StickballA Big 'Hit' in Bowles
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 middleUmrath
Hallthat 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 Plazawhich 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.
J. Frommer, A.B. '89, is a political reporter with The Associated
Press in Washington, D.C.