Walk(er)ing In a Wiffleball Wonderland

Baseball, as we know, can be played in many variations. Arguably the most popular of those, is Wiffleball. Through the decades, countless backyard get-togethers, sandlot pickup games, or even entire, official leagues have been created to enjoy this simplistic, joyous take on America’s pastime. One such legendary league, was the Walker Wiffleball League (1986-1994.)

While not as grandiose as Major League Baseball, nor as obscure as the Iowa Baseball Confederacy, the WWL more than held it’s own for many years on the dusty outskirts of Joliet, IL. Today we’re thrilled to have a visit with fellow baseball junkie and the founder, commissioner, and namesake of the WWL, Chris Walker. Join us on a hilarious and fascinating little journey back to the days of the WWL, and the grassy thrill of Hank Gathers Memorial Stadium.

Image result for Wiffle Ball

Q: Chris, thanks for joining us today!

A: My pleasure.

Q: Let’s jump right in: When and how did the WWL begin and end? What made you decide to start an official league?

A : It began in 1986 and ended in the fall of 1994. In the beginning we were always outside playing baseball, but sometimes we just didn’t have enough people to play so I wanted to create a way to play some form of baseball even if we only had a few kids. It was trial and error for the first two years and in 1988 we established rules and kept stats, but we still were ironing out kinks, trying to figure things out, etc. I think the final product ended up being rather impressive.

Q: You wrote a very thorough rule book, kept stats for each game and player, and compiled them into season and career-long variations. What effect did that level of depth have on the league?

A: I think it’s something that was truly original, especially when you add in that we even videotaped some games with the old huge VHS recorders and a couple times we broadcast game via CB even though we really had no one listening except someone else who was out there sitting in his car in the cul-de-sac. I can’t even imagine what the league would be like if I was a kid today with advanced technology, social media, youtube, and shit like that. I can’t imagine if I was born in 2002 rather than 1972 and was just getting started in doing such a thing. As amazing as I think my product was, and it truly was a product, we would’ve done some ridiculous things.

Q: Were the seasons made up of just one-off games or did you orchestrate a playoff structure of any kind?

A: It was pretty much guys showing up, picking teams and playing a bunch of games. We did schedule some tournaments where people picked their own teams, which was also a lot of fun. Some nights we’d have good matchups and play a best-of-3 series, which also was pretty cool to do.

Q: Did the WWL ever host any special events? All-Star games? Tournaments? Etc.

A: We’d have home run derbies, tournaments and some special events. We had Kautz Fest (after player Dan Kautz who was leaving to go into the military) where we decorated the park and it looked more like a used car dealership for a few days. I think one of the cooler things we did was play music during night games, and in the early 90s there were some great releases. I’m pretty sure that some people first heard of Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden while playing wiffleball with their buddies. You’re welcome.

Q: This was all long before the days of the internet and social media so where did the players come from? Was it just among local family and friends or did any players travel from further away?

A: It was primarily word of mouth. Obviously I had my friends in high school from ‘88-90 and then I went to Joliet Junior College so I met some guys there in ‘90-92 who got involved before I went away to Southern Illinois at Carbondale. I was also umpiring a lot of youth baseball so some fellow umpires also got into the action and I was playing rec softball a few nights a week so there were guys I met there as well.

Q: You built a custom field, complete with lights for night games. Tell us about the layout, dimensions, special features, and how the building process came about.

A: Our yard had a weird shape to it and the majority of the backyard was fenced in, but outside of it, we also had property, plus there was an open lot adjacent to it. Technically, part of the field, the home plate area, wasn’t even on our land. Dimensions were 110 down the lines and 100 to center, which is opposite of a traditional baseball field, but played into the game we created. With a pitcher and two fielders, a hitter might be inclined to try to hit it to center with the short fence, but you also had two fielders converging to deal with, as well as the pitcher. The first two years were a bit different, but we worked on adjusting the field to have it set up this way with the same distances, etc.., and then we did the wall like a MLB park and installed permanent lights, a backstop, wooden benches. Part of the fence is hanging in my garage now.

Q: How much, if any, documentation still exists from the WWL days? (video, statistics, photos, articles, etc.)

A: It’s a mix. Sadly, no one really ever took photos. I fortunately have a dozen or so photos that I took of the field itself, mostly toward the end in 1994. If we played today, can you imagine the number of photos we’d have with cell phones? It also would’ve made it easier to set up games. I’m guessing there are about 25-30 games that I have on video as that was sporadic, but it’s better to have some rather than none. I still need to take the time and total up career stats, which is something if I ever get some free time, I’d love to do. I wouldn’t mind putting up a website documenting the league and its history. Of course, there’s no better way to relive the history than the Game Summaries. I kept one for every game played from 1988 through 1994. I have several enormous binders from every season with the box scores and details of what happened that night. It’s diary-like. Luckily, I like to write and Jason Switzer, who was heavily involved in the league in the 90s also did, so there’s great stuff there and it’s hard not to smile and laugh when you pop one of those binders open and read for awhile.

Q: Tons of Wiffleball leagues exist now, yet you seemed to do it on an official scale before everyone else did. Do you feel you helped pioneer a beloved variation of baseball in any way?

A: I don’t think there’s anything like what we did. Since most of us were still playing regular baseball we couldn’t play traditional wiffleball. Throwing that plastic ball as hard as you could would’ve destroyed our arms and if our coaches found out they would’ve kicked our asses for being so stupid. That’s why I tailored the league to be more defense-oriented, except when the wind was howling out! We also used a special ball made by Cosom which was softball-size and had circle holes on it. I think the people who played the most would even argue that they enjoyed playing defense as much, if not more than, hitting. I don’t know if anyone who would tailor a league in that way.

Q: Who, in your opinion, were the Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Walter Johnson of the WWL?

A: I don’t think anyone was really. I always had the biggest offensive numbers, but I also played all the time. I think I’ve been more impressed with the long list of people who have played the game and who they’ve become. I tend to forget that we were just teens and then guys in their early 20s and we were just hanging out and having a good time. I often reminisce and wish I could back to those simpler times, especially when I reflect and realize some of those guys are now gone, like Mark Russ and John Simpson. We had another kid, a Providence alum a few years younger than me who became Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro. He was nearly killed by an IED explosion in Afghanistan and became the first 100 percent disabled veteran to reenlist in the Air Force. He was severely burned more on more than 80 percent of his body, is now one of the most inspiring people in the world, but back when he was a just a teen he came out and had fun with us playing an innocent game. I guess I find myself reflecting more on who these guys were and what they’ve become then who they played or performed like.

Q: Your funniest, weirdest, or most interesting story about the league, or any individual game/player…

A: There are so many. Just from the top of my head….my Uncle Rick once drove his truck onto the field in the middle of the game scaring the pitcher (John Simpson) shitless while blaring “Burning Down The House” by the Talking Heads. My senior year in high school we played in the middle of a thunderstorm and we added a rule where everyone had to play barefoot. Real smart. There was a night where we played games all night until the sun started to rise. There was another where my friend Dave Stolarek’s car blew up. I’m serious. His car blew up while sitting parked. While hundreds of miles away in college, I had a player bring his girlfriend and they hung out, drinking beer and making out on the bench, or so I was told. And the cast of characters who either played once or twice or became regulars, and even the nicknames we came up with. We had Billy “Buttpick” Davis who got the nickname because he often picked his ass in the middle of games. He also enjoyed eating raw hot dogs. He’d just walk over with them and sit there nibbling on them. And even Jimmy “Shoeless” Chaplin who usually played barefoot, hence the perfect nickname. When the league first started we had a 4th of July family game with me and two of my cousins playing against three of our uncles. The entire game was filmed with my dad impersonating Jimi Hendrix doing the national anthem on guitar, one of my uncles serving as a boisterous umpire and my late grandfather recreating the infamous Bob Uecker “front row Miller Lite” commercials. The fact that we have video of this entire day makes it one of my most prized possessions and favorite memories and the funny thing is that this was in 1989, back before I really made the stadium awesome. I could go on and on.

That’s fantastic. As a former part-time player in the WWL, although I was admittedly too young to do much offensive damage, it was a romp to the say the least. Many great memories with friends and family and another example of how the game of baseball and it’s variants, even indirectly, can connect us in ways we often take for granted.

Thank you Chris for that fantastic retrospective on a hell of a fun era!

 

Photo Credit: http://road2gameday.com/baseball/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Wiffle_xuicm8b8_g6pwn1s6.jpg

 

 

 

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