Sockball had a short season at my house. We were loitering around my yard on one of those never-ending summer days. Nobody had a tennis ball. Nobody had an idea. We got into a three-way grass fight, picking clippings with our fingers, and suddenly we had talked Fenn out of one of his socks and were stuffing it with fresh green grass. Packed solid and tied, it made an excellent, though oblong, ball. The tail could be left to dangle for a loopy, uneven pitch that looked harder to hit than it really was, or the tail could be folded back over the body of the sock for a fair fastball.
We hit from the corner of the yard toward the garage, running to a sprinkler and back for a base hit. Because the sock died when it hit the ground, we added crossouts—throws in front of the runner—to the rules, and had a game.
Sockball met its demise as a league game fairly early. The ball had a tendency to become baggier and baggier, until the batter could almost catch it on the rake handle and throw it into the field for a hit. When Butch caught a pitch and swung a line drive into deep left, smashing the little garage window, we were encouraged to find other pursuits. I remember my father standing before us, exasperated, Fenn's sock in his hands. The sock looked like a dead rat. My father couldn't understand why, with a ball park across the street, we had to be jammed into my backyard breaking windows with socks stuffed with his lawn. These are the risks of underground baseball.
In case of rain or an absolute equipment shortage, we often switched over to bottlecap, which I have heard is played throughout the country under a dozen other names. We cleared a six-foot space in Butch's basement, and Butch would draw a chalk diamond on the cement floor. Then he'd draw the foul lines and the broad arc of the home-run fence. In centerfield he'd scribble "400 feet" just outside the line. Our men, of course, were bottle-caps. We all carried our teams in our pockets or in paper sacks. Caps from pop bottles were smashed into concave plates; this made them better fielders. The pitchers were plastic medicine bottlecaps or metal aspirin caps.
The pitcher flicked the bobby pin, which was used as a ball, toward the plate. The hitter was pushed into the ball, sending it into the outfield. The fielder slid toward the bobby pin, hoping to stop it. The batter slid toward first. If he tried for second and the leftfielder had the ball, the throw had to be dead-on and stopped by the second baseman for the out.
The game was hard on the knees, but could be played all afternoon. Butch kept a hammer nearby so we could make adjustments to our players, bending them to hit or field as necessary. Ironically, the stoic, untampered-with pitchers were the best hitters, their solid bodies sending the bobby pin out near the fence every time. I had several favorites, among them a beautiful Milk of Magnesia cap and a Nehi cream soda cap that I found on the road folded like a clam. That guy always hit over .400, and he could play the long ball like a genius. I buried my entire team in a vacant lot on one of the last nights of my 14th summer. I remember thinking: Some of these guys are six years old.
In my neighborhood the last thing you saw in the sky before stars was the smoke from Mr. Wilkes's burning garage. Mr. Wilkes had discovered his daughter, Linda, and Parley, an older kid, in there one time doing something, and he pulled the whole garage over with a chain attached to his Plymouth. He burned it board by board over the course of one entire summer. Parley was one of our heroes, and we were all vaguely aware of the grudge Mr. Wilkes bore old Parley. There was a thrilling rumor that Mr. Wilkes had been seen from time to time trying to run Parley down. The smoke and the rumor gave the whole neighborhood a doomed quality, which we thought of as just another part of growing up.
We saw the smoke a lot that summer because we were trying for the sleep-out record. And it wasn't long into that record attempt, maybe the third or fourth night, that car baseball developed.
At first we were just ducking away from cars; it is an age-old instinct in all preadolescent wild animals to avoid light at night. Then we would run to the swing set in my yard and back to our sleeping bags before the car had passed, once for a single, twice for a double and so on. Fenn and Butch and I would stand or kneel with our fingers on the fence, our heads swiveling as we watched for traffic, and when a car would turn onto Twelfth West, we were gone, racing for base hits. If a car came around the short corner on Wasatch Avenue, it was a mad dash for a single. You almost always had to slide in. If you were off the bag when a car passed, you were out. If a car turned our way from clear down on the other side of Indiana Avenue, it was easy to nab a triple, standing—if the car came all the way past. If you ran on a car that turned away before passing in front of us: You were out. Other rules developed. If you sat on the bag while a car passed: strike.
One night, after Fenn and I had been arguing about how many different ways there were to pull a triple play, Butch was gone, to the swings and back for a single on the first car of the evening. The game—and a memorable night—had begun.