Stickball—A Big 'Hit' in Bowles

by Frederic Frommer, A.B. '89

Growing up in Queens and Long Island in the 1970s and '80s, I probably played on about two dozen stickball courts of all shapes and sizes. But it wasn't until I got to Washington University that I found a true stickball temple: Bowles Plaza.

It has all the right ingredients: a solid brick surface, in a closed-in area, and a two-story middle—Umrath Hall—that made for the perfect home run wall.

Equipment was pretty simple. My buddy Ed Palattella (A.B. '89) and I bought a can of tennis balls and some masking tape at the campus bookstore, then we walked to a University City hardware store to buy a piece of wood, which we used as our bat. We wrapped the bottom 6 inches of the bat in tape, both for better grip and to avoid splinters. (Ed still has that bat in his house in Erie, Pennsylvania.) Then we'd tape a strike zone on the wall of Mallinckrodt Center.

We would play either 1-on-1 or 2-on-2, depending on how many guys we could round up. To offset the advantage that hitters would have facing only two fielders, the pitcher would stand just 25 feet from the batter, making it hard for the batter to get around on pitches. Even if the batter did make contact, a hit wasn't guaranteed.

Bowles Plaza, with Umrath Hall (in background)—"the perfect home run wall."

In stickball, you don't run the bases; you hit for distance. To get a single in Bowles Plaza, you had to hit a groundball or line drive past the pitcher. If the pitcher fielded the ball cleanly, it was an out. A double was any ball hit off the bottom two stories [of Umrath], a triple was anything off the top two stories, and a home run was on the roof or over the building. Only "centerfield" was taller than two stories; that's where home runs went to die.

Any ball caught in the air or off the wall was an out. Since the park was so small, the pitcher, if he got a good jump, could turn around and play the carom like Carl Yastrzemski at the Green Monster. He could even turn a home run into an out if he caught it off the sloped roof.

I remember the first time someone hit a shot screaming toward a window. All of us held our breath, waiting for the inevitable sound of shattered glass. But it turned out that the windows were double-ply glass, and the ball just made a loud "THUMP" before bouncing off.

Bowles Plaza—which my friend Phil Dunn (A.B. '90) dubbed "Mallinckrodt Stadium"—was truly tailor-made for stickball. The nooks and crannies of the courtyard helped ricochet everything back to us like a pinball machine. The only exception was the archway in the middle of Umrath Hall, where balls would fly out of the park and land in front of Graham Chapel.

We'd play for hours on the weekends and in the evenings, sometimes even skipping a night class because we were having so much fun. We'd spray balls all over the place: into the Deli, scattering customers; down the steps that lead to the lower level of Mallinckrodt, surprising people as they were coming out the doors; and into the fountain, sometimes with a fielder jumping in for a truly splashy catch.

I was often reminded of those games when writing my first book, Growing Up Baseball, with my dad, Harvey Frommer (Taylor Publishing Company, 2001). The major league baseball players we interviewed told us stories of turning streets, courtyards, and abandoned tennis courts into stickball fields. But I bet none could compare to Bowles Plaza.

—Frederic J. Frommer, A.B. '89, is a political reporter with The Associated Press in Washington, D.C.