Guys, Teams and Fenceball:  The Meta-Games of Youth

Thomas Robert “Bert” Washington was a 6-foot-1, 185-pound, right-handed hitting (though, interestingly, left-handed throwing) first baseman-outfielder for the Pirates and Yankees from 1920 through 1938. He was a great player, a two-time MVP in the National League (1926 and 1929), and then, after being traded straight-up for Lefty Gomez in December of 1931, the AL’s MVP in 1933. Here were his stat lines in his three MVP campaigns:

YEAR       G      AB       R       H     2B    3B    HR     RBI    SB       BA      SLG
1926    *154    *650    *152    *226    *50    15   *38    *137    20    *.348    *.646
1929     154     623     141     250     46    14    42     152    17    *.401    *.722
1933     138     554    *152     211     41    16    36    *165     9    *.381    *.708

What’s that? You say you’ve never heard of Bert Washington? And moreover, even though you’ve never heard of him, you can’t quite put your finger on it, but there’s something oddly familiar about those stat lines?

Okay, then, here’s another one. Or two, actually: Lee Anthony Thornton, Senior and Junior. Dad was an all-time great, hitting .353 lifetime with 526 home runs between 1918 and 1939. His best year was probably 1923, when he hit .406 with 37 homers, but he was awfully good in 1921 as well: .376, with 46 doubles, 18 triples, and 39 round-trippers. The son, who always went by “Junior” Thornton, was a switch-hitter, a line-drive hitting infielder with doubles power, who hit .304 for the Giants, Braves, and Yankees in his 1949-66 career. His best years were with the pennant-winning Braves of 1957 and ’58, when he hit .321 and .339, with 40 doubles in each season.

You have the same issues with the Thornton boys that you did with Washington? Well, okay, I’ll admit it: these players never really existed. I made them up, when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I’m reading their career records right now, on starting-to-yellow paper, typed up neatly (only a couple of x’ed-out mistakes) on a Royal manual about 35 years ago.

These players were “guys.” “Guys” is what my brother and I called imaginary careers such as these, and inventing careers was a pastime that took us happily through many a rainy winter weekend. We made up dozens and dozens of “guys,” although I have to admit that into my adulthood I only have a few saved (the most satisfying and memorable, I suppose), in a manila folder in a cardboard box that also includes old Strat-o-Matic scoresheets, high school newspapers I edited, and the odd college term paper or two. Apparently some men are sentimental about the relics of long-lost youth.

There were no hard-and-fast rules about “making a guy.” You were making him up, so you could have him do anything you wanted. But certainly the ones that were the most challenging to create, and the ones that were most likely to elicit interest and approval from the other brother, were the “guys” who met two fairly strict criteria:

1. Each season’s stat line couldn’t be just something you made up, but had to instead be an actual line from a real player’s career (major league or minor league), copied out of Who’s Who in Baseball, or The MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia.

2. The career progression and quality had to be plausible, believable, what we called “realistic.” If a “guy’s” stat lines bounced all over the place, we would dismiss him as being too “fake.”

The “realistic” and “fake” considerations often led us to look at the actual careers of some real players and admit that if we had ever made up such a “guy,” the other brother would have laughed him off as “fake”: Ted Kluszewski, Tommy Harper, Early Wynn, Norm Cash. The challenge in “making a guy” was to make him not too “fake,” yet not too blandly predictable either. The best “guys” were “realistic” but interesting.

Oh, and in case you haven’t figured it out yet (and if you have, congratulations, you’re almost as much of a geek as I am!), here are the keys to the stat lines mentioned above:

Bert Washington 1926 = Chuck Klein 1932
Bert Washington 1929 = Rogers Hornsby 1922
Bert Washington 1933 = Al Simmons 1930
Lee Thornton 1923 = Ted Williams 1941
Lee Thornton 1921 = Stan Musial 1948
Junior Thornton 1957 = Tony Oliva 1965
Junior Thornton 1958 = Roberto Clemente 1964

“Teams:” Game-by-Game

If you weren’t in the mood to “make a guy,” there was always the diversion of “making a team.” There were two variations on this activity: you could make up a team’s game-by-game record within a season, or you could make up a team’s season-by-season results over the course of decades.

For the game-by-game seasons, you could just invent how well or poorly your “team” would do each day, and premeditate yourself into a pennant winner or a tail-ender at your whim. But we found a couple of methods that were less willful than that.

The first was this: you took an old paperback book that you really didn’t care about beating up too much (and for my brother and me, this was saying something, because we loved our books). You blindly flipped the pages of the book and then stopped somewhere and pointed to that page. Whatever page number came up, that told you the score of that day’s game: if you had flipped to page 78, well your “team” lost 8 to 7; if you had flipped to page 342, your “team” had won, 4 to 2 (you just ignored the first digit on pages above 99, except for once every ten games or so, when you would decide that the scoring had gone into double digits, and page 153 would be a 15-3 win, or page 213 would be a 13-2 loss). If you came up with a page such as 244, then guess what: the score was tied 4-4, and we went into extra innings! You’d have to flip the pages again to find out who won.

After flipping the pages, you duly recorded the day’s result on a piece of binder paper (adding in such details as who the opponent was, who the winning/losing pitcher was, what record this gave your “team” on the season thus far, what position your “team” was now in, etc.). The unpredictability of this method was its great feature, although we found ourselves discovering the laws of probability: these “teams” practically never went on a long winning or losing streak, and seemed to usually wind up somewhere around 81-81.

The second method of game-by-game seasons involved much more skill than luck. We had, from early childhood, a set of little wooden building blocks called American Bricks. Anybody remember these? They were proto-Legos, I guess: little wooden rectangles with tiny round knobs and holes in them so you could fit them together and build little fences and houses and such. Endless creative fun for the pre-schooler.

Well, by the time we were 10-and-over, we didn’t build too many fences or houses with the American Bricks any more. But our Dad had built a sturdy plywood box in which we stored the American Bricks. So what we would do is take a handful of American Bricks, and put the box way over against the wall or something. You tossed an American Brick toward the box from across the room. If it went in, great: your “team” had won that day! Mark it down! But if you missed, sorry, you lost today. If the American Brick went right into the box, no problem, you’d write down a blowout score (10-1 or something); if the Brick just barely made it, it was a one-run squeaker. Vice-versa for close or bad misses.

The trick, of course, was to set up a distance that made it neither too easy nor too difficult to get the American Brick into the box, and we’d also often add restrictions (e.g. you had to make the toss while lying on the floor on your back, or toss it left-handed) or obstacles (e.g. you had to toss the Brick over our sister’s dollhouse and get it into the box blind) to spice it up. This method, deployed with the proper care and nuance, often made for a “team” that had thrilling win streaks, and agonizing slumps.

“Teams”: Season-by-Season

This game was sort of a variation on the “making a guy” theme. One of our most beloved books was the classic old S.C. Thompson reference, All-Time Rosters of Major League Baseball Clubs. It was a big, thick, hardbound tome (which my brother and I nicknamed the “telephone book” for its size and heft) that listed every single team of all time (well, though 1966 in our edition, which was pretty much all time for us) and its complete roster.

Along with listing each season’s roster, the book presented a complete season-by-season listing of every team’s won-lost record and their position in the standings; i.e., in 1913 the Boston Braves were 69-82 (.457) 5th, and in 1914 they were 94-59 (.614) 1st, and so on. To “make” a season-by-season “team,” you took an actual season’s record of an actual team from the “telephone book” to be your “team’s” record and finish for each year, and created a season-by-season, decade-by-decade capsule history.

As with “guys,” the challenge here was to make your “team” interesting yet believable. Bouncing around from 100-win to 100-loss seasons and back was “fake,” but year after year of .500-ish mediocrity was boring. So the trick was to come up with patterns of improvement and decline that were plausible, yet idiosyncratic enough to capture the imagination. The real fun, of course, was adding all the fictional flourishes, of colorfully-named managers and deciding when they would get fired, and backstory explanations for the “team’s” periodic success cycles (though we didn’t use that term, we absolutely grasped the concept) that included developing stars, holdouts, backfiring trades, the works.

Fenceball

My brother and I played many more indoor baseball meta-games than these. But lest I give you the impression we were merely housebound slugs, allow me to describe our favorite front yard activity – one that was the bane our Dad’s carefully-nurtured rose bushes’ existence. (It got to the point that we only dared play Fenceball on weekday afternoons when Dad wasn’t home, because otherwise he would chase us out of the front yard, bellowing something about, “You jokers are wrecking the roses!” – but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Our house featured a decent-sized front yard (and a way-too-small back yard, and a dangerously busy four-lane street, leaving the front yard as the only suitable site for a sport such as Fenceball, much to Dad’s dismay). Along one edge of the yard was a board fence about four feet high, with one rail about six inches from the top, and another about six inches from the bottom. This fence was the target that the batter hit toward in Fenceball. (The two or three rose bushes in front of the fence made for excellent defenders.)

The batter stood just behind the concrete walk leading to the front door, roughly 20 feet from the fence. The pitcher tossed a soft rubber ball (not exactly a Spaldeen, but something similar), and the batter whacked away. A batted ball hitting the fence on one hop was a single. A batted ball hitting the fence on the fly in the large middle section was a double; hitting the fence on the fly on the edge above the top rail was a home run, and hitting the fence on the fly on the edge below the bottom rail was a triple. A batted ball not reaching the fence, or reaching the fence on two or more bounces, was an out. A ball hit over the fence into the neighbors’ yard, whether on the fly or the bounce, was an out: thus containing the game pretty much to our yard (with an exception, that I’ll explain shortly), and making it a sport rewarding deftness much more than power (which helped to make things fairer, given that my brother was four years older than me, and thus much bigger and stronger).

The pitcher/fielder tried to prevent hits, by placing his pitches carefully (we did call balls and strikes, and allowed each pitcher one pitch per inning in which he could rear back and blaze it, but generally he was required to pitch underhand or overhand lob), and by aggressively knocking down batted balls. Here’s where the rose bushes really came into play; many’s the time a sure hit would be intercepted by a thorny branch. (And many’s the time, of course, when a well-struck ball would shatter the branch, which is what caused our rose-loving Dad such consternation – often times we would try to hide the evidence of decimated branches and petals in the garbage can, though somehow Dad never seemed to be fooled.)

Getting hits in Fenceball wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t impossible either; our rules struck a nice balance, and scores tended to be within the range of real baseball’s. The ball pretty much remained within our yard, keeping the pace moving along nicely. The one exception to this was when you’d get a runner to third with less than two outs: a sac fly situation. Here my brother loved to show off his power; he’d just uncoil and slug that rubber ball for all it was worth, blasting it far over the fence, not only into the neighboring yard but often into the busy intersection beyond it. It was an out, but I could hardly argue that it hadn’t gone deep enough to score the runner from third.

Often in preparation for Fenceball games, we would put together lineups with Strat-o-Matic cards, which would be your team for that day. You had to do your best to reflect the characteristics of each hitter as he came to bat: when Russ Snyder was up, you had to kind of slap for singles; when you were Dick Stuart, you had to bring out the ol’ uppercut, and so on. One of my fondest memories is being Harmon Killebrew one time, and tomahawking a high pitch (in my best Killebrewian short-armed manner) on a vicious line to the base of the fence for a triple. (Hey, Killebrew hit a few triples, didn’t he?)

Didn’t even touch a rose bush. Well, not that time, anyway.

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