Saturday, January 19, 2013

The marbles played baseball

(photo from
    I haven't lost my marbles, really. They're at my daughter's house.
    My real marbles, the ones that entertained me for hours when I was a kid in Sunset Acres. They were my prized possessions. 
    We all have imaginations as kids -- I watch my grandkids, ages 5, 3 and 1, and I'm already amazed -- and we have our games, and my marbles spurred my imagination.
    This might seem hard to believe, but they played baseball and they ran track, and they even competed in field events. Tried them for football and basketball, but that didn't work (see below).
      My marbles, and my baseball games with them, helped me learn to keep the basic baseball statistics.
      (That would serve me well for the next 55 years; near the end of my newspaper career, one of my tasks often was updating Texas Rangers' statistics for the next day's paper.)
       I am writing this because Glen Gordon, my longtime trumpet-playing next-door neighbor who is one of my blog readers, suggested it. He remembered the baseball games with the marbles.   
      I had learned to score games in 1958 when I was 11 -- I still have the little Rawlings scorebook in which I scored 12 Saturday afternoon major-league TV games in 1958-59 -- and so I kept the play-by-play scores of my marbles games, too.
       I did this on the remnants of yearly calendars from the previous year which my dad would bring home from work every January. It was about 4x5 inches, and each page had lined rules -- perfect for the inning-by-inning scoresheet.
         Here was my room: bunk bed pushed against the left wall, pushed into the corner; desk pushed against the back wall under the window; chest of drawers on the front wall next to the closet; all carpet except in front of the closet; lots of open space in the middle.
         Perfect for a baseball stadium.
         I had hundreds of marbles. I arranged them -- bunched them -- in six "teams" by colors -- yellow for the home team (Sunset Acres), blue, green, bumblebees, cat eyes, solids. 
          Each of the yellow marbles had a name -- for one of the neighborhood kids or my schoolmates. Do you think I was partial to this particular team?
           I used my baseball bats as the outfield "fence." It took, as I remember, five bats to go from left field to right. There were several natural gaps -- the holes in the post of my bed and  spots around my desk -- and those were the home-run gaps.
           I designated three spots for doubles, one small spot for the occasional triple, and if the "ball" -- a miniature white marble -- ended up short of the fence, it was a single. But if it hit an outfielder on the fly, that was a flyout.
           The bases were four checkers. The infielders and pitcher were in place; they could make plays on "ground balls." Look, you've got to imagine this scene with me.   
           The teams were arranged on either side of home plate, just as in a dugout. I sat on the carpet, on the third-base side, and leaned over to "pitch" the ball toward the plate left-handed, held the batter in my right hand. A right-handed batter pulling the ball? Didn't happen.  
          I had a six-team league; I worked up a round-robin schedule (yes, Jerry Barnes, this schedule worked.) The teams were Sunset Acres, Dalles, Housten, Fort Worth, Monroe and Alexandria -- a mixture of the Texas League and Louisiana cities. How did that come about? I have no idea.
         And I kept the stats for each game, then compiled them.
         Don't know if Glen Gordon ever came to my room to see my baseball stadium, maybe I just told him about it. I know for sure that Casey Baker was a witness.
         Because it was Casey -- I think we were in sixth grade -- who saw my scoresheets and pointed out to me that Dalles should be spelled Dallas and Housten should be spelled Houston. (I was not quite ready for journalism.)
          So I spent hours and hours playing baseball inside, each time putting the marbles back in place -- fairly neatly -- under my bed. It would aggravate me when my mother would have visitors with small kids when I wasn't home, and she invariably would allow the kids to go into my room and mess up the marbles all to hell. It would aggravate me a great deal.
          My younger sister knew better than to mess with them, or me.
          Of course, we loved going outside to play. There were thousands of football, basketball and baseball games, and street track meets, and other games. But on many rainy and cold days, you had to be inventive inside. There were only two (and then three) TV stations, and little programming for kids after mid-afternoon.
           It got boring beating my sister in Monopoly. I won every time we ever played -- gee, the breaks never went her way. She did win a couple of times at jacks, though.
           Marbles weren't the only way to play baseball. My parents found me an All-Star Baseball game, a tabletop game that was invented by Ethan Allen, a 1920s/1930s major-league outfielder and longtime Yale University baseball coach. It involved a spinner and player disks (Hall of Famers and 1950s major leaguers).
          Again, I adapted the disks to "localize" them -- pasting over names of schoolmates
-- and spent hours playing games and keeping score.
            The marbles, too, were good for track meets. I learned how to score meets when I became a manager for the sport in junior high, and we had an oval rug in the living room that was just right for a track meet.
          I could use it to push along the marbles for running events, varying the distances to match the events -- 100, 220, 440, 880, mile, 2-mile, relays. I invented ways to have field events -- lagging the marbles a certain distance, or flipping them over a stack of checkers for jumping events.             
        Football? Didn't like the electronic football games of those days -- the players always went in all different directions, including in circles -- and the kicking tee was cheesy. Tried it a few times, and said no more.
         Here's what I did. Had a cigar box, and made little slips of paper -- maybe 400 slips of paper -- with all sorts of plays: 1-yard run, 6-yard loss, 10-yard pass, TD pass, incomplete pass, intercepted pass, intercepted pass for touchdown, etc. Had a separate box for punts (varying distances) and for PAT plays. Had a time clock, and designated certain amounts of time for running plays, passing plays, kicks. Kept a play-by-play. Again, it entertained me for hours.
       Another football version: Two decks of cards -- aces were 14 points, kings 13, queen of hearts 12, sevens were 7, sixes were 6, three of hearts a field goal, two of hearts a safety. Put down four quarters for each team.
        The Tucker boys, Johnny and Terry, and I put together a six-team league -- we each controlled two "franchises." We made up schedules for each team, picked names from a road map (I think we used Michigan to select the team names -- Huron and Stanton are the only two I remember). We must've played 50 seasons, with the top two teams in the league going to the state playoffs each year. We recorded all the results on paper, too.
        Basketball? I had my little hoop that went on the door in my room and my miniature ball, and inspired by games I heard on the radio, I was always Kentucky -- oh, forgive me, please -- or the local team, Centenary. Played my games by myself and did the play-by-play narration.
         But the baseball marbles were my favorite. And, yes, I did play-by-play on those, too.
          I write this, and I think of today's kids (well, adults, too) and the video games. You can get them for just about any sport. My son Jason has NCAA Football, and golf (The Masters), and World Cup Soccer, and I have watched him play for hours in his superb "media room" with the large screen. We especially like the Holland vs. Germany soccer matchups.
         One Thanksgiving, Jason and our son-in-law, Russell, tangled in NCAA Football, and I left it with them at about 1:30 a.m. I think it was about 4 a.m. when they decided they might need some sleep.
           As I've told many people, I am thankful I had to invent my own games. Given the video games of today back then, I might still be locked in that little room in Sunset Acres, never having gotten past fifth grade because of my video-game addiction.                  


  1. From Harlan Alexander: One thing we had in common back in the 50s.... an imagination! I wonder how the generation of our grandkids will develop one... oh, they are occupied with their video games, but those can be mind numbing! Enjoyed this one.

  2. From Glen Gordon: Thank you for the blog, Nico. ... I knew after I saw your marbles baseball game that you had a special talent for sports and a great imagination. I was wrong about one thing, though...I thought you would become a sports broadcaster because the way you "called" those marble baseball games you were a "natural." I'm still impressed to this day of your great sports knowledge and writing ability. You are one tremendous writer ... how about a book now???

  3. From Dr. Richard Leach: Good reading. Imagination makes life fun. I too have wondered about the level of imagination in today's generation, but after watching my grandson play one-man basketball, and football games for hours, I've come to the conclusion that imagination is a personal thing, not generational.

  4. From Liz Piker: I really enjoyed this blog. You are amazing with your leagues and divisions and the use of your marbles. ... That reminds me of home and our house in Westwood Hills ... [five houses], the ONLY houses in the neighborhood -- the rest was wonderful WOODS. A kid today would NOT have known what in the world to do with a bunch of woods, but there were NO video games or all of those things that keep kids glued to their seats in their rooms. When I look at the woods, I see a whole 15-room house or a fort or all sorts of things -- just give me a broom and some rope and a supple little pine and I will make you a home complete with doorways and furniture. Boy, was that FUN. I do NOT know of one kid that I know that would even be interested in doing anything like that. BUT, we had to think and use our imaginations and that, I sometimes think is a lost art in a kid at that early age ... We ALL had to use our noggins just to play with most of the toys we got and I would hate to see the boredom with which they would be viewed by today's younguns. Bravo! Another hit for Nico. Your ingenuity far exceeded mine, but not the measure of delight that we both derived from the results. I DO realize that times are different now, but the kids today surely missed a lot of FUN. Thanks for reminding me of it.

  5. From Jimmy Russell: Enjoyed this piece. How much fun we had as kids growing up [in Minden]. I can remember so many things like that. I loved the summer. ... I got up at 7 a.m., fixed my cereal, hit my bike and went to baseball practice or played a game that day. We played our games in the morning in those days and got home by lunch. We had shirts and caps (that was our uniform). The Minden Redbirds, the town team in the Big Eight League ( semi-pro) gave ballplayers a job coaching paid by the recreation department. Several players from this league (most who were college players along with some local guys who were good players) made the big leagues. A couple of my coaches were Sammy Booras and James Farrar. What fun and learning. Once home I at lunch, took a mandated rest or nap for one hour. Got on my bike about 3 or 4 and hit the swimming pool up the hill from my house (Hunters near the Minden High gym) until about 6. Got home, ate supper, watched TV. Went to bed about 10. Repeated the process daily.
    Kids today miss all this. It is in a video game ... they grow up being nerds. ... I had marbles and played at school. I never was very good but had a lot of them. Carried them to school in a leather pouch. I remember it was taboo to play marbles for keeps at school. That is why I probably do not have any today; I lost them all playing for keeps. All the time I thought you did not have any marbles.

  6. From Gerry Robichaux: Nico, your bringing up one of my favorite games (All-Star Baseball) coinsides with the news that my all-time favorite sports figure died at 92. Stan Musial was always my first selection when my buddies Billy and Johnny gathered to play ASB. He had an enormous 13 (long single), if you will remember. Billy always chose Ted Williams and Johnny chose Joe DiMaggio. Each game would end with an in-depth and furious argument as to who was the greatest of the stars. My game included Andy Pafko, who was a solid but unspectacular player. I had my dad order the set of all-time greats cards, too. Many a summer's afternoon spent on my porch in BR, battling Billy and Johnny, working hard to outwit, and outspin, those guys. Those simple days are so far gone now, and sandlot ball games and All-Star Baseball have given way to Pong and other computer games. What a loss for kids today.