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The most zaftig curve in America belongs not to Bo Derek but to a slight Philadelphia bookstore clerk named Jay Herman. This backyard Bo Belinsky retired from the Herman Wiffle Ball Four in 1971 at the age of 20, when his curve was perhaps at its most enticing. He unretired in 1972, and has retired and unretired every year since. It's tradition, and the Herman Four is nothing if not tradition.
Wiffle Ball isn't thought of as a major sport, or even a minor one, but in Herman's 18-year-old league, of which I am a charter member, the game has been distilled into the essence of baseball. There's minimal fielding, no sliding, no base running, no bunting, no hit-and-run, no spectators—just pitching and hitting. It's a pure contest of pitcher against batter.
For the uninitiated, a Wiffle Ball is a hollow white plastic sphere with slots cut out on one side, which is what helps give Herman his curve. Four-year-old kids hit Wiffle Balls with a kind of hollow, lemony plastic bat—the game was obviously invented by a guy whose mother warned him about smashing windows—but in Herman's league we have advanced to thin, rugged, wooden bats. The hard bats sometimes crack the Wiffle Balls, making them jumpy and a lot harder to hit.
The Herman Wiffle Ball Four started in 1964 as the Herman Wiffle Ball Five. Five grade-school kids were unconvinced of the necessity for the seriousness of Little League. They were perfectly happy in grammar school and vowed never to become adults. They renew that vow every Wiffle Ball season.
In 1965 the fifth wiffler, Bob Blau, an eighth-grader of Ruthian proportions, was so dominant in the two no-hitters he pitched that the other four chose to ignore him for good. But Blau left behind a legacy: a wooden bat, hand-painted in red and blue, called the KesselKill, named after a neighborhood kid whom Blau used to harass with cherry bombs.
Herman Wiffle Ball is played every summer in the backyard of Herman's home in Penn Valley, Pa., a Main Line suburb of Philly. Each game is diligently scored for posterity. The foul pole in left is a telephone pole; in right it's a forsythia bush. A single is a grounder past the pitcher or a fly he knocks down and doesn't catch. You're out if the pitcher does catch it and you only get two outs an inning, seven innings a game. Any ball over his head is a double or a triple if it falls into vaguely marked zones. Home runs used to be easy to get. Any ball hit past the fir tree in left or the forsythia in right would do. There were 27 in one game in 1969; we batters were helped considerably by a tailwind pushed by Hurricane Gerda.
Since our first game, the fir tree has grown to 40 feet, and the forsythia has virtually closed off rightfield. These days homers are more a matter of accuracy or luck than power. You have to hit the ball through an ever-narrowing slot in center. On top of that, the plate was moved back 12 feet in 1971, making it even more of a pitcher's game. Actually, the exact location of the plate has been in dispute for some years. Herman's older brother seeded the field in the early '70s, and home plate was lost.
Each wiffler has developed his own pitching style. Arn Tellem relies exclusively on his fastball, which he delivers with all the control of Ryne Duren without his glasses on. The fastball is the worst pitch in Wiffle Ball anyway because the fastest ball only goes about 40 mph. Mark Moskowitz, the lone southpaw among us, grabs four balls and pitches at the batter as fast as he can. All he wants to do is get off the mound. As for myself, I try to hit the corners like Whitey Ford, whose splendid visage adorned our first Wiffle Ball box.
Herman has four basic pitches: a sinking fastball, a floater, a big curve thrown in the high-kicking style of Juan Marichal and, most impressive, a freaky-deaky reverse curve thrown from the fetal position. The ball seems to start near Plymouth Rock, circles the Golden Gate Bridge and arrives in the strike zone by way of the Cape of Good Hope. Still, Herman resists playing out of semi-adult inertia. Or maybe it's because his curve has tended to hang lately, and he has won only four of his last 23. He has to be coaxed out of retirement each game. He'll be watching TV in the kitchen, and you'll have to go out back and start hitting fungoes. The click peculiar to the impact of Wiffle Ball and wood drifts into his consciousness. Then he has to excavate his closet for an ancient pair of white tennis shoes. You have to practically push him onto the field and wait until his leg cramps and elbow pains and shin splints subside. But the ritual isn't complete yet. Even then he may never do more than swing in a kind of perpetual Wiffle batting practice. Just as you're about to promise to sacrifice your firstborn son, someone says, "Herman, are you ready?" And he says, "I'm ready."
That's the way the finest league game began on May 6, 1979. Herman's curve was really working, and the game went into extra innings. He was in a scoreless tie with Moskowitz until the bottom of the ninth, when he unloaded his big, big curve. It curled out of his hand like a cobra from a basket. Moskowitz watched it like a mongoose. He swung the KesselKill. The ball hit high in the fir tree, dribbling down limb by limb into a tomato patch on the home-run side of the field. Moskowitz won. Herman sat down on the mound, tugging at crabgrass, as if morosely waiting for fans to leave the stands. Then, as always, he made his way to the kitchen and turned the TV back on. "That's it," he said disgustedly. "I'm retiring for good." It just wouldn't be the same if he didn't.