Non-League of Our Own
Remembering summer days of
By Stephen Leon
fine summer day, many years ago. A baseball game had been
scheduled for 1 PM (approximately). I knew this not because
had I checked my printed schedule (I had no printed schedule),
or because I had checked a Web site (there was no Web), or
because my mother had gotten a phone call from the coach (we
had no coach).
I also knew where the game would be played, not because anyone
had told me, or because it had been officially scheduled for
any particular field.
I knew where the game would be played because we almost always
played at the same place. If the field had been changed for
some reason, someone would have told me.
knew a game had been scheduled for approximately 1 PM because,
at approximately 11 AM, Jerry rode his Schwinn past my house,
saw me shooting baskets in my driveway, stopped for a moment
and said, “Hey, Steve, there’s gonna be a game after lunch.
you go tell Brian and Bucky? I’ll go get as many Bradleys
as I can. We already got Keith, Chris, Dickie, the Godfreys,
my little brother, and a couple other kids from the next street
And so it went. A phone call, a shout from the next yard,
a plan laid out the evening before. A neighborhood kid on
a bike at your back door, fielder’s glove slipped over the
handlebar, bat wedged across the front of the bike, above
the handlebar on one side, below it on the other. My father
or mother appearing at the back door to scold my friend for
riding on the lawn.
Oh, the simple joys of being 10 or 11, old enough to leave
the house on your own, too young to be chained to a summer
job, not yet distracted by pesky hormones. Our lazy summer
days drifted by like so many cumulus clouds, the long hours
filled in with bike rides, yard games, trips to nearby lakes,
and countless pick-up baseball and soccer games.
Our baseball and soccer fields were at the neighborhood elementary
school, and they were kept in good condition by the city,
as various league games were played there during the evenings.
But we pretty much had the run of the place by day in the
summer, when school was out and most everybody was somewhere
else, escaping the midday heat in homes or offices or swimming
pools. Sometimes, if there weren’t enough kids for a game,
a few of us would go to the schoolground (or “skoo-ground,”
as my friend Bucky used to say) and pitch batting practice
to each other or drill soccer balls against the kickboard
until the bleat of the GE whistle reminded us it was time
To be sure, some of us played organized sports: Little League
baseball, which selected players at tryouts, and Minor League
baseball and Summer Soccer, which were open to everybody.
But even though these involved regularly scheduled practices
and games, they didn’t seem all-encompassing, the way youth
sports often do today. A typical kid might have had commitments
an evening or two a week, and that was it, leaving vast amounts
of free time for unstructured play. And unlike the frenzied
multisport life of today’s typical suburban family, kids then
seemed content to pick and choose: I, for one, stopped playing
organized baseball when I started playing organized soccer.
And I never heard the words “traveling team” until I was well
Was it a different world then? Has the sandlot pick-up game
gone the way of Ebbets Field? Whatever this means, I did an
Internet search for “sandlot baseball,” hoping to find a well-researched
article on the subject and thereby answer my question. But
mostly I found Web sites for organizations with the words
“sandlot baseball” in their titles, though their functions
had nothing whatsoever to do with kids gathering in parks
or schoolyards to play games without schedules and uniforms
and umpires and coaches and screaming parents. And without
having to pay anything. A year ago, when I was interviewing
a suburban couple about their own admittedly harried lives
as sports parents, the father reflected on the sandlot games
of his youth, and remarked that he never sees pick-up games
being played at the park across the street from his house.
Last summer, my then-4-year-old son, a confirmed sports nut,
discovered the baseball field behind his mother’s old high
school. Now that he’s a big kid of 5, he’s already playing
in organized soccer and T-ball leagues. But every time we
drive by the high school—for that matter, every time we announce
that we’re going to be in the area—he insists we stop at the
school and play some ball at the field.
As he and his brother hit balls and run gleefully around the
bases while Mom and Dad try to tag them out, I wonder, why
does he like this so much, playing an unstructured, modified
version of baseball on this big empty field on a hot summer’s
day? Maybe it’s the nostalgia in me, but I like to think he
can almost see and hear the other neighborhood kids arriving
on their bikes, gloves and bats slung over the handlebars,
popping wheelies and doing peel-outs at home plate before
casting their bikes aside and getting ready to choose up sides.