This week, in many school districts in and around where I live, the last day of class for the 2021-22 school year is taking place.
The very, very best days I ever spent in all my elementary, junior, and senior high school years was always the last day of each school year.
I hated school. I loved summers. (I love winters now, but I digress…)
In my youth, there was no Internet. Kids actually went outside and did stuff. It was all we knew. Parents sent us outside. Go. Get out. Play!
For me, there were a couple of summers growing up where the focus was solely upon Wiffle Ball…pretending to be a big-league baseball star…on a ball field perfectly suited for such a summertime occupation.
And…it had a swimming pool.
For two summers, my friend Jebby and I role-played major league baseball. (Jebby’s given name was Joseph, but I don’t recall ever knowing the genesis of the name Jebby…) His favorite team was the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mine was the Oakland Athletics. Of course, we followed our hometown Phillies…but they lost way, way more than they won back then, so it was easy for a couple of young kids’ attention spans to pivot towards teams having more success playing ball.
Once school let out these two years in question, we “helped” our parents plan our transportation routes so we could get together at our chosen ballpark to play live games in our Wiffle Ball League (WBL). I use the word live because in our WBL, we also had contingency plans for another way to play games…via a deck of playing cards. As we couldn’t meet in-person every day at our League’s home field (family obligations), and because weather was not always our friend, we designed rules for a card game so the WBL could be played daily.
The first order of summertime business was to determine which two teams we would have in our League besides the afore-mentioned Pirates and A’s. We each had to select another team to represent. (It didn’t matter because, deep-down, we both knew it was inevitable any WBL World Series would likely feature Pittsburgh and Oakland…)
Now, I wouldn’t go so far to say when we weren’t playing face-to-face these off-site, remote card games were “fixed” in any way to give the Pirates and A’s built-in advantages against the other two teams…but it was amazing how well our favorite teams did in those circumstances. We built into the rules “strategy” calls to make depending on certain game scenarios, and perhaps we were slightly more aggressive in making potential, strategic run-scoring decisions for when both Pittsburgh and Oakland were at bat.
(OK, maybe “the fix” was in…)
However, the best part of the WBL was when our transportation schedules were coordinated so we could both be driven to my mother’s work place…a work place that featured our Field Of Dreams.
And…a swimming pool.
My mother worked for a guy who was well-off financially, owning a residence which was at least eight acres in size. He had two structures on the property. One was his actual home, which to lower middle-class kids like us seemingly contained a thousand rooms…although in reality I suspect the number of rooms was much lower.
The other, much smaller building on his property served as an office for himself and his staff of three – one of which was my Mom. The “catch” was both he and the other two employees had residences in other states – they didn’t use this office regularly – so most summer days it was just Mom, Jebby and I spending the day there.
Shortly after 9 AM, the WBL games we had scheduled to be played that day commenced. Again, it was amazing how often the schedule for our head-to-head Wiffle Ball games featured the Pirates and A’s. They were often scheduled to play at the very least a doubleheader – if not a three or even four-game series – which was often a crucial one because these teams somehow always seemed to have permanent residence at the top of our four-team standings.
The office structure and the swimming pool were separated by an eight-foot high, wooden fence. At one end of the fence, it was bordered by a number of pine trees. At the other end, the fence was bordered by the home residence. Between the fence and the swimming pool, there was a wide section of immaculate yard – always meticulously groomed as the landscapers must have cut the grass on weekends – which served as our official Wiffle Ball field.
The designated left field foul line/pole consisted of one of the pine trees. The right field “foul” pole area was deemed as anything that hit the home. The swimming pool was just a short walk from home plate (a rock borrowed from an undeveloped property next-door; rocks also served as our bases). Once the WBL schedule was concluded each of these days, the rest of the day (until Mom got done work) was gloriously spent poolside, listening to the songs-of-the day on a radio, working on our tans.
It was truly amazing Jebby and I stayed close friends throughout our Wiffle Ball careers, because the batter in our League always got to call balls and strikes, as well as determine whether a ball was hit fair or foul. Now, our strike zones were reasonably consistent. We often swung at the first thing we saw during each at-bat anyway. However, there were situations where we differed on fair vs. foul, especially down the left field line.
But alas, we didn’t have umpires…or replay.
Hold that thought.
Now that I think of it, that swimming pool not only allowed us to cool off between or after games, but also to cool off from vigorously debating calls. For a couple of kids who lived in row homes, WBL days were the best part of those two summers. On a giant property all to ourselves, in the sun, playing what was then the national pastime, and being able to cool off in that pool whenever you wanted.
Mom was good enough to make sure we were fed at lunch time. (For the uninitiated, you can burn a lot of calories playing multiple, highly-contested Wiffle Ball games…)
The fence was a great fixture and feature of our field. Aside from the occasional home run sailing (just) over the top, we learned over time to deftly play caroms off the fence and keep each other from advancing to an extra base.
As I recall, Jebby’s Pirates won the WBL World Series in our inaugural season. The second summer, it was my Athletics who prevailed, winning in their last World Series at-bat. The clinching hit for Oakland was a screaming, towering shot I struck which hit the appointed foul pole tree…or not.
Jebby expressed his displeasure immediately and loudly about my calling it a home run. He felt it actually hit another one of the trees, which would make it nothing more than a foul ball, and keeping his Pirates’ hopes alive for back-to-back titles. Of course, in these instances we always defaulted to the real-life, major league rulebook…
“Batted balls that directly strike either foul pole on the fly, or leave the park on a fly to the right of the left-field foul pole and to the left of the right-field foul pole are considered home runs.”
With no umpires or replay technology in my mother’s employer’s back yard, as the batter at that moment in time…my call stood.
It would be the last game in the short, yet memorable existence, of the WBL.
For a couple of summers thereafter, Jebby and I competed with and against each other in real-life baseball. He went on to be a three-sport star in high school and a solid junior college football player. I went on to be a one-sport non-star in high school, and an all-star intramural basketball player at a couple of different colleges.
I don’t know where Jebby is today. Yet, each year when the school year ends and summertime officially gets underway for kids, I sometimes think about those couple of Wiffle Ball summers and smile.
And Jebby, if by some chance you are reading this…that ball was fair.