Wiffle Ball Afternoons

“Hot fun in the summertime. That’s when I had most of my fun.”

For me, the summer of ’76 stands out. I was 12.

It was the bicentennial, my family went to the Montreal Olympics, and everyone cheered for Detroit pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the happiest ballplayer I’ve ever seen.

It was also the summer of Wiffle Ball. That’s the backyard version of baseball played with only a flimsy white plastic ball and a wispy yellow wand of a baseball bat.

We only played up north, at Torch Lake, which is now lined by million-dollar castles whose owners never seem to be there.

But back then, the east side was populated with simple summer cabins — and the west side wasn’t populated at all. At night, I couldn’t see a single cottage light across the lake – but when I looked up, I saw nothing but stars.

The Johnsons had a homemade aluminum boat with a ten-horse motor, and the Zinns had an even smaller boat with a six-horse. Because neither was strong enough to pull water-skiers, we spent our time playing Wiffle Ball.

We played on three fields we set up on the Johnson’s lot, including the “Astro-Grove,” a patch of grass covered by a roof of leaves. Each field had its own ground rules. If you hit it to the left of the laundry line pole, that’s a foul ball. If you hit it in the big spruce tree or the crab apple tree, it’s a ground-rule double – unless the fielder caught it on the way down, then you’re out. And if you knocked it over the “rock monster” wall, you just hit a home run.

Since we never had more than a half-dozen players, we didn’t have enough fielders. So if you could hit the runner with the ball, he was out.

And when anyone yelled, “LAKE!” we’d literally drop the ball, and race down to the Kitzmiller’s dock – the longest on our row – and run full-speed into the lake. I’ll never forget how refreshing that cold, clear water felt.

We played every summer until we discovered boats, beer, and girls, but the summer of ’76 stands was the best for me.

Why? Because that was the glorious season I hit a record 61 home runs.

Impressive? Sure, but perhaps it’s worth noting we could play a dozen games a day, including one-on-one contests. On a good day you could hit ten homers before dusk.

But I don’t care. I’m claiming every one of those home runs, and I’m claiming the damn record, too. Even with the next generation of neighbors taking over — who actually sing the national anthem, ask Grandpa Johnson to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and keep their stats on the back of a paper plate, right down to their batting averages — no one has touched my home run record. And if anyone does, I’ll publicly accuse him of taking steroids, so I think my record is looking pretty safe.

It makes me feel good to see these young bucks show such reverence for all the customs we created, and make memories that will last decades. But I can’t help but be envious, too. Even when they let us old-timers pinch-hit, it’s not quite the same, and I think I know why.

At the end of the classic movie, “Stand By Me,” the narrator says, “I never had any friends like the ones I had when I was twelve.”

And I’ve never had any summers like that, either.

  • * * * * *

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-John
johnubacon.com

 

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12 comments Leave a comment  

  • Nick Roumel July 20, 2018 at 9:56 am

    Great reminisce John. Reminded me of my own many wiffleball memories.

    Reply
  • Jay Woods July 20, 2018 at 10:03 am

    Brings back all of those 70’s Ann Arbor/Michigan memories. Camp Algonquian on Burt Lake, one of my favorite places. The Ann Arbor Y sent kids there every summer, and both the Y and the camp are highly underrated Ann Arbor institutions.

    Epic whiffle ball games at my dad’s house: 908 Edgewood on the old west side. The bases-the side of the garage, the edge of the patio, the fence. Primary rule-do NOT foul the ball over the fence into the neighbor’s yard behind home plate. We hit toward the back of the house. 1st floor, on the fly=single. 2nd floor=double. On the roof=triple. Over the roof=home run. The windows on that house must have been strong, because they never broke despite some mighty drives directed at them. That’s how you learn an uppercut swing and a good home run trot.

    If a thrown ball hit you while running between bases, you were out. Many, many runs were scored. Good times.

    In June, while cleaning my room at school in preparation for moving to another building, I found a whiffle ball. I still have the bat at home.

    Reply
  • Tom July 20, 2018 at 10:20 am

    Great memories! the summer of 76 we played modified whiffle ball “we used a blooper bat” and the bases became almost irrelevant because 5 out of 10 balls cleared the fence. Rec & Ed Little league is what travel baseball is now and our pitcher must have been throwing 60 mph at 12, I always felt sorry for the other team. Still have my Franks restaurant spirit of 76 uniform somewhere.

    Reply
  • Mike Jaske July 20, 2018 at 10:40 am

    Message
    Thanks for a trip down memory lane. We had our own version of whiffle ball, but the similarities of your games cracked me up.

    Reply
  • David Powers) July 20, 2018 at 11:55 am

    Message (Required)summer vaca: drive to Philly from South Bend; 7 children and my chain smoking parents in the company car station wagon. Fun. Whiffle Ball: one pitcher, one hitter. Anything but a homer was an out. Bat taped on handle and sweet spot. Preferred ball, half solid and half with slices in plastic. Solid balls didn’t curve as well. Field at McKennas in Drexel Hill, and at Pop’s House in Lansdowne. 1962. Wonderful.

    Reply
  • Rob DeBrooke July 20, 2018 at 1:09 pm

    Sounds like it rivaled the asphalt Stadium at the bottom of Ridgeway of the early 70’s. The “No Parking At Any Time” sign was 1B, the storm sewer 2B, and a car that was inevitably parked in the way was 3rd. The short RF porch could be easily reached if you could bat from the left side, which was further incentivized because the pitcher had to chase the ball down the drive as you did your HR trot. The huge Pine tree in LF, had more mezzanine levels than any other stadium I have ever seen, then and now. It was really jacked when you reached the 12 th deck! Then technology invaded the game. the “Fungo” Bats made the skinny yellow bats obselete, resulting in HR distances never seen before. Finally, the mid 70’s came…..and the stadium was silent…..as Girls, Beer, and extra-curricular activities were discovered. Thanks JUB for rustling up these fond memories!

    Reply
  • johnubacon July 20, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks, Folks, for the kind words, and your stories. The details are different, but the experience was the same — and the memories. Good stuff!

    Reply
  • Bill Kelley July 20, 2018 at 6:17 pm

    We used to play Whiffle Ball at a friends house. The local ground rule was that if you hit it over the fence in right or center field it was an out. The lady that lived in that house didn’t like Whiffle Ball. Or kids.

    Reply
  • Tom Maletic July 22, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Yeah, sure, 61 homers, but could you lay down a bunt for your team to advance a runner in a key situation?

    Reply
  • Michael Girvan Lampe August 5, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    Bakes, i am still trying to figure out how you hit 61 homers in the confines of the Bacon Torch Lake forest stadium and yet you failed to hit even one HR for our Lampe Shell team that summer in the Ann Arbor Breakfast Optimist baseball league….must have been the fatigue from the long car rides home from up north 🙂

    Reply
  • johnubacon August 10, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    Lumper! Great to hear from you as always.
    Fair question, with a few answers: I still played for King School that summer, under Coach Mac. Captain of the squad, even, but never hit more than a double, I believe. I played for the legendary Lampe Shell after 8th and 9th grades, 1978-79, and you are correct, never came near a home run. In my lame defense, I can point out I don’t recall anyone else hitting any homers for our team, either. But I could be wrong. 😉

    Reply
  • Michael Girvan Lampe August 19, 2018 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks for the history lesson John, I would expect no less of you…my memory is a bit more fuzzy going back 42 years. One of those seasons we did have a HR hitter on the team…our catcher, Prater (Mike or Matt?), he only played with us for one season. But that was our only winning season, we finished in 2nd place after losing to the first place team in the 2nd to last or last game of the year…

    Reply

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