The batter tightens his grip around the bat and stares down the pitcher with a flinty look.
The pitcher winds up and hurls the ball with all his might.
As the golf-ball-sized ball lands in the catcher’s mitt, the struck-out batter dejectedly walks away from the plate, leaving his broomstick-width bat behind.
Wait, what? Why are the ball and bat so slimmed down?
What might have initially sounded like a game of baseball isn’t America’s pastime at all. Rather, it’s a regional speciality that originated in the taverns, factories, and schoolyards of the early 20th century.
Welcome to corkball: a mutant baseball game hailing from the streets of St. Louis, that you just might want to import to your own neighborhood.
The Origins of Corkball
In the 1840s, Irish and German immigrants came pouring into St. Louis. Many of the latter brought beer recipes from Deutschland and opened breweries that mass-produced German lagers for the country’s growing population. While brewing companies like Anheuser-Busch were innovating beer-making with pasteurization and refrigeration, the employees at these breweries were making innovations to American baseball and created a version of the game that allowed them to play with a limited number of players, in a limited space, without the usual regulation equipment.
Legend has it that corkball got its start in an east St. Louis tavern sometime around 1900. Some bored, slightly drunk dude popped the cork bung off a beer barrel and wrapped some tape around it. He then tossed it to a drinking buddy who tried to hit it with a broomstick.
Corkball was born.
The most significant difference between corkball and baseball was that corkball had no runners, so there were no bases. Because there were no bases or runners, men didn’t need a big space or many players to play corkball. They could technically get a corkball game going with just four total — two to a team.
Corkball is obviously all about pitching and hitting. But the game’s uniquely small ball and bat make the latter frustratingly tricky. While corkball could be played with a broom and a homemade ball made with a taped-up cork bung, a few sporting goods companies like Spalding and Louisville Slugger started manufacturing “regulation” corkball equipment. A regulation corkball bat has a thin 1.5″ barrel at its widest point, about the width of a broomstick. A regulation corkball looks like a standard baseball but is smaller in size. It’s only 6.5″ around and weighs a measly 1.5 ounces (a regulation baseball is 9” round and weighs 5 ounces). Because the corkball is so light, throwing modified pitches, like curves and sliders, is much easier to do than with a regular baseball.
In the decades after its turn-of-the-century inception, corkball got somewhat more sophisticated, but not much. General rules were established, but each tavern, factory, or schoolyard had its own “home field” rules. The game was so popular with St. Louis tavern-goers that many pubs built “corkball cages” in the alleys behind their establishments. Supposedly, you can still see a few abandoned corkball cages here and there around the city.
The game of corkball spread a bit outside the Gateway to the West thanks to WWII. GIs from St. Louis taught the game to their fellow bored brethren-at-arms, and those men took the idea home with them after the war. A few southern states, like Georgia, really took to corkball, but St. Louis is still the corkball capital of the world.
A few variations of corkball have sprung up in the city over the decades. The first is called “Indian Ball.” It’s similar to corkball in that there are no baserunners, but in Indian Ball you use a regulation-sized baseball and bat.
Then there’s “fuzzball.” Similar to corkball in that there are no baserunners and you use a broomstick-width bat, but instead of a corkball, you use a tennis ball that’s had its fuzz burned off with a lighter.
There’s also a version of corkball where you use bottle caps instead of a corkball. Those are for the masochists of St. Louis.
While corkball is primarily a casual pick-up game, official corkball leagues have existed in St. Louis since the early 20th century and continue to live on today. While the competition can get heated, it’s mostly good-natured play. The atmosphere is similar to a softball beer league; it’s just a bunch of dudes getting together after a long day of work to blow off some steam and have some fun.
The tradition runs deep in the city: 75-year-old men are still playing this weird game they started playing as boys. You can find corkball games in St. Louis where three generations of men in a family are playing the game together.
Corkball games look and feel like how I imagine the very first games of baseball looked and felt like. It’s kind of heartwarming to know that a bunch of grown men in St. Louis meet up to play a game just for the sake of playing a game. Long live amateurism.
Want to try your own hand at the St. Louis tradition of corkball? Here’s how to play.
- Official corkball
- Corkball bat or wooden dowel that’s no wider than 1.5” in diameter or longer than 38”
- Baseball gloves
You can play corkball pretty much anywhere: parks, parking lots, baseball diamonds.
Pitching rubber needs to be 55 feet from home plate.
Unlike in baseball, in corkball there isn’t a diamond-shaped field of play, where foul lines run at angles to the left and right of home plate. Instead, there’s only a single foul line that runs behind and perpendicular to home plate. Because this foul line doesn’t connect to other lines, the width of a corkball field can be . . . indefinite. If you want. Or you can set boundaries to your field. It’s up to you.
Corkball can also be played in a corkball cage. A corkball cage usually measures 20 feet wide by 75 feet long.
Number of Players
You need at least four players for corkball: two people per team.
Each team needs at least a pitcher and catcher.
You can have additional players and put them in the field of play as fielders. Usually, teams max out at five players.
Playing the Game
- Game length is five innings of three outs each for both teams.
- A hit that travels at least 15 feet, on the ground or in the air is a single.
- Five balls = a walk.
- Any combination of four hits and walks = 1 run.
- An out can happen in one of the following ways:
- The batter hits a foul ball.
- The batter swings and misses AND the catcher catches the ball. If the catcher doesn’t catch the ball, it doesn’t count as a strike or a ball. It’s a dead ball.
- The batter hits the ball, and a fielder from the opposing team catches the ball before it hits the ground.
- The batter takes two called strikes without swinging, provided the catcher catches both balls.
- The batter bunts the ball. (Bunting?! There’s no bunting in corkball!)
- The batter gets hit by the corkball while swinging.
- The team with the most runs at the end of five innings wins.
That’s the gist of the game. You can add a variation in how you score the game by adding zones for home runs, triples, doubles, and singles.
The home run line should be 250 feet from home plate. Any hit ball that goes over the home run line in the air counts as a run.
Other lines can be marked at 150 and 200 feet from home plate.
Any ball that lands before the 150 line (but traveling at least 15 feet) is a single.
Any ball that lands between the 150 and 200 feet lines is a double.
Any ball that lands between the 200 and 250 feet lines is a triple.
Since there are no baserunners in corkball, if you’re going to use singles, doubles, and triples, you’ll have to keep track of “ghost runners” on imaginary bases in your head.
Let’s say the first batter hits a single. There’s an imaginary runner on imaginary first base.
The second batter hits a double. The ghost runner on first moves two bases to third, and there’s also a runner on second (this is the batter that hit the double).
The third batter hits a triple. The ghost runner on third advances home, the ghost runner on second advances home as well, and you’ve got a single runner on third base.
The fourth batter walks and moves to first base. The ghost runner on third doesn’t advance.
And that’s pretty much it. You can adapt these guidelines as you see fit. As aforementioned, different teams have different homefield rules. Just make sure everyone is on the same page before you start playing.
If you don’t have an official corkball or corkball bat, you can just play fuzzball. Use a tennis ball with the fuzz burned off for the ball and a broomstick for a bat. The same rules above apply.
So the next time you’re feeling bored on a spring or summer evening, instead of queuing up Netflix, call up some buddies, find an empty park, and play the fun, quirky game of corkball.
If you’re looking to go deeper into the history and culture of corkball, check out the appropriately named website, Corkball.Tags: Sports