Wed July 27, 2011
St. Louis sport of corkball alive and well in south city
Some would say the sport of baseball looms larger in St. Louis than perhaps any city in America …with names like Musial, Gibson, and Pujols on par with Washington, Jefferson and Madison.
St. Louis is a baseball town, no question…but we’re also known for another sport involving bats, balls…but no bases.
After nearly 100 years, devotees of the St. Louis sport of "corkball" are still playing the game that time forgot.
If you're not a native of St. Louis, or you don't have grandparents from here, there's a good chance you've never heard of corkball - or "carhkball", as it's pronounced in the southern reaches of the city.
Basically, it's a St. Louis original hybrid of baseball, stickball and beer - but with, as Steve Thorne explains, one big distinction.
"You don’t run bases in corkball," says Thorne, a tall, middle-aged man with a barrel chest who mans the bar at the Dutchtown clubhouse of the 82-year-old Gateway Corkball League, of which he's also a member. "You pitch, you bat, we do have fielders in our particular league, but in some of the leagues they play in cages. So as long as you can swing a bat and have hand-eye coordination, you can play the game."
Origins of the Game
According to legend, brewery workers invented the game of corkball around the turn of the century. It was a kind of ersatz baseball, played with a broom handle and a cork beer-barrel bung.
Players and fans say by removing the base-running element from the game, corkball comes down to a battle between the pitcher and the hitter - which many consider the best part of baseball anyway.
Chuck Mohlenbrock has played corkball for more than 20 years. He was a softball player first, but says his knees are shot. Here, he can just focus on throwing the ball hard.
And despite the ball's diminutive size, Mohlenbrock throws a variety of pitches, some of which reach 80 miles per hour.
"On my fastball, I could use a four-seam or I’ll split the seams and if I split the seams it will tail in on a right-handed batter on a four-seam it will usually stay flat. I’ll throw a knuckle ball but sometimes that will hit a car across the street," he says.
The Gateway League
Devotees of the game play once a week on an empty lot next to an old steel foundry - not much different from a gang of neighborhood kids playing on a sandlot.
The giant blue corrugated wall of the foundry's machine shop - the "Blue Monster" - looms over the outfield. It is the basis for the league's entire scoring system, explains Jack Buck.
Buck has been playing corkball since 1969 - and no, he's not related to another St. Louis baseball legend, the Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck.
Anything on the grass is a single, Buck says.
"If it hit the path in front of the wall, that's a double. If it hit the wall of the building, that would be a triple, and if you put it on the roof, of course that would be a homerun."
The 72-year-old Buck is among the oldest active members of the Gateway League. His son Jim is also a league member. And while beer is an important part of Gateway League activities, Buck says it doesn't compare to other hapless beer leagues around the city.
"Softball is slow pitch," Jack Buck says. "I don't want to say everybody can get up and do it. But to throw overhand takes a lot of effort, to catch a fast pitch takes some effort and guts. And then with a corkball being so small and with it dancing up there…It's just so satisfying to get some wood on that ball."
A florescent yellow ball that allows for a few more innings in fading daylight is one of the few innovations in the last 50 years. There will never be a discussion in the Gateway Corkball League about banning so-called high-performance composite bats, which occurred at the high school and some amateur levels. It will always be a group of guys in south St. Louis, engaged in some fierce competition with little more than a broom handle and the cork from a beer keg.