One bat. Half a ball. Pitcher. Batter. Catcher. No base running. No fielding. No World Series, but tons of fun. Anywhere, anytime.
by Billy Deal
When Willie Mays was playing for the Giants in the 1950s, he'd stop off after a day of business at the Polo Grounds and play stickball with New York City's street urchins. Judging from those good-time grins in newspaper photos, it seems Willie enjoyed swinging broomsticks nearly as much as Louisville Sluggers.
Too bad Willie didn't spend time around coastal South Carolina and Georgia. If he enjoyed New York stickball he would have loved half rubber, the quintessential bat-ball game that first was played in Savannah. Or Florence. Or Myrtle Beach. Or somewhere in between. The origin of this magnificent little game has been contested for decades, but since it is virtually impossible to find anyone outside the two-state area who has even heard of it, it seems safe to call it a product of the aforementioned coastal triangle. Transplanted crackers and sandlappers have carried the game to other locales, but except for isolated pockets of interest it remains a regional treasure. Oddly, its popularity never spread further than a couple of hundred miles from Myrtle Beach.
HALF RUBBER. The mere mention of the name conjures up happy memories of long summer days spent with broomsticks and sponge rubber balls sliced neatly in half (hence the name). Pickup games would begin early in the morning, with a couple of beaks during the day to drown Tom's salted peanuts in 12-ounce bottles of Pepsi-Cola and wolf down a bologna sandwich on white bread. They would end in total darkness as the batter tried to see just one more pitch before finally giving up; often the games merely would move to the nearest street lamp and go on past midnight - or until somebody's mother threatened.
I began playing half rubber before Willie Mays ever saw New York. Growing up in Savannah, I learned the game early, the way a kid in Minnesota learns ice hockey or a kid in California learns to talk funny. It was Our Game, a Savannah tradition. It wasn't until later that I learned they also played the game along the Carolina coast.
It was a better game than organized baseball because every kid could play, no matter how spastic. You merely sought your lever of competition, and everybody had fun. It was the perfect game, filled with delightful contradictions. It was intensely competitive, but you never had to run. You could stay at bat for half an hour, or for just one pitch. The best pitch to hit was one not thrown down the middle, but one that bounced to you. To the inexperienced eye, the unwavering consistency of the good players could seem as boring as bowling. Yet one errant pitch could lose a game that had been even for hours.
It was a game for all ages, from preteens to grandfathers. Even girls played (not with boys, of course). I knew guys in high school who earned their lunch money every day with a quick game of half rubber in the bus parking lot before class. We had makeshift leagues and tournaments, and neighborhood stars constantly were challenging guys from across town - a sort of harmless gang warfare.
You didn't need uniforms, expensive equipment or fenced-in parks. Usually, you liberated a heavy-duty broom from the back of a grocery store or warehouse, clipped off the straw, spent 29 cents for a sponge rubber ball about as big as a baseball, and you were in business. You could play in a street, on a sidewalk or on the beach, but the smart players usually found a solid backdrop like the side of a building to stop wild pitches. One of the foremost goals seemed to be to move as little as possible. The catcher always threw "egg balls" back to the pitcher to cut down on the erratic movement of a normally thrown ball. To play inside a gym was a special treat; there was no wind factor, and "roll space" was reduced considerably. Half rubber was never meant to provide exercise. It is simply the purest form of pitcher-hitter-catcher warfare in all of sports.
But lest you underestimate the subtle attraction of half rubber and think it an unimaginative game requiring little skill and preparation, consider this. Just slicing a ball in half is such a delicate job that it often was performed on the meat slicer at the friendly neighborhood deli. If you didn't have a friendly neighborhood, let alone a deli, one player carefully would cut with a thin, sharp knife while another turned the ball methodically to ensure an even cut. It was a real triumph when both halves were truly even. (It might have happened six times in the 40 years I've played the game.) Invariably, one side would be slightly cupped, which meant it would not sail true and would be used only if nothing else was available. Therefore, you used two or three balls for a game. This eliminated a lot of ball retrieval. You just kept pitching until all the balls were gone, then you'd go and collect them all at once and start over. Many games would see a dozen halves piled around the pitcher's feet.
A good, well-cut half might last two or three games, but good hitters usually could wear a ball out in one outing. And you never bought the balls with the heavy, colored coating; they never cut well and the coating would crack quickly.
Finding the proper stick was even more difficult than cutting the ball. It was not as simple as swiping your mother's broom, because household brooms and mops were usually not heavy enough and would break with the first solid hit. When you found a heavy-duty broomstick that was thick enough and long enough, you protected it like few other possessions. Most things can be replaced if you have enough money. A good half rubber stick can't be bought; it has to be discovered.
LIKE SKIING or golf, half rubber is a skill that looks simple but can be acquired only through participation. But once you can do it, you can do it forever.
The throwing motion is stiff-wristed, submarine style - an exaggerated underhand motion. The proper grip has the ball tucked between the thumb and forefinger, with the other fingers underneath against the flat side. The flat side is parallel to the ground so the ball actually sails out of your hand like a flying saucer. The underhand motion lets the ball stay inches above the ground for most of the distance, then rise sharply as it reaches the hitter, allowing the catcher to receive it about waist high. A good pitch will rise three or four feet from the time the batter starts to swing until it reaches the catcher. A good pitcher also can make the ball hug the grasstops all the way to the catcher (about 50 feet), making it even more difficult for the hitter to get a lever swing - and accounting for many broken bats as players hit the ground with futile flails. The ultimate pitch may be the 5-mph floater after you've been feeding a hitter 60-mph shooters for awhile. Even the best hitters will miss it.
The rules are simple. Active players are pitcher, catcher and batter. If the batter swings and misses and the catcher catches the pitch, the batter is out. One swing. But no play. A ball that touches the ground before reaching the catcher is a free swing. A batter may be retired if the catcher catches a hit in the air or if the catcher holds on to a foul tip.
A hit must come to rest at least a bat length in front of the batter, and all hits are singles. All "runners" proceed one base at a time. Therefore, four singles produce one run, and each subsequent hit (in the same inning) another run. Some players stick to the all-singles rule, while others allow a home run for any ball hit in the air beyond some designated distant point (the blue Chevy, the first pine tree, Charlene's front porch, etc.)
Teams can have any number of players, and every player bats every inning. I've seen some games with up to 10-member teams, but the most common setup, and the most fun, is the two-person team. Another popular variety is "cutthroat" or "one-a-cat," using only three players; each player is a "team" and must beat the other two players to win; in this sequence, each player bats, pitches and catches in continuous rotation.
HALF RUBBER PROVIDED countless hours of pleasure for me, and I still play the game on occasion. (I still have a couple of treasured sticks in the attic.) But I'm afraid it is a game of past generations. You always can find a game at the beach, but I haven't seen a pickup game in a park or alley in years. Perhaps it's the regimented world of little league baseball that steers kids away early. Or maybe i just don't know where the action is and the game is as healthy as ever. I hope so. I did find some uneasy evidence of this a few years ago at Savannah Beach: a blister pack containing a precut stick and two half balls - $3.95. Disgusting. The balls were too small, the stick too thin.
I stumbled onto another testament to the grand old game at Fripp Island last summer. A mother and two sons were engaged in a light-hearted game, although none of the three was able to throw a hittable ball. As I watched, I detected definite Bronx brogues.
Buoyed by the hope my game finally had made the big time, I inquired. Yes, they were from New York. Oh, the game? Their host was from Charleston and insisted they give it a try.
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