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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The (literal) Dog Days of 1886

Well now this is something you don’t see anymore. And some probably only saw it once, ever. For as bizarre of a game as baseball always is, it was even more strange in the 19th century. Chickens, wolves, and dogs…oh my.

On August 22, 1886, in a tied game between the Louisville Colonels and the Cincinnati Reds, the truly unusual happened. Louisville’s William Van Winkle “Jimmy” Wolf, also known as “Chicken”, hit a walk-off, inside-the-park home run to defeat the Reds. This game-winning whack was made possible because a stray dog, uprooted from his siesta near the outfield fence, charged Reds outfielder Abner Powell and started biting his leg. The feral canine attack caused him to be unable to throw the ball in on time as Wolf scored easily. The dog, in essence, saved the Wolf.

In the steadily growing list of Things You’ll Never See Again, this scene should be in the top five at least.

Also, let us not overlook the irony of a man named Chicken, playing in Kentucky.

Sources: http://www.nationalpastime.com

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1747745-mlb-dog-days-of-summer-a-player-named-chicken-wolf-and-aug-23-obscurities

The Odds of Being Perfectly Even

Baseball, as we know, is a very random game. While strategy plays a crucial role, much is still left to chance and luck. On August 13, 1910 however, no game was played on a more even keel.

Washington Park, Brooklyn, 1909

To this day, no singular game has quite matched the unvaried contest that the Pittsburgh Pirates and Brooklyn Superbas (later the Dodgers), engaged in during the second game of a Saturday doubleheader at Washington Park in Brooklyn.

After Pittsburgh took Game 1 by a score of 3-2, the two clubs would enjoy (or loathe?) a seesaw battle in Game 2 that would see both teams end up with identical statistics. In a game full of variables by it’s nature, each team would accumulate 38 at-bats, rap out 13 hits, 12 assists, 2 errors, 5 strikeouts, 3 walks, 1 hit batsman and 1 passed ball. The game ended, appropriately, in an 8-8 tie.

A 100% even, identical game. In baseball. What are the odds of that?

 

Sources: http://www.nationalpastime.com

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PIT/1910-schedule-scores.shtml

Photo Credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4a/WashingtonPark02.JPG

 

Hickman’s Heroics Make Stengel Smile

On this day in 1963, a few rare things happened. First, the Mets won a game. Second, Mets third baseman Jim Hickman would become the first player in franchise history to hit for the cycle. Rarer still, he accomplished the feat in natural order.

In a 7-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals at the Polo Grounds, Hickman was the star. Normally an outfielder but getting a start at the hot corner that day, he would lead off the game with a single, rip a double in the second, a triple in the fourth, and finally cap it off with a home run in the sixth frame. The sparse crowd of 9,977 at the historic old ballpark roared their appreciation for the fantastic accomplishment.

Cardinals starter Ernie Broglio would fall to 12-8 with the loss, lasting just 3.2 innings while Mets hurler Tracy Stallard (5-10) would go the distance for the win, striking out four for Casey Stengel’s hapless ballclub.

There’s a first time for everything, as the saying goes, but there isn’t a more impressive way to become your franchise’s first player to hit for the cycle than doing it the way Hickman did 53 years ago today.

Sources: http://www.nationalpastime.com

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYN/NYN196308070.shtml

Wingo Was A Star

Most catchers aren’t known for their speed or baserunning skills. Ivey Wingo was an exception. At least once.

On July 30, 1913, third year St. Louis Cardinals catcher Ivey Wingo would steal three of his 18 bases that year, in the same inning. In the bottom of the second in what would become a 9-1 thumping of the Boston Braves at Robison Field in St. Louis, Wingo stole second, third and then home, becoming part of a pretty small list of players to do so.

Wingo would be sold to the Cincinnati Reds prior to the 1915 season, where he would remain until the end of his career 14 years later. The Gainesville, GA native would amass a strong .260 lifetime batting average while catching 1,327 games. The midpoint of his career in 1919 was another highlight, as Wingo split time behind the dish with Bill Rariden, helping to win the infamous World Series that year over the Chicago White Sox. In a rather ironic situation, Wingo’s teammate on the ’19 Reds, Greasy Neale, would himself steal all three bases in the same inning during a game at the Polo Grounds in New York against the Giants.

You don’t often see small ball aggression to that degree anymore.

Sources: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/feats/stealing_second_third_home.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CIN/1919.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/w/wingoiv01.shtml

Cooperstown’s Inaugural Class Still the Best

With the well-deserved hoopla surrounding the inductions of new hall of fame ballplayers Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza this weekend in Cooperstown, aficionados of hardball history are reminded of the very first Hall of Fame class, in 1936.

And it’s still the greatest one, ever.

The first group to be enshrined in the Hall consisted of legends Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Ty Cobb.

Not much needs to be said about this group other than no Hall of Fame class ever has, nor ever will be, more powerful than that one, folks.

Source(s): http://www.baseballhall.org

Happy Birthday Shoeless Joe!

“He was the finest natural hitter in the history of the game.”

-Ty Cobb

The legendary Josepf Jefferson “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was born on this day in 1887 (although some sources cite 1888, adding to the mystique of the man), in Pickens County, South Carolina.

One of the best and most graceful players to ever step on the diamond, often thought of as the greatest natural left-handed hitter of all time, the man from whom Babe Ruth copied his swing, played 13 seasons in the Majors. Coming up with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1908 before being bought by Cleveland in 1910 and finally finishing his illustrious career with the Chicago White Sox where he won the World Series in 1917 but was banned from the game in 1921 for his role in throwing the infamous 1919 World Series.

His lifetime .356 batting average remains the 3rd highest in history, and he still holds Indians single-season records for batting average (.408), and hits (233), both in 1911, and triples (26) in 1912. He’s also the Indians all time leader in batting average (.374). For his part with the White Sox, he’s their all time leader in batting average (.340) and holds their single season record for triples (21) in 1916. Rather impressive for only playing parts of six seasons with each team.

Jackson would’ve been a lock for the Hall of Fame in it’s inaugural class in 1936 (joining legends Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Matthewson), if not for his banishment and subsequent transformation from star to tragic hero. Although his play on the field in the ’19 Series (he hit .375, including the series’ only HR and committed no errors) did not indicate he was playing to lose, he was aware of the fix and accepted $5,000 for his involvement. That red thumb has been more than enough to keep Jackson out of baseball for the last 95 years and likely forever. Like his Sox teammate Buck Weaver, many believed from the very beginning, and still to this day, that he was wronged, and deserves to be reinstated.

“Jackson’s fall from grace is one of the real tragedies of baseball. I always thought he was more sinned against than sinning.”

-Connie Mack

Sources:

 http://www.baseball-almanac.com/quotes/quojcks.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com