They laughed when we went outside to play backyard baseball, but once we started to play...
Mention backyard baseball to kids today and most will immediately head to their computers to play Atari’s computerized rendition of the sport. Few will actually grab a stick and ball and head for the backyard.
The boys of summer are now the boys of Atari, Xbox, and Wii.
But it wasn’t always this way...
Taking It to the Streets,
From the 1880s to the 1920s, baseball was developing into America’s “National Pastime.” Kids of all nationalities, many recent arrivals to the larger cities in North Eastern United States, were looking for ways to play baseball like their heroes, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In those days, as immigrant kids growing up in the city, most could not afford bats or gloves and even fewer kids had a yard in which to play backyard baseball.
So they improvised.
For baseballs, they used small pink rubber Spalding balls called spaldeens by New Yorkers with thick accents who originally pronounced Spalding as “spal-deen”. Similar in size to a racquetball, these balls were made from the defective cores of tennis balls without the felt.
For bats, they would often rummage around alleys and porches for mops and brooms to cut down — often alienating neighborhood mothers, including their own.
With broomsticks and rubber balls in hand, they took to the streets and schoolyards, where they enjoyed their improvised version of their favorite game and innocently created the game we now so affectionately call Stickball.
Suburban Sprawl and the Wiffle Ball
In the 1960s and 1970s, families began leaving cities for suburban areas. Grass lawns replaced the streets and school yards as play areas and Wiffle ball was becoming immensely popular as America’s favorite sandlot and backyard baseball game.
Wiffle ball, the game, is a variation of baseball designed for indoor or outdoor play in confined areas. It was invented by David N. Mullany of Fairfield, Connecticut in 1953. It is played with a hollow plastic ball measuring no more than 1/8th inch thick and about the same size as a regulation baseball called the “Wiffle ball.” One hemisphere of the ball is perforated with eight .75 inches (19 mm) oblong holes; the other hemisphere is solid. This construction allows pitchers to throw a tremendous variety of pitches such as sweeping curveballs, sinkers, and risers. However, rather than hitting the ball with the broomstick handle bats used in Stickball, a hollow, hard plastic, yellow bat measuring 32 inches (810 mm) in length and about 1.25 inches (32 mm) in diameter is used. Some more serious folks were even turning their yards into backyard baseball fields.
But not all kids were taken up with the Wiffle ball. In fact, a group of neighbor boys in a quaint little neighborhood of North Haven, Connecticut held on to the traditional broomstick handle bats but replaced the spaldeen used in Stickball with a crisscrossed taped plastic golf ball they called a PGEE Ball™ to create their own backyard baseball game.
“We just never liked the feel of the Wiffle ball and the plastic bat thing,” recalls Lou Elia the creator of PGEE Ball™. “Don’t get me wrong Wiffle ball was a fun backyard baseball game and that Wiffle ball really moved. But the bat, well it was plastic and too light.”
Like most kids back then playing backyard baseball, the boys would play pitch and catch with a tennis ball. Taking turns with one pitching and the other catching and calling balls and strikes. The catcher would also act as the batter by throwing the ball into the field where the pitcher would have to field the ball and make the play.
Who Else Wants To Play…PGEE Ball™?
One day a neighbor’s friend around the age of twenty stopped by and asked the boys, who were nine or ten years old at the time, if they had ever tried playing backyard baseball with a small plastic golf ball and a broomstick. Besides playing Little League baseball and an occasional sandlot or wiffle ball game, the boys had not ventured much into different variations of baseball. So, they said no.
The neighbor quickly enlisted the boys’ help to set up a rudimentary backyard baseball field, pointing out certain landmarks for the field’s boundaries. He then covered some very simple backyard baseball rules to get the game started.
“We used various trees and hedges as markers for home runs and had simple rules like ground balls were outs and anything uncaught past the pitcher in the air was a base hit and in no time we were playing an improvised version of baseball that we called “PGEE Ball™,” a name we derived from the Practice Golf Ball we were using,” recalls Elia.
The one problem the boys had though was that plastic golf balls were very light and intentionally designed not to carry. So, the boys figured out that adding two thin crisscrossed strips of white hockey adhesive tap around the ball would give the ball just the right weight for throwing and give it the necessary carry. What they also discovered was that when they hit the taped balls they really jumped off the bat making homerun blasts even more dramatic.
“Taping the balls was a key breakthrough. It gave them the added weight needed and a longer life expectancy,” says Elia who doesn’t recall who came up with the idea of adding tape to the ball. “The best part was that tape didn’t make the ball any easier to hit but it did make it easier to throw. We also used the tape as seams to throw curveballs, sliders, knuckle balls, and anything else we could dream up.”
As the boys progressed in their skills, they kept modifying the playing rules until they developed a unique set of backyard baseball playing rules to make the game even more challenging. Their one-on-one competitions soon became an obsession and before long all their other buddies were playing too.
“We would play for hours going through the line-ups of our favorite teams; we even had to bat from the same side of the plate as the players did,” said Elia a former varsity pitcher for Quinnipiac College in the late sixties and early seventies. “That’s how I learned to switch hit. My little brother and I would sneak in quick backyard baseball games before or after dinner and, since he’s seven years younger than me, I would hit lefty to keep the games fair. We would pull out all the stops for these games including turning on the backyard flood lights for night games.”
It Seems Incredible That You Can Build Eye-Hand Coordination...And Have Fun at the Same Time
Today it is no secret that the challenge of hitting a small golf ball size ball with a small diameter bat barrel builds great hand-eye coordination. In fact, concentration and focus are key skills a batter must possess to make consistent, solid contact with the ball.
Some coaches have even incorporate hitting drills that use broomstick size bats and small golf ball size plastic balls to teach batters concentration. But, most of them get frustrated using this method because the broomstick bats fail to stimulate an actual batting swing.
“Playing PGEE Ball™ really helped us learn to see the ball better. But, using the light weight broomsticks for bats only made the regulation bats seem heavier." explains Elia. "So, we began experimenting with things like shovel handles to make the bat heavier. These only proved more expensive and harder to hide from our fathers.”
After exhausting their options, the boys decided to stick with the broomstick handle as their choice of bat for their version of backyard baseball. To the boys, PGEE Ball™ was their favorite recreation. They played it religiously for seven years.
“We even got to the point where we built a PGEE Ball™ stadium in my friend Jimmy’s backyard. It had two foul poles and was perfectly carved between a swimming pool in center, a rose hedge in right and a line of five 30 foot entwined elms in left,” says Elia smiling at the memory. “I remember the last year we played. We were both seventeen. It was just before Jimmy moved to Illinois. I hit 74 home runs that year, crushing the old mark by 30. One time I hit a crushing shot and sent that little ball over the row of 30 foot high elm trees. It was the first time anyone had ever done that in the seven years we played. I did it just one more time before closing that cherished backyard baseball park.”
The boys eventually went separate ways and the backyard baseball games became fond memories to share at reunions.
How a Fool Idea Resurrected A Nearly Forgotten Backyard Baseball Game...
One day, while working a baseball trade show in 2009, Elia became intrigued with the show’s vast array of training bats. Remembering back to his backyard baseball days and how hitting the golf ball sized balls helped his eye, he started to imagine a bat designed specifically for hitting PGEE Balls™. The bat would feel like a real bat yet provide the training benefits of hitting with a barrel that has a diameter that is the same size as a broomstick.
When he returned to the Cape, Elia shared his thoughts with Thomas Bednark of the Barnstable Bat Company. Tom has been making bats for the past thirty years, out of his tiny backyard barn. An expert bat maker, Tom has built bats for a variety of major league ball clubs. To this day, he still makes customized bats for the oldest and most revered armature baseball league in the world, The Cape Cod Baseball League. This league has produced more professional baseball players than any other amateur league in existence.
After several attempts at getting the proper weight balance and design, Elia hit upon the PGEE Ball Bat™ for backyard baseball. It is specially designed and made of solid wood ash to teach hitters to swing properly with the weight and feel of a real ball bat. Yet, the bat's broomstick size diameter barrel teaches hitters at all levels how to make solid contact with the ball.
“Because the PGEE Ball Bat™ feels like a real bat, it teaches you to pull your hands through the swing for optimum contact and power,” explains Elia. “Smashing plastic golf ball sized balls with the bat's broomstick diameter barrel will quickly help hitters master the hand-eye coordination and focus they need for consistent, solid contact with the ball.”
But, being the big kid that he is, Elia didn’t want the PGEE Ball Bat™ to be just a training bat. He also knew that narrow minded critics would try to pass the bat off as just another training gimmick. So, he decided to replicate and share the enjoyment and fun he had back in the sixties playing PGEE Ball™ with the rest of world. This way, players can learn the essential skills of hitting during their practice sessions or while having fun playing the PGEE Ball™ Backyard Baseball Games.
Today, the PGEE Ball Bat™ is used at leading clubs and training centers like Baseball Clubs of Cape Cod and The Dugout Dawgs Baseball Training Facility on Cape Cod, as well as the thirteen-year-old Cape Cod AAU baseball team.
“For me it’s a dream come true to see a game I so passionately enjoyed in my childhood now helping old and young players alike correct the flaws in their bat swing and help them become better, more consistent hitters,” said Elia, as he headed over to his next coaching session.
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