Sandlot Days: Making Do with What We Had.

"Eagle Park", Japonica@Myrtle, Houston, Texas.

For a lot of us who grew up back then, the years following World War II were not even close to the cornucopian basket that others have known in this land of the fatted calf. In East End regions of Houston like Pecan Park, we had to make do with whatever we had – or repaired – or built – or simply imagined our way into use as tools in the art of play.

Sometimes our imaginations got us into trouble. And street war games became a ripe arena for a number of mistakes we made in pursuit of authenticity. One time, for example, about six of us caught hell for the unauthroized requisition of eggs from our home refrigerators for use as hand grenades. Another time, my little brother John used a real grenade casing that our Uncle Carroll had brought us from World War II and heaved it through the open window of slow driving car that was passing by the front of our house.

The driver of the car turned out to be a veteran. The sudden presence of the grenade on the seat next to him provoked screams of PTSD horror I shall never forget – and neither will brother John. The man stopped his car down the street and came running back to our house with mayhem in his eye. Fortunately for John, our dad came rushing out of the house to intervene and to administer a “whipping” that I’m sure John has never forgotten. I’ve never seen Dad so mad – except on those occasions when he was equally mad at me for some stupid thing I did.

“Now you stay out of the street and never let me catch you throwing hand grenades again!” Dad ordered.

“What if I run out into the street and get killed by a car? Then what are you going to do?” John asked.

“II’ll probably be so mad you disobeyed that I will whip you anyway!” Dad answered.

I later got a whipping like that for a far worse offense. That was the time I asked a machinist neighbor to build us some working pipe guns that we could use to ward off invasion at Eagle Park from the kids on Kernel Street. We didn’t explain our true purposes in wanting the guns. We said we needed them for target practice, but that was never our true goal.

I’ve written about this gun incident before. My dad caught us in the act of firing these weapons at the Kernel kids and took them away. Then he made us Japonica-Myrtle Eagles settle our differences with the Kernel kids in a game of baseball. Then he whipped my posterior in a way that left me virtually buttless. It was one of those corner-turning experiences from childhood that would have gone a very different route had it not been for the presence of the greatest hero in my life, my dad.

At Eagle Park, we made do with what we had. The gloves we did have were hand-me-downs from dads and older brothers. The balls we used were most of the time those cheapos that flattened out on one side with the first solid contact smack of the bat. The few good baseballs that we captured at Buff Stadium stayed in play for as long as we could hold them together with black electrical tape. Even the best of all  baseballs could not hold up for long against the skinning they each took with the one-block skip and roll down concrete streets as a result of mighty hits one way – and catcher misses the other.

To cut down on the damage to balls from catcher misses, and mainly to have a ball retriever, we created a tenth defensive position we called the “hind catcher.” We would not have needed a hind catcher nearly so often if we had been blessed with a backstop, but that was a piece of equipment we didn’t have at Eagle Park.

The hind catcher stood about ten feet back of the catcher. It was his or her job to stop an balls that got past the catcher, or else, chase them down Japonica Street and get them back in as soon as possible. It was job we always gave to the youngest, most naive kids, the one who were trying to earn their way into the actual game. We stressed to our hind catcher recruits that those who stopped balls most often and went after the loose ones the fastest had the best chance of breaking into the everyday game on the field.

It was a popular job among the little kids. Sometimes we would even have a hind-hind and a hind-hind-hind catcher out there backing up the hind catcher. At the end of the day, or as some kids had to go home early from the field, all our hind catchers moved into the actual game and got to bat – at least once.

The system worked for us. It’s how we all started.

Bat preservation also presented certain challenges. Since all our bats back then were also old and always wooden, they eventually cracked and became useless without repair. We nailed and taped our bats back together too, looking for every last hit we could ring out of each sacred bludgeoning weapon that still stood moderately straight in our baseball war chest. A bat had to break totally in half before we gave up on it for all time.

As for bases, we used what we could find. We never had permanent bases at Eagle Park. Garbage can lids  worked for home plate, but they sure expanded the strike zone. We used everything from decaying hunks of sidewalk curb concrete to tee shirts for our actual bases.

On those days we couldn’t field eighteen players for a regular game, we played “Work Up.” It was just baseball with fewer players and a slightly different goal. You had three to four batters in Work Up. The object was stay at bat as long as possible. If the defense got you out, all the fielders rotated from 9 to 1, with the number 1 fielder, the pitcher now going in to bat. The number 2 catcher now moving to pitcher, etc. You, of course, moved to the number 9 right field position to try to do what game says, “work up” to becoming a batter again.

Another popular game for a small number of players was “Flies and Rollers.” In this game, one player hit fungos to the other players in the field. The first fielder to successfully handle either three flies or nine rollers, without a miscue, got to replace the fungo stick batter, who would now take the field.

Somehow we survived. A big part of that “somehow” was the fact that we all mostly had parents who cared; we lived in neighborhoods where other parents could and did intervene and deal with issues of bad judgment and miscreant kid behavior; and the world was still safe enough for us kids to go out there and work things out on our own.

A lot of us didn’t have much back then, but we neither thought of ourselves as poor or entitled to everyday salvation at the expense of the community. Our parents taught us that jobs were the answer to financal needs and that you simply didn’t buy things you could not afford. We learned to make do with what we had.

We did OK, even if a very important part of our little world was being  held together most of the time by electrical tape.

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6 Responses to “Sandlot Days: Making Do with What We Had.”

  1. David Munger Says:

    Good memories.
    We also had a problem but with less than nine players.
    We had “CLOSED FIELD”. If there wasn’t a fielder where you
    hit the ball, you were OUT! It sure helped with Bat Control.

  2. Michael R. McCroskey Says:

    We played “Work Up,” also. A rule variation was if the batter hit a fly ball or line drive out, then he swapped positions with whatever player made the catch. Players rotated up towards batting only on ground ball outs.

    Mike

  3. Bill McCurdy Says:

    To Mike McCroskey –

    Mike, we played that variation of Work Up too. Sometimes it was more important to give players a chance to skip over working their way back to the plate by the “caught fly and you’re in” rule.

    To David Munger –

    David, sometimes, usually after a spell of moving cars getting hit on Myrtle by fly balls, we closed the whole field, making any ball that got there on the fly an out. We never stayed with that rule for long. It took all the fun out of flat out smashing the ball with a good old from-the-heels swing.

  4. tom murrah Says:

    Rules of “Work Up” and “Flies and Grounders” sound just like the
    ones we had in San Antonio. In the triangular patch of vacant ground
    we used for our field, we put up “stakes” way out in the field for a
    home run defining set of markers. We also used the “closed field”
    idea, especially when we were playing five-against-five.

    The old, vacant space is now a “park” in the city-owned system.
    They added a walking path and more trees that make it impossible
    for any decent baseball playing, not to mention football.

  5. Matthew Brueggeman Says:

    To David Munger –

    A good freind of mine said that you were his catcher back in the day when you both played for the Milby Buffs in the late ’60’s. His name is John Avila. John said you used to practice together at Eagle Park.

    John had told me stories about playing H.S. ball with Cards pitcher Red Munger’s son.

    I also went to Mt. Carmel High School with one of Jerry Witte’s daughters in the late ’70’s. She and her 6 sister’s autographed McCurdy’s book about Witte “A Kid from St. Louis.” for me last year. It will be a life long treasure for me.

    Matthew Brueggeman

  6. Bud Says:

    Great memories, Bill. Mine go back a little farther to our vacant lot on West Park in St Louis. What you called the “hind catcher” we called the “pigtail” but the duties were the same. Our bases were rocks planted into the ground. If we didnt have enough players for a regular game we played “Indian Ball”, no base running. If you had a glove you had to lend it to one of the guys on the other team who didnt have one.

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