tretching the capacities of his frame, Pieter Bruegel in the year 1559 painted within it Dutch children playing seventy-eight different games. Nearly all were known to the Babe 373 years later. In fact, the Babe played over two hundred different games in his short span of years. Earliest was the rattle. As soon as he could clutch, he was handed a celluloid gourd with pebbles inside. He appeared to attend to this. It helped him coordinate his will, hand, eye and ear. It gave him control of an outside force other than his own body which, he was coming to know, was part of, rather than external to, himself. The rattle, of course, served his attendants as well by keeping him peacefully occupied for a few minutes.
At the age of one he played peekaboo; Katie put her hands over her eyes, peered through her fingers, and said "Peekaboo, I see you!" and the babe, at her departure, uttered a sound of annoyance, reached up to remove her fingers from her face, then smiled and she laughed.
The last game that he learned was debating, in which he and several other youths formed a club and challenged all comers to argue formally over public issues.
Peekaboo taught him to tolerate his Mother's absences and to expect and enjoy her return, and to laugh with others at the absurd and to feel the excitement of abrupt changes. Debate taught him the skill of attack and defense in verbal combat, and the need for knowing, before speaking, some facts and opposing views about government ownership of utilities, capital punishment, jury trial and other issues of the mid-Thirties. The rebuttals exercised him in improvised formal argument. Debating enhanced his competitive spirit, which hardly needed it, but in a new form. Probably peekaboo was the more important game, but we shall leave that question open.
Of the two hundred games and sports, thirty occupied about sixty per cent of his time, as best we can estimate; several not mentioned in this group of thirty were, however, of significance to his mind. Nor are the thirty necessarily the activities that he enjoyed most; for example, he enjoyed hugely the game of "Buck, Buck," in which a team of two to five boys stoops interlocked as a long platform, arms gripping waists, heads alongside thighs, and an opposing team leaps one by one aboard the tightly gripped bodies. The captain above holds up one to five fingers for public proof and calls to the captain below, "Buck, buck, how many fingers up?" and the captain below can only rescue his team from its ignominy and burden by guessing correctly the number. Often the down-team collapsed. It was not always easy to find players.
The thirty major games, arranged fairly well in the order upon which they entered the years of his life, are these (ignore the numbers alongside for the moment):
|five little pigs, and related games:||9,10|
|the hobby horse:||1,13|
|good-guys, bad-guys (a generic term for at least three games: cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, German and American soldiers, each production stressing somewhat different psychology and tactics):||2,3,6,8,12|
|operating toy train systems:||3,8,9|
|making vocal sounds (that came to include whistling, singing, megaphoning, gazooing, burps, raspberries and yodeling):||4,6,10,14|
|baseball (in various forms):||1,2,3,5,7,10,11,12,15|
|duelling with wooden swords and curtain rods:||1,2,7|
|building and organizing clubhouses:||3,4,5,6,8,11,12|
|roller skate hockey:||1,2,7,11|
|follow the leader:||2,4,5,6,7,8,13|
|playing a musical instrument (lengthy enforced prior musical work from age 7 to 10 not counted):||1,3,4,5,6,9,10,14||bands and orchestras:||1,3,4,5,9,10,11|
But what is play? What are games, sports, and toying? The Babe turned many activities into play and some play into work. In washing the dishes, he would incidentally create waterfalls, squirt water at targets, build dikes, guess what was at the bottom of the sudsy water, line up washed dishes in peculiar ways, experiment with building up crazy stacks, toss flatware into appropriate bins from a distance, and work against the clock.
In walking his baby brothers in a buggy, he would turn the buggy into a police car and push it at a run, careening around corners to the terror and delight of the occupant. He practiced catching house- flies on the wing with his hand, and excised the wings of flies that he caught to observe their behavior. He whistled duets with the canary while cleaning its cage. While washing the stairs, he let water drip down ahead of him to see whether he could catch up with his scrub brush. He wound up the phonograph springs slowly, then faster and faster, or started up a record on a nearly exhausted spring to hear it change sound as it picked up tempo to the full 78 rpm. He would doodle alphabetic letters into pictures while writing. Whether play was serious or ironic depended upon how his mind construed it; sometimes he would enter a game with a "do or die" resolve. An interruption of a game by himself with imaginary foes, as on a hobby- horse or by means of toy soldiers, would be received as seriously as if he were Napoleon or Blackjack Pershing. Friedrich Hoelderlin in the poem, "To the Germans," could speak for him:
Play is something deliberately set aside from involuntary, prescribed, or laborious activity and is a hopefully pleasurable activity. The word has scores of meanings and implications. Sometimes the Babe played on the way to school, whistling, running a stick against a fence, splashing through puddles, jesting and wrestling with a comrade, skipping and leaping in a self-set pattern, and casting a ball up in the air ahead and catching it as he walked along. When the weather was bad, he rarely played on the way to school; he thought how cold and wet it was and how to hasten his steps and that he must get there, as if he were aiming at the North Pole.
In our inventory of his play that is to come, we include toys when they are used as games with himself and others, as with toy trains, but ignore the many toys that need only be set into motion and watched, like a wind-up clown that dances, or a picture-book whose pages unfold into lovely scenes. We include sports, even when one-person (unilateral), such as punching a bag or casting a ball against the wall and catching it on the bounce-back. We include only a couple of the games using tin-cans out of the number that, as we have seen, were contrived. We include certain board-games like Monopoly, but count only this along with checkers and chess and Parcheesi, without the dozen other board games that came into the house and soon left it in disgrace. We include favorite card-games, that is, gambling or gaming, and penny-pitching, and matches to shoot marbles out of a ring on the ground, which are games of skill. We include games like "Ring around the Rosey," that climax in exciting falls that play the fool among the participants; we would include social dancing, but the Babe did none -- or perhaps only once, in his fifteenth year, although the Mom danced him around the room to the tunes of the Victrola when he was beginning to walk. If ski and tennis are excluded it is because he had not experienced them; no one he knew engaged in them; they were still minor and ethnic sports, for Scandinavians and Easterners.
Certain minor contests were widely conducted but perhaps too boorish to grace our lists, even though Our Hero dabbled in them. Spitting contests were one of these. Pollution, tobacco, and tradition formed among Americans the world's greatest spitters. A far-reaching hard spitter earned credits among males young and old. The Dad, who never smoked, spit up a sample of the prior day's soot each morning, but this was not play. He would also get "spitting mad" at people and objects sometimes, and voice a simulation of spitting sounding like "too-phitouzi," meaning that they were beneath contempt. The Babe was a poor spitter, just as he could never manage a piercing whistle; Bro Bus, by contrast, could blow a wad four yards.
There were also those who competed in farting, and a couple of Chicago Tribune reporters once engineered a phonograph record that purported to carry "The World Crepitation Contest," which the Babe came eventually to hear. The boys would vie to see who could piss the farthest, but somehow the sport never got to be organized beyond the most local level. Orally produced and disreputable sounds came into some small popularity when little else of interest offered itself, and possibly the most raunchy of all games was the hand-played armpit, producing amusing and disgusting tones under the favorable conditions of a humid hot day and a sweaty locker room.
Significantly, we do not include spelling bees and quizzes as plays or games, for they are part of an involuntary curriculum, nor dramatic representations at school, nor carpentry or construction or anything else done under orders anywhere, unless a large playful motif or by-product was introduced by the Babe himself. Some school subjects were fun for him; he enjoyed them as much as outside play; still they are kept out of the inventory. Nor do we count the many books and other literature he enjoyed reading as play. True reading is solitary, or seems so, but what of a boy who places himself mentally into the plot, action, and characters in general, and then inside the games and plays that are described within the literature, or who has a discussion with comrades about an article or book, or engages in competitive speed-reading with other children?
We do not count the many movies that he saw. Nor the radio programs he heard. These are education or entertainment or something else, or at least we talk about them elsewhere in these pages. Nor do we include as games the jesting among family and cohorts, nor the often trivial manipulations of other people that bring pleasure in winning, as in an argument to convince a third party to take one's side, or in shifting the burden of work to another person or, more often with the Babe, keeping someone else from shifting a burden to him. The greatest play of all, sex-play or love-play, is absent from the inventory.
Thus we see that his inventory of play could include much more than it does and the word "play" is perhaps unfortunately used around the world -- unless we mean by play all that a person does that he wants to do and does not have to do whether what he has to do is defined by himself (the ambitious student, the conscientious minister, the independent businessman, the busy housewife, the moonlighting worker) or by others (to submit a tax form).
Five of the Babe's thirty most-played games were at times supervised and conducted in an institutional matrix. Few for those days, the five seem even fewer in comparison with today. Moreover, going through his 200 games, an even smaller proportion was adult- organized, adult-supervised and played under the auspices of institutions. They were almost always, however, lawful and tolerated within the premises of the institution, whether home, park, camp or school.
Until they are made to depend closely upon authority, children are less happy to be dragooned into play and to have to submit to adult supervision. The most useful function of the adult is to be the indifferent policeman, to intervene in the case of flagrant bullying or serious accident. The next most useful function would be as a consulting expert on the activity at hand, no matter whether group or individual play. If there is to be adult supervision it would best occur in the play itself, by participation.
The loss of time, initiative, creativity, and voluntaryness varies directly with the ratio of the number of adult leaders to the number of children in a group; that is, the more children placed under a single adult, the greater the loss. Without the adult organization of games, the small group of children can move more readily from one to another game, call a halt to a tiresome game, and learn and practice more games and variations thereof. As in other major aspects of life, it is difficult to prove that the injection of adult supervision and institutionalized initiative does expand and improve individual capability and performances.
The compulsion to make classifications and lists is well known from the time of Aristotle and beyond, and is even to be found in a few authors of romances; Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel contains hundreds of them to the point of stupefaction. But a compulsion is not to be resisted when the author, as here, actually believes in the necessity of his act. Somewhere, somehow, somebody must write down a list of one's games as a child, or even better, and perhaps illuminated by his own attempt, must interrogate a sample of children of the neighborhood or the world to prepare a collective inventory and distribution of frequencies of the games.
It would not be the least productive of census operations to reconstruct the history of the nation's games by interviewing the old and middle-aged generations on the subjects of their own childhood games. To be precise, it would be more entertaining, enlightening and socially and economically useful than 91.67% of the basic data tables found in the last U.S. Census of 1980. But lest I take more of your time to apologize than to present it to you, I give you here a practically complete list of the Babe's play and games.
|insect-chasing and capture|
|observing birds and raising fledglings|
|decorating Christmas tree, incl. setting up creches|
|frost and snow drawing and sculpture|
|murals and graffiti|
|fire hydrant splashing|
|bottles, posts, etc., hurling at|
|softball, street and park|
|throw (hit) and catch|
|blocks, bowling at|
|ducking for apples|
|Easter egg hunts|
|ice and roller skate hockey|
|odds-evens (hand play)|
|top, spinning (time contests, striking other tops and coins)|
|airplane, toy, combat (made of balsa to fly or bought as|
| ||metallic replicas)
||battling, using blocks and helmets||battling of toy soldiers (including fortifications)||piggy-back wrestling||boxing||buck-buck||clay battles||free-for-all||good-guys, bad guys||king of the mountain||blow-guns and bean shooters||snowballing||spear throwing||sword duelling||wrestling||EXPLORATION||camping, including equipping, cooking, and picnicking||dandelion, etc. picking||map-making, Boy scouts and otherwise||mushroom picking||toy boat sailing||treasure digging||walking, hiking||GAMBLING||bridge||card tricks||dice||dominos||Monopoly||parcheesi||rummy||7 1/2, 21||PARLOR GAMES||patty-cake||blind man's buff||charades||checkers||cut-outs||detectives (using invisible ink)||play-acting||egg dyeing||five little pigs, etc.||pin tail on donkey||jigsaw puzzles||crossword puzzles||radio, fiddling with||"ring around the rosey," "the mulberry bush,"
etc.||RACES||cross-country racing||foot-races||hopping races||hopscotch||hurdles||Ice skating||`It' (with zones, goals, hide and seek)||jogging||racing backwards||racing streetcars||roller skating||sledding||wagon (auto) racing||SHOOTING||archery (with home-made or purchased bows and arrows)||BB gun (air rifle)||darts||exploding firecrackers||marbles, lagging, shooting, trading, collecting||penny-lagging, pitching||pop gun, cork||rubber-shooting guns||spit wad, rubber shooting||SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT AND TECHNOLOGY||auto-making, wood||baking cakes||building with blocks||candle-making||clubhouse building||constitution and rule-making||dissecting broken clocks||electrical and mechanical train systems||Erector construction sets||fire-building (several methods)||knot-tying (manacling)||lead-molding (soldiers)||mud pies||roasting marshmallows||sand castles||smoke signalling||snow forts, snow man||stamp collecting||telephones (cans and wire communication)||torch-making||SOUND AND MUSIC||instrumental, trumpet, saxophone, drums, piano, mouth organ,||guitars
||phonograph playing||singing, informal group||sounds, vocal (whistling, burps, raspberries, singing, megaphone,gazoo)||STRENGTH, SKILL, AND AGILITY (MISC.)||fence-walking||lariat tossing (lassoing)||follow the leader||hoops||jacks||leap-frog||pole-climbing, ladders||running the gauntlet (snow, water, clay, branches)||rowing, sculling||walking on tin can shoes||weight-lifting and other gymnastics||yo-yo||king of the hill||THRILLS||crack-the-whip (skates, ice sliding)||costume wearing (Halloween cowboy, etc.)||kiting||parading, marching||peekaboo||rattle||riding ice wagons||roller coaster||smoking dried weeds or corn tassels||stilt walking||swings||teeter-totters||tickling (endurance contest)||window waxing (Halloween)||VEHICLES||automobile driving||hobby horse riding||merry-go-round||pony-riding||sledding, belly-flop racing||tobogganing||tricycle|
The American boy, especially the urban boy, was expected to spend all of his spare time in play and to want to spend all of his time at play. One cannot find this belief, amounting to a credo, in any other country. How strange! And he was ridiculed by many other peoples of the world for this and for being habitually playful through life.
Yet America was also believed to be, and was, a country where work was sacred, and no one was supposed to be idle, or to sit at a café -- this being termed the Puritan or Protestant ethic. Workaholics they have been called more recently, and work-addicted a great many were. those who recently arrived even more than those who had arrived earlier, no matter whether Catholic or Protestant or Jews or unbelievers.
How is this apparent contradiction to be explained: "all is play while all is work." Probably by the American operating myth that work is or should be play, and that play is or should be work ("play hard, play to win, give it your best," etc.) The interface between the two ideas is smoothened by historical conditions in which the voluntary and individualistic motivation for work was stressed. It is likely that, more than in other countries, people in America carried their playful attitudes into their work and were more serious about their play. If this is true, then the Babe was the arch-typical American boy. This stands out sharply when he is compared with Tom Sawyer, a lazy playing boy, Jack Armstrong -- previous title- holder -- who was stuck in hard-working play and unable to move back and forth easily, or the heroes of Horatio Alger who were all work and no play.
We can recognize in the Babe a type who was always playing when he could, but who thrusted into his play an ambitiousness, a hardness, a push that often made it resemble work. The same pattern is evidenced in his schoolwork and his reading. The variety of his play and the special ways he had of playing are significant; he would not have taken up so many forms of play unless he were bent upon being "good at everything." In some cases, as in sculling, or earning merit badges for botany, his motives were transient and willed without much pleasure.
A large fraction of his play was competitive, and he injected contests with himself, if he were not playing with another boy; he seemed always to be comparing and contrasting himself with others. This may be true of much American play, but a great many children do not participate, or participate in a different mood, yet, since he was conforming to the authoritative myth, he was rarely criticized for his general posture in play or work.
To hear him in a baseball game of five kids with an old ball and bat, you would think that the world's fate hung in the balance: exhortation, counselling, criticism, vociferous argument over doubtful points, desperate running and battling, an impatience with letting the game slow down, and never a readiness to quit unless the ball lay in shreds, or it could not be seen because of darkness, or he lay under dire threat were he not to be home by a certain time. So, in an important sense, play was work for the Babe. It was a way of life. He so wished for power over the world that total play became a way of sublimating the frustration of powerlessness.
We may be on our way to a broad conclusion relating to his character: he was a totally serious person with a nearly complete covering of play; he was a walking irony, a running irony. He had strong beliefs and feelings about everything under the sun and felt required to have them, but had them without any tutoring in philosophy and, therefore, only with what came out in the way of character. He seemed to detect in everything something untrue, contradictory, therefore unserious; being himself an irony, he saw the world as one. Yet he was not at all in manner ironic as a boy: he was potentiated for irony. He simply could not believe in this world that came so readily to him, coming like the material that with such wonderful and regular convenience washed up on the beach of one of his most treasured personages, Robinson Crusoe.
So he was never expecting really to lose, yet was forever probing the world where it was likely to strike back effectively and where he felt himself likely to lose. It requires such a contradictory character to see the contradictions of life. Such was he, probably from the age of four or five years. Characterologically, his life may have peaked at that point; the rest of his life would be a denouement.
Returning to the shorter list of activities, we might rate them by their merits, the value to be gained from them, as inaccurate as this may be. We know that they are activities voluntarily assumed, and we judge them by what we think are their effects upon the Babe and his associates.
Number of games with the merit
|1. Absorption & Catharsis; excitement||17|
|3. Constructive goal thought||13|
|4. Realism (evidences obstacles,failure,success)||13|
|5. Increase in a valued skill||12|
|6. Inventiveness, improvisation||12|
|7. Muscular development; healthy||11|
|8. Mind-broadening; consciousness raising||9|
|10. Aesthetic appreciation; creativity||7|
|11. Cooperation; implies worthwhileness of others||5|
|12. Ethical training||5|
|13. Command exercise||4|
|14. Yoga-like rest, relaxation, mind-emptying||3|
|15. Egalitarianism;equal chances;luck important||3|
Recalling that the choice of the 30 activities was not influenced by their value and merits, nor according to the typical values of the City or country, but rather by their consumption of time in the Babe's self-imposed curriculum of play, and especially considering that the list of merits was also written down as it came to mind and not with any idea as to what activities and to how many of them they would apply, striking findings come to our attention, all the more so as they are commonly asserted but rarely proven. The numbers earlier attached to the forms of play refer to their merits and are totalled in the list of merits above.
The most common merit of the Babe's play was that it was typically for excitement and catharsis; second his play reinforced the competitive side of his character; then, in equal proportions, his play stressed goal achievements, skill enhancement, the experiencing of obstacles, of failures and successes; improvisation; and muscular development. Thereafter, training in decision-making and exercise in command, which is more or less equal to his mind-broadening, consciousness-raising and aesthetic appreciation; the lowest preoccupations of play were in cooperativeness, ethical training, command training, yoga-like relaxation, and egalitarianism.
We may have some confidence in these findings, although it is with some dismay that we consider the question of their reliability. Thus, I should place the activities on a time scale to see the variations as he aged; I should rate the intensity of effect to the activity, whether high, moderate, low or even nil. Then I should assign not only to these 30 activities but to all 200 of them their respective durations and intensity of participation. And, of course, we should refine our definitions of merit and change them about as we make further tests, merging a couple and adding others perhaps. Then I should systematically assess the whole of his time, so as to include under similar strict controls those other playful items that we have already confessed to have excluded -- sex, reading, and schooling. Finally I should inventory and evaluate how the Babe spent every moment of his life. Only then could I be sure of what I am saying. And I swear that I shall do so in the case of every future child's biography that I'll be writing. And after we have done so for many American children, say 1500, randomly sampled from the millions of the same age during the 1920's and the early 1930's, I should be able to say whether the Babe was typical in his play, or not typical but deviant in significant regards.
But while we are waiting for this research to be completed, I would venture the conclusion that in broad formulation the Babe's play was typical. And it was so because, whereas his muscular activity seems less in relation to the total score in comparison with a boy preoccupied with muscular development, this is because the muscular type did not go into music and hide-an-go-seek play much, but that the non-athletic majority of American children, even then, played cards and board-games and dwelt in softer worlds whose scores, (exhibiting the dangers of statistical formulations) would be more like the Babe's without representing the same activities. We could, however, break down into sub-divisions the merits and the types of activities to reveal these sub-group differences between the highly valuable and the worthless play activities. Or are we now becoming indecipherable and altogether abstruse?
Let us conclude at least the following about the Babe: he played at everything; he was serious about his play. No one was much interested in his choice of play unless it foreshadowed injury to person or property. He could have pretended better to be a military strategist, railroad man, cattleman, carpenter, artist, printer, literary critic, writer, map-maker, geologist, botanist, zoologist, astronomer, mathematician, and possibly a better philosopher, with a little coaching on these subjects during his first dozen years. No matter that he seemed precocious; he could have become much more intelligently so and he was excellent raw material for this inasmuch as he was physically strong, energetic, and not afflicted with the self- destructive psychic disturbances common among clever children.
But where would such coaches come from? Perhaps the schools should have paid more attention: the teachers could have made suggestions, found special books to be bought, urged attending art, technology and natural history museums and shows of the City. Perhaps a roster of coaches and tutors could have been prepared by the School for off-hours lessons and visits, a Big Brother program for bright children or the equivalent of what was then the only way to learn music, by private instruction. Perhaps the school should have been able to dispense coupons, that every student might receive, to cultivate elsewhere some facet of his intelligence that would appear to warrant special help. Still, once an institution or a private tutor latches on to a clever child, they want to hold onto him and make him a specialist in their areas of interest. Furthermore where would he find playmates on the same level? Possibly what happened was better: the Babe did a bit of everything, was trapped by nothing.
The Babe's first real ball-game is lost in the mists of the past. It would have been at the age of seven, a game in which there took part five players on a side, and in which strange boys actually played who, surprisingly, knew the rules as well as himself or better. There ensued the excitement of his first turn at bat, the joy when he connected with the ball, and pride for dropping the bat neatly, what matter that the ball skimmed along the ground off the end of the bat, was trapped by the first baseman and he was put out easily on first, for could he not now retire relaxed to the cluster of noble boys awaiting calmly their turn at bat, no longer untested, with a new outlook on life, a fulfilled virgin, insatiable for more baseball experience, day in and day out?
The psychology of baseball is pertinent. It has a peculiarly American pace, nonchalant and varied, inside the innings and from one inning to another. The spectators, too, can live with and enjoy the pace. It is an individualistic game. Each player is easily recognizable and becomes a star in his own right; no one can take this from him. It is very public; the spectators can judge every single action, and can even address individual players and umpires unmistakably. "Robber!" they can shout, on a theoretical minimum of 378 occasions and a normal potential on a thousand or more; and this has to do only with judgments on how the batter is treated by the umpire at the plate. "Ya bum!" "Hit it out of the Park!" and other expressions mount into the thousands of possibilities. It allows the utmost in massive individual criticism.
Its cooperation develops out of individualism, not directly. The individual's achievements are easily perceived in the scorecard of a game, and yet the records of each are added up to become the record of all in the final reckoning. A pitcher needs the support of his own batters, even if he pitches well, and vice versa. Pitcher and catcher work closely together as a battery, but can be and are separated if one is failing. The "plays" are distinct cooperative moves of two, three, rarely four of the nine players, who team up momentarily. Baseball heroes are solitary achievers, who, however, depend often upon an assist and on a rescuer: thus, "he hits well with men on base" (runs driven in); "he comes through in a pinch;" "he retired the side by strikeouts" (when a run threatens).
American football has its players more dependent upon full teamwork throughout. The umpires work partially obscured and are less challengeable. Merit and demerit are less easily discerned. The individual looks bad in a bad team -- if the runner cannot break through, if a backer is overwhelmed, if the linesman has no one to use the hole he has made, if a quarterback is caught and thrown for a loss. It is significant that football came to rival baseball in popularity as the Babe grew up, and that the process began in schools and colleges where the institution has asked to be exalted. Even so, football would not have gained its large popularity had it not opened up; the "passing game" lets the pass-thrower and receiver star, so that some of the individuality and visibility of baseball is captured.
Even before he felt that he would never become a great trumpeter, one of the perhaps one hundred great ones in the world at a given time, he felt the same about baseball. But the reasons were different. As much as he loved to play the game, he did not regard baseball as a gentleman's occupation (this word is mine, not his). He did not like stinking locker rooms. Intimations of social class difference might be perceived. Phil Cavaretta, a handsome youth, was to play with and manage the Chicago Cubs for many years and was already lionized at Lake View High School, while the Babe's small group of Ciceronians, publicly unknown, went about their business of growing older and smarter, tending toward the intellectual and into public affairs, looking detached upon the scenes of popular enthusiasm.
He was not charmed by the interviews of baseball stars on the radio and in the daily press "How's your arm today, Dizzy?" "Uh, fine, jes fine. Ah'll get me summo strikeouts today." "Well, that's fine, Dizzy. Hear that, folks? You'd better be out here at Wrigley Field. The Gates will be opening in an hour!" "Hack, some people say that you're overdue for a big day pretty soon, what do you think of that?" "That's right." "Thanks, Hack, good luck to you." "Uh." So the Babe went out to see Hack along with Bro Bus and chaperoned by a sweeter older boy, Jimmy Nolan, from the Catholic School. He was a nice guy; they only saw him a few times; he appeared in the neighborhood, off-reservation from the small Irish enclave two blocks south of Hill Street, joined them for a few games, then disappeared into his future. But that day, the only day that the Babe spent at a ball-park, Hack Wilson swung his stocky body around on his heavy legs and clubbed the ball into the bleachers. He would never be up to the great Babe Ruth, but that year, Hack came close to the Babe's record for home runs.
Our Babe was all out for softball and saw some marvelous softball games, professional by all standards save that the games were played in parks and schoolyards, the players were little known, admission was free, and people took the genius of the game for granted.
The best softball was at the Jenner Schoolyard on Oak Street. Bro Bus was fifteen and large and played with the team, the Romans, that drew boys from a mile around. The bases were whitewashed onto the concrete before the game. A no-nonsense umpire was elected beforehand, while the bases were being drawn. Fleet lefty Joe LoScalzo of the whiplike bat played in right field, Bro Bus played second base, and Fat Mike pitched, and pitched unbelievably the big ball underhand with a speed that could knock the bat out of your hands. How can you swing and miss a 16" ball pitched underhand? They did, one after another, time after time.
Before the game, too, the players bet on themselves to win. They put up more money than they could afford, dollars, quarters, dimes, nickels; their several rooters like the Babe could bet with them, too, so long as the pot was being balanced. There would be a lot of money bet, around a hundred dollars, fifty from each side. When the nine innings ended, the victors claimed their money. Every action was taken in complete honesty and dedication. From conception to pay-off, no outside authority, no law, no boss, not even a manager, adulterated the process; it was pure voluntarism, no waste motion, ordered and self-disciplined, a beautiful sight, full of grace and fury, an elegant game to watch. If you were watching the game, you could also see "Death Corner," a block away.
Hardball with gloves was on the front pages everywhere in America, but the largest participation was voluntary and in softball. A plump firm 16 inches in circumference, leatherbound, corded and rag interior, light grey in color, heavily and tightly stitched, a new ball was a marvel, and a rarity among the smaller boys. If you were able to play well, you probably couldn't afford to buy a new ball. The bats were lighter than the Big League bats, to keep the ball from being knocked out of the lot, and could be hefted by the Babe when he was only eight years old, before which time he swung at the ball with a lighter smaller bat.
Normally if a youngster was serious about playing baseball, he would switch to hard ball and glove at the age of twelve, say, and have to go farther afield and find an institutionally sponsored team, and move then into the large public parks and scattered stadia that carried semi-professional competition.
The Babe stopped playing ball regularly at twelve: he played at picnics or with his kid brothers, partly because the streets in the new neighborhood were too busy with cars and the cars were being parked everywhere, but also his time was being taken up by other affairs.
But those early years! When he no more would be seen without a bat and ball than his ideal soldier without a rifle and pack. When they played other games, the bat and ball would be laid aside carefully, like soldiers stacked their rifles and gear when setting up tents. Whatever they did was only as if while waiting the bugle to announce enough players to start up the game.
Every spot in an area was known for its adaptability to ball-playing, every street had a known potential, nay, every block of every street. Too, every alley, every part of an irregular schoolyard, every space of a park that was designed for one or two large hardball games but often employed for half a dozen games, simultaneously. Zoologists journeyed worldwide to study the changing niches of species, but passed up the progressive extinction of this habitat.
There was not simply one game of baseball, any more than there is only one planet circling the sun or numerous planets all alike. Beginning with a game of two players, a game could reach up to twenty players without worrisome problems. Bro Bus and the Babe could begin by themselves: they would go out on Hill Street, which had minor and slow traffic; Bus would toss the ball a meter high, and hit it, as it dropped, with a swing of the bat that would send it out to the Babe.
After several grounders had been fielded and returned, and fly balls knocked out too short or too far, one hit would be lofted to where he might catch it, and then they changed places. Bro Bus was the heavier hitter, so the Babe would stand back farther, but he fielded almost as well, and he practiced tossing the ball and batting it beginning at a tender age so that the interest of his brother in playing could be maintained.
Every boy now who newly appeared opened up options for a new kind of game. With three players, the ball could be pitched to the batter. They had the choice either of rotating when a flyball was caught, which was egalitarian, or of letting whoever caught it have a turn at bat, which was a merit system of sorts. A game-theorist will remark that, with two votes out of three required, unless the owner of the bat and ball was willful, two weak fielders would elect the rotating option, two strong fielders the merit system. But note the subtleties already present. A strong fielder, facing two weak ones, may decide that the game is not worthwhile unless he can come to bat on his just desserts. Also a weak fielder facing two strong fielders may quit the game if he has to wait too long before getting a turn at bat, especially since they'd catch on the fly nearly any ball that he'd pop in the air. Of course, if he is very weak, he'll be happy to be allowed to stay in the game and just chase balls around the field.
Four players make "Two-Men-Up" possible. Two partners are at bat. Two bases are now provided, three with home base; a crushed carton or tin can makes a satisfactory base that is visible even at dusk and too heavy to blow away in the gusting breezes. One is placed at each opposing gutter, at a distance from the so-called home plate that is a compromise between the need for the hitter to get to first base before the hit ball gets into the hands of the pitcher and the opposing need of the pitcher to get his hands on the ball. If the hitter passes first base safely he must be tagged off base to be "out," and sometimes he may actually run all around to home safely.
Now the second batter, who has been catching behind the bat to expedite the game, steps up to the plate. A catcher cannot be afforded, so if he chooses to let the ball go by rather than strike at it, he must either grab it with one hand as it goes by off center, or let it sail by and chase it down the street. It is desirable therefore to honor some small person, obviously too young to play, by having him trap the ball behind the batter to prevent its escape -- at a respectable distance, since he cannot catch well yet. Now, with a man, say, on first base, the pitcher sends the ball underhand to the batter, who hits a bouncing ball to the outfielder, who picks it up and throws it to the pitcher who, if the ball does not arrive in time to automatically put out the hitter before he reaches first base, may still get the ball in time to tag the home plate and put out the incoming earlier batter who has been circling second base and heading for home plate. An adept pitcher may score a double-play by catching the hit ball, putting out the batter, and catch and tag the earlier batter between two bases. When a batter is put out, he becomes outfielder, the outfielder becomes pitcher, and the pitcher goes to bat. So they continuously rotate.
Two-Men-Up can cope with half a dozen players. At that point someone will suggest that the game be switched to "Three-Men-Up" with the addition of a third base. Now a full time catcher behind the plate, and a full complement of fielders are afforded, given the narrow dimensions of the field. If the number of players expands to eight, it is better to switch the game to team play, allowing a team spirit to spring up, four men (never "boys") to each side, the team at bat supplying a catcher for the team in the field, with the option of his standing aside when a play occurs at home plate, letting the other team send a man rush in for the play, or else trusting the catcher to transform himself into a full player for the opposing team and do his best for them on this one play alone.
To set up the two teams, two boys, of roughly the same playing ability, as judged by the non-obstans principle, become momentary captains. To determine who shall choose his first player from all the prospective players gathered around, a coin may be tossed. More classically and elegantly, one captain tosses the bat to the other captain who catches it with one hand, thumb up, and, above his fisted hand, the second captain grasps the bat with his own fist, whereupon the first captain adds his second fist, the second his second fist, and if possible the first captain removes his first hand to repeat the grasping of the bat on top again. If there is room the process continues until the top of the bat handle is reached. If there is no longer room for a fist, the captain whose fist reaches the top has first choice of players. If there is wood showing at the top the captain whose turn it is next may call for his right to "Chicken- claws!" He can now clutch the top of the bat from above with the fingers of a hand, and if he can swing the bat around his own head three times without dropping it, the choice is his.
Now the presumed best player is chosen, giving perhaps a decided advantage to his team, especially when the last man to be chosen is a very weak player. It is unpleasant to be passed over until the end, begrudged a place, finally not even chosen, merely accepted for lack of choice. But this too can lend the essence of drama: that the last to be chosen should make some great catch or decisive hit, reproaching by his heroic act both captains for having placed a low value upon him.
A second way of choosing up sides was sometimes used. It was a poem, and this is it, with the racist term "nigger" happily replaced by the term "tiger" that has come into use since World War II.
The poem has commendable properties: it is easily memorized, promotes naturally crisp enunciation, and has sixteen unmistakable stressed syllables. It is also of a fascinating nonsense that appeals to literary giants, as well as to children before they reach puberty and come to feel ashamed to speak what they believe to be nonsense.
The sixteen stresses mark each a head count, so that a captain or whoever begins the count, starting to his left of a circle of players, will finish on the sixteenth count and the indicated player becomes a member of his team until half of the players are chosen. A team can be selected out of any number of players in this fashion: divide the number of players by two and end the choosing when that number is reached.
The Babe never knew it and no one else seemed to know, that a certain amount of manipulation can be accomplished by counting the players and position oneself or oneself and one's allies as the countdown gets under way. If there are only four players, the captain will choose himself first, then, eliminated, and counting the remaining three, choose the boy or girl to his left. Then he must choose the second of the two remaining. If there are five, the first to be selected will be first on the left. If seven, the first to be selected will be second to the left; if six, the fourth to the left. Each time, the selected boy or girl steps out of the ring, so that subsequent choices revert to the same arithmetic but with different personages.
The process moves so rapidly that a pocket-calculator would be needed to emplace one's allies, and then any shift of initial position would throw the calculations off, and it was, of course, common for some boy to come running up at the last moment, gratefully released from his chores and informed in the nick of time. Still you could manage to stay with or go against the captain counting by positioning yourself beforehand. Provided that you knew the rules, could position yourself, and did not disclose that you were profiting from occult knowledge! I suggest going along with the mumbo-jumbo.
The innings begin. The pitcher feeds the batter slow balls underhanded. If he pitches too fast or flattens and skims a soft ball to make it curve, protests will press him into proper conduct. The ball is pitched slow because the distance between home and the pitcher's box is short. No strikes and balls are called. Only resentment at his trickery, or boredom, forces the pitcher to keep offering the ball nicely over the plate to the batter.
Foul balls are called by consensus, viewing imaginary lines leading through first and third bases to the right and left and on out to the end of the field, or until they encounter a wall, a fence, or a building. A ball that strikes against a wall or tree or parked car or post and is caught while still in the air is an out, and its batter is retired. Because the catcher may be minimally cooperative, and the bases close, and the pitching slow, a player on base is not allowed to steal to the next base, but must stand reasonably close to his base waiting for the next hit ball before trying to advance. If somewhere in the far background, an obstacle like a fence or wall occurs, the players may rule that a batter whose hit flies over them will be conceded a full tour of the bases, a home run. (Or, if it is fairly easy to hit a ball over it and a nuisance to retrieve it, the batter may be ruled out.)
The game goes by innings that may be set in advance, or as the light begins to dim, at five to nine innings. Otherwise the boys played and played, now one then another, dropping out, reluctantly, probably not to be replaced, as chore time or supper time approached. The team that is losing hears with especial dismay the words "I gotta go home now," and all cry out when the boy who owns the bat or ball or both must leave. Should he leave these? Will he be asked where they are when he gets home? If he leaves them, will the bat be cracked and the ball torn when he gets them back? How will he know who will have them -- maybe they will be used to play another game without his being around to join in. But can he break up the game by going off with them now? Is he stingy? Afraid of losing, if winning? A poor loser if behind now? Shouldn't he do unto others as he would have them do unto him, assuming a ball and bat should fall to their lot in the future. Shouldn't they follow Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law," and do not for a moment imagine that this logic is beyond the boys. It is a difficult decision, one of many that are part of the game and also surround the game, that contribute to the building of character and leadership and all of that. "The Battle of Leyte was won on the Playing Streets of Chicago." This is as true and untrue as Wellington's famous exclamation that "the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton."