graders at the time, were playing “fast pitching” at Jefferson School on 16th Street and Wenonah Avenue in Berwyn. Fast pitching — some called it “wall ball” — involved drawing a rectangular strike zone on the side of a building. One guy would pitch, the other guy would hit, and then you’d switch. We played often. He was the Sox; I was the Cubs.
I was the hitter one summer afternoon when Tom threw a fastball. I popped it up. The white rubber 10-cent ball floated over his head, bounced over the chain-link fence, and then hopped right into an elderly woman’s hand as she was walking by. She had been minding her own business, ambling slowly toward 16th, ignoring us. We watched in disbelief. She stopped, sensing the presence of something unfamiliar in her hand. She looked at the ball lodged in her palm, shook her head, muttered something, dropped the ball back onto the sidewalk, and continued her southward trek. She never looked back at us.
Tom and I then made eye contact with each other and collapsed on the pavement in laughter. Over 50 years later, we still can’t believe, but will be eternally grateful for the little baseball miracle that occurred that day.
Unlike the structured practices and games of the formal Little League, fast pitching was our little drama to direct. We were the umps, calling the balls and strikes, even as we pitched and hit. We had our rules about what was a single, a double or a homer. Our foul lines were demarcated by fence posts behind us that we had picked. Other than the pitcher himself, there were no fielders.
Playing as the Cubs, my lineup opened with Don Kessinger, followed by Glenn Beckert, and in the third spot, Billy Williams. For each batter, I’d mimic the actual player’s stance and swing. Tom would do the same for each hitter in his Sox lineup. For lefties, we’d bat lefty; the opposite for righties. For switch-hitters like Kessinger, or Don Buford with the Sox, we’d bat left-handed if the other team’s pitcher was right-handed.
Once, I threw a fast ball high and tight, hitting Tom in the head. Or so it seemed. The ball ricocheted vertically into the air. But we were both confused about what had actually transpired. I was puzzled by the fact that the ball had made the same “whup!” sound off of his head that it usually made while smacking against the concrete wall. The sound was so similar to the wall’s that I questioned whether the ball had actually impacted Tom. For his part, Tom wasn’t sure either. He asked, “Did that just hit me?” I responded, “I thought so, but your head sounded just like the wall.”
By the time I was coaching youth baseball as a dad in Oak Park, wall ball was gone. But there were plenty of surprises. At the T-ball level, even with the formal rules of the game in force, the little guys created their own dreamlike moments.
In one game, our batter hit the imaginary pitch into right field. Their right-fielder ran after it, which was to be expected, but then so did the other two outfielders, as well as all of their infielders, leaving the bases uncovered for our runner. Their coach laughed and yelled at the same time: “Not all of you!”
The first kid to reach the ball picked it up and ran it back to the infield, followed by his teammates. Our guy made it to third for a triple.
Then there was the time the ump had to pause the game because the center-fielder’s little brother had run out onto the grass in order give him a hug. I remember thinking as they embraced, “Well, look at that.” Everyone watched. I heard laughter and more than a few “awwwws” coming from the stands. Little brother finished his hug, turned around and ran back to his mom in the bleachers. The ump said, “Play ball!”
Delightful, unexpected coaching moments kept awake the kid ballplayer in me. The unpredictable turn-of-events in youth baseball can flabbergast everybody: players, coaches, spectators — and even little old ladies who just happened to be walking by, minding their own business.
Rich Kordesh, who grew up in Berwyn, is a former and future Oak Park resident, currently living in Chicago.