"Car!" someone would call, and we would all duck, fall on the ground or hide behind a tree. At twilight or shortly after dark the sight of a car cruising our neighborhood streets would send us scurrying. So the whole thing started with a fear, the uneasy feeling that somebody's parents would pull into a driveway and begin calling us home: "Bob-by!" "Dav-ey!" "Jay-ay!" (Even one-syllable names were split during those evening roll calls.) When our parents stood on their porches and called out our names, it was the worst possible news: Another summer day was over. So we'd hide. It was the urge to avoid being caught in the headlights that gave birth to car baseball in early August of 1959 on the west side of Salt Lake City, where we all grew up.
Baseball was our passion then, and we invented many variations on the theme. Oh, we played the real thing at the Little League field across the street, but we spent our free time developing a wild baseball underground: wallball, strikeout, sockball, bottlecap. And we ended every day with car baseball, a game that had us running as if for our lives.
As I look back, wallball strikes me as the strangest invention of that wild summer. I've never heard of a game even remotely similar. We played wallball, like strikeout, against the house in Butch's backyard. Apparently, his parents didn't care that we were out back wrecking their house. Strikeout resembled stickball: The pitcher fired a tennis ball to a batter holding a broomstick beside the house, 40 feet away. The fielder stood way out back in the weeds of the alley. Strikes and balls were easy to call because at one place on the wall there were about five shingles missing; that was the strike zone. A strike made a distinct bip! as the ball hit the bare wall. If something clattered, the pitch had hit a shingle: ball. But strikeout had disadvantages: Solid base hits often soared over Mr. Quail's shed and vanished. A lost ball could set us back a whole day. We were not tennis players, and our supply of tennis balls was precious.
So Butch invented wallball. One day as he was pitching to me in strikeout he simply said, "Turn around."
"Turn around and face the wall."
I did, and the rules began to evolve. The batter faced the wall about four feet from the house, the pitcher stood 40 feet behind him and the fielder was somewhere behind him in the yard. The pitcher tossed the ball against the house; the hitter tried to clobber it off the wall as it rebounded into the field. While the batter ran to the porch and back, the fielder came up with the ball and threw it to the pitcher, who was covering home for the force out. However, the fielder's throw had to bound once off the wall before the pitcher could catch it. The appeal of wall-ball was that it could be played full speed, no choke-up, no soft throws, in one-tenth the space required for strikeout, and you never lost the ball.
Fenn was a creative pitcher. He developed a spitball for strikeout using dog saliva. Tiny, Butch's weird German shepherd, would lounge near the mound and Fenn would let him gum the ball between pitches. Then Fenn would fire a shot that would drop or rise or fall away and float eerily. I tried to outlaw the pitch but couldn't get the votes. Fenn liked it and Tiny was Butch's dog.
Fenn used the same pitch in wallball. After a distracting windmill windup, he delivered straight overhand. The tennis ball, old, worn and black as an 8 ball, would lob up and fall sharply through the strike zone. It was the best pitch in the game: the slow drop. However, because the ball was wet from Tiny's mouth, I could see the spot on the wall where it had hit, and I adjusted my stance.
When Butch played in the field, he liked to hide in the weeds. He figured that if he concealed himself, the batter wouldn't know where to push the ball.