It’s a hot California afternoon. Low-90’s, with a slight breeze and only a few clouds. It’s like so many July California afternoons I enjoyed as a kid. Fighting off boredom we’d pick a sporting event to pass the time (those were the days when the kids were shooed outside in the morning and came home when it was dinner time — no play dates or anything resembling organized activities, thank you) — tennis, hoops, even badminton. At some point, though, it would always lead to grabbing my mitt, a bat, and a ball.
Most of the time it was just me and my best friend Ray from down the street, so with the inability to field full 9-on-9 squads we would resort to Over The Line. It was an abridged baseball game that only required a bat, a tennis ball (more on that later) and a cul-de-sac with a clearly delineated curb at the end to serve as the de facto centerfield wall validating our many home runs. You could play with a group of kids, but the beauty of Over The Line was that all you needed was two ballplayers for a full fledged major league contest to break out.
It would not be a stretch to estimate that from that first toss of the ball in the air back in the summer of 1972 (for play to commence, you could hit it out of the air or let it bounce, but you were your own pitcher) until my family relocated east in July of 1976, Ray and I played 500 or so of those full, nine-inning matchups (and that is a conservative estimate).
Over The Line became an integral part of our lives. This was as professionally done an experience as a couple of 7-year-olds (almost 11 by the time our era was winding down in ’76) could muster — each hitter was announced PA-style, hand written lineup cards. The lineups were typically selected based on that day’s favorite teams, often copied right out of that morning’s L.A. Times. More often than not, though, lineups were fueled by the latest star that emerged from a pack of Topps baseball cards picked up at the local store.
There were clearly defined rules and a system to determine if a tennis ball, once struck, was fair or foul (more cul-de-sac boundaries), as well as to confirm if a ball was a single, double, triple or an out. Homers were easy, as they simply needed to cross the far curb in the air, but in our own personal wrinkle, we would call it an out if the fielder ran it down, even if you ended up smack in the middle of the Ludwick’s flower garden, which was actually where the middle of the imaginary bleachers would have been located in our fantasy ballpark.
The use of a tennis ball was our concession to the neighbors understandable distaste for line-drive doubles crashing into the passenger door of whatever vehicle happened to be parked in fair territory (thankfully the car alarm hadn’t been invented just yet). We would meticulously track each batter’s results, and it was an offense-dominated game, with the scores regularly reaching the twenties.
Not surprisingly, I almost always chose the Mets as my squad, a decision rewarded by my favorite team’s surprise 1973 pennant on the last day of the season (“Ya Gotta Believe”). That allegiance then morphed over to the A’s as their 1970’s dynasty grew.
But Over The Line allowed the entire baseball world to become the 8-year-old fan’s oyster. I clearly remember a lengthy run with the San Francisco Giants for no other reason than I thought the 1973 Topps card of young centerfielder Gary Maddox was the coolest one I’d ever seen. And that Giants outfield of Maddox, fellow young star in the making Gary Matthews in left, and Bobby Bonds in right made for an awesome middle of the lineup. Ray would counter with the A’s or Dodgers (the summer of ’74 and the nightly power displays from Jimmy Wynn and Joe Ferguson often triggered Ray’s lineup card the following afternoon) or maybe the Lynn/Rice Red Sox of 1975.
And it didn’t always have to be the stars featured in one of our lineups. I had a solid run with the Indians the summer between third and fourth grade, when my favorite card had transitioned from Maddox to the one and only Tom Ragland, a second baseman who didn’t last long in MLB. But that didn’t keep Ragland from achieving immortality with a couple of 5-for-5, three-homer afternoons in the Glendora Over The Line circuit.
When my family relocated to New Jersey as the rest of the country celebrated the July 4th bicentennial I brought Over The Line east with me. On my arrival I was shocked and dismayed to learn that no one in New Jersey had ever heard of Over The Line. Yet there was something the Jersey kids called Indian Ball that played by essentially the same rules. I immediately embraced my old game with the new name, and the lineup cards evolved as my broader sense of the game’s history did, to include a franchise’s All-Time, All Star teams.
Now I’d fill out a lineup card for the Mets with Tommie Agee in center and Steve Henderson in left (Hendu was the best guy we got back from the Reds in the Seaver trade — nuff sed). Right field was either Art Shamsky or Dan Norman (a platoon, of course, as I waited patiently for Norman to evolve into the next George Foster, as the Mets brass promised he would following the Seaver fleecing). Norman never did amount to anything, but we did get the real Foster a few years later (when most of the thunder had drained from his big bat).
My trip down nostalgia lane and old memories of Over The Line got me to thinking about the differences between how sports were delivered to us kids on the separate coasts of the country back in the early to mid-70’s.
Grade school in New Jersey was much more structured, and included regular gym classes. In those classes we would learn the fundamentals around the major sports of football, baseball and basketball. We had one recess a day, which followed lunch, and almost always involved picking teams for a hotly contested game of kickball.
When I arrived in California as a newly-minted second-grader, there was a lot less structure, and the games the kids played seemed to change daily. Notably, there was no formal gym class at my California grade school, but perhaps to offset that, there were several recesses every day. One in the morning, one after lunch and an additional one in the afternoon. (I feel like there was also a fourth in there somewhere, but for the life of me I can’t imagine when that would have been fit in to a school day.) And those recesses revolved around two enormous play areas — one blacktop and one grass — which included a couple of backstops and diamonds for baseball or kickball.
Perhaps the most stark contrast between the two coasts was in how kickball was played. The game’s rules were identical, but the delivery of the ball from pitcher to kicker/batter said everything we need to know about the approach to life on each side of the country.
In New Jersey, an inordinate amount of time and energy was expended by both teams screaming at one another, complaining about the opponent’s horrific pitching and poor delivery of the ball. The pitcher would purposefully deliver unacceptable offerings that included changes of speed, spin, bouncing and generally doing everything the pitcher could to handicap the poor kid trying to kick the ball. The end result was a lot of squibs and shanks off the side of the kicker’s foot and low-scoring games.
To my amazement, in California I witnessed the batter/kicker, as he approached home plate, call out to the pitcher the type of delivery he preferred. “Slow roller,” “baby bounces” or even lowering one’s hand to a certain level to indicate how high a bounce the kicker desired on the upcoming pitch was the norm. And the pitcher complied! The collegial nature of this part of California kickball was so incredibly foreign to me. There were still plenty of the usual fights once the game was on, but they rarely focused on how the ball was delivered to the kicker. Simply amazing.
Hence, the scores were higher, the balls kicked much further and the action much more free flowing (it also didn’t hurt that soccer was a regular sport in Glendora, CA, but had not yet arrived in Morristown, NJ, so the kicking in general was of a much higher caliber among the California kids). So this distinct stylistic difference in kickball got my immediate attention. But there was more.
There were literally dozens of games I’d never witnessed at all. The most popular among the pavement games was Four Square (not to be confused with it’s kissing cousin, Two Square). For some reason beyond my comprehension, the girls seemed to own the Four Square arena. It wasn’t unusual for three close girlfriends to lock down a four square game and summarily dismiss, one by one, whoever the new number four player was that emerged from the long line of kids waiting their turn. As I look back now, it was the precursor of LeBron and Chris Bosh joining D-Wade in Miami and forming their super team. Was it fair? Of course not, but recess had it’s own rules.
Many of the beaten boys would leave the world of Two Square and Four Square to the girls’ dominance and gravitate to their own, boy-dominated activities — Long Ball on the pavement and Three Flies Up out in the field.
Long Ball is a tough one to describe, but basically involved a mano-a-mano competition of one boy racing up the pavement court to a mid-line and whipping a soccer ball sized, rubber playground ball, sidearm style, as hard as he could at his opponent, stationed twenty yards or so away on the pavement. The opponent had to field the skidding ball into the body cleanly (a bobbled drop or clean miss relegated you to the back of the line, which was usually close to the length of the Four Square line) and then race back up to the center line and whip the ball back at their opponent, who was madly scrambling back into receiving position.
It doesn’t seem all that original or creative as I type it today, but Long Ball was hard core, down to business competition. You could spend an entire recess rotating in and out of that line and the time just flew by.
Of course, if you took one too many rubber balls off the forehead while getting bounced off the Long Ball court, you could always dejectedly wander out to the rugby scrum gathering awaiting the next offering of Three Flies Up. True to it’s name, Three Flies Up involved one lucky kid perched on a small hill, booting towering fly balls to a waiting group of classmates who fought one another for all they were worth in an effort to pick one out of the air. While going for the ball, all forms of hair pulling, eye gouging, pushing and shoving went on, as the combatants did everything humanly possible to distract one another and cause a drop.
Once one of the kids in the scrum had caught three fly balls out of the air they got to triumphantly take their turn atop the hill. Great fun, indeed (writers note — the way to win Three Flies Up was to position yourself a couple of yards behind the scrum, and wait for the inevitable tipped ball as the group recklessly collided and tackled one another in pursuit of the kick).
While on the subject of recess, the value of these red, rubber recess balls can’t be overstated. At the beginning of the school year each classroom was gifted two new balls for use at recess. There was an important first day of school ritual where the class number was printed in “indelible” black magic marker on each ball to allow for easy identification. It was an unwritten code that every kid in that class had a responsibility to protect and return said ball to the classroom following every recess. Of course, one good Long Ball session would erase the “indelible” marker, and thievery ensued.
Clandestine missions where two or three kids would sneak off to steal back the lost red ball (it was the older kids that always seemed to end up with all the balls, surprise, surprise) became a post-recess rite of passage. It wasn’t uncommon for fist fights to break out over ownership and the intrinsic value of these disappearing spheres would grow exponentially over the course of the school year. A 1970’s version of the Bitcoin bubble phenomenon.
Most of the California recess games ran in phases. You might go a solid month playing five on five tackle football, the chant of “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” filling the air from would-be pass rushers (it was always tackle, by the way, even though the recess monitors strictly forbade it, but flag or, god forbid, two-hand touch, just didn’t cut muster with us rugged 9-year-olds), and then on a dime, no one was playing football anymore, but Dodgeball was the new rage.
And this was Dodgeball 1970’s style. Total survival of the fittest. The face wasn’t off limits in those days, it was the target. Legends were made hurling that familiar red ball at high rates of speed. The intended target usually being kids a grade or two younger, with bonus points for making someone cry or breaking a pair of glasses. Good clean fun, right? And then one day the Dodgeball area would be empty and everyone would be found milling around in the tucked away rectangular section of the field where Snake In The Grass was played.
Snake In The Grass was a rather primitive pursuit whereby one unlucky kid began on the ground on all fours. The game kicked off with this poor lad crawling around a staked off area that was about 10 yards long by five yards wide (usually attempting a hissing sound, in an effort to simulate the dreaded snake, thus making himself seem scarier to the 10 or so other participants), while the other players ran around and over him hoping to avoid capture.
The first designated “snake” had to tackle one of the other players from his position on the ground, and when successful, the two of them became snake teammates (more hissing). The tackling would become more efficient as more kids took their place on the ground, as two could corner their prey more easily, speeding up the pace of the game to where “the winner” was the last boy standing, having successfully avoided the tackling of what ultimately became an entire gang of 8-year-old, hissing snakes.
Another nostalgic aside from those days. In third and fourth grade at Bidwell School in Glendora, the pant of choice for almost all of our moms was the old “Tough Skin” brand of synthetic jeans. Anyone who remembers those uncomfortable pants that bordered on painful (the simple act of bending one’s knees could result in pinches and cuts from the hard, stiff, unnatural material), probably also remembers the “reinforced knees” designed to make these inexpensive pants last longer.
Well the reinforced knees were goners after a couple of days of Snake In The Grass multiplied by three or four recesses a day. Showing up at home with my yellow Tough Skins (they came in every color!) torn at the reinforced knee with grass stains covering the entire front always brought a pained look to my mother’s face.
But I digress.
When my family moved back to New Jersey I was never to see any of these games again. It was back to formal gym class, with the season dictating whether the recess pickup game after lunch was football, baseball or basketball.
Indian Ball replaced Over The Line and the other neighborhood games of choice included the more well known Capture The Flag and Kick The Can. Oh, and don’t forget street hockey and pond hockey, both of which I was ill-equipped for, having never learned to ice skate. During those years where my New Jersey friends were first lacing up their ice skates as a way of forgetting how cold the winter months were, I was in Southern California.
At that time, the NHL in SoCal was limited to the L.A. Kings (pre-Gretzky), and barely got noticed because the Lakers and UCLA hoops dominated the winter sports season. Those of you wondering why hockey gets the short shrift here at SportsAttic, there’s your answer.
My final question on the subject today is, what’s become of these California sports? Did Long Ball go the way of the dinosaur? Who’s up on the hill owning the Three Flies Up competition? Do the girls still reign supreme over the boys at Two Square and Four Square? I know Dodgeball has been incredibly watered down (maybe even outlawed in some school districts I kinda recall hearing?), and while I’m sure kickball is still around, can you still request “Baby Bouncies” and have that request honored?
Bidwell School doesn’t even exist anymore, having been converted to a church many years ago. But do California kids still enjoy all those recesses here in grade school? The mysteries go on and on and I may never get my answers, but all I need to be transported back to that simpler time is to see the Gary Maddox (best sideburns in the majors) baseball card from back in third grade.
In a flash I’m back with Ray, destroying some unsuspecting neighbor’s decorative ivy in search of a tennis ball that went foul and was swallowed up by that horrid ground cover. And then the poison ivy and poison oak that followed! That’s an unpleasant summer memory we’ll leave for next time.