Playing with Baseball Cards
November 1, 2013
by William Szczepanek
Original Title: Back , Back, Back... It's Over the Couch!!!
This article is derived from one of my original stories written on the first Golden Age of Baseball Cards's website in 2007.
Like many young boys growing up in the fifties, before electronic games and computers, I needed to find a way to occupy myself when there was no one to play with and nothing on television (we did only have 4 good channels back then - not that different than today). This time alone was never a problem for me. I would devise all sorts of games to play with cars, toy soldiers or whatever else I could find around the house, even clothespins when I was very little. But nothing gave me more pleasure than playing a game with my baseball cards. I played with baseball cards for more years than I would like to admit and the game I invented was refined over the years.
When I wasn't having a game of my own I would play with friends who set up stadiums in their houses. Many thought that the ball had to be round, so they would usually pitch to another player by rolling a marble and the batter would swing a pencil, or something resembling a bat, and the ball would roll along the ground, and if it managed to not roll over a players’ card, then it would be deemed a hit. The number of bases was determined by where then marble rolled or hit the outfield wall. Their game was not very exciting to me.
Friends would laugh when I would tell them of my game. They never quite understood that you didn’t need to use a round ball or something round like a marble to get the effect that made the game truly extraordinary. I would love to set up my field in the living room of our home. Couches and chairs formed the walls, and ultimately I made a cardboard wall to simulate the brick and vines of Wrigley Field. The field was definitely geared toward right handed hitters, so I always batted right handed no matter how the particular hitter batted, but I did give consideration to the handedness of the pitcher. A right handed pitcher who pitched to a right handed batter would throw a curve toward the outside corner and vice versa. Naturally, since I played this game alone the pitcher was my left hand and the batter was controlled by my right hand. Over time I realized I could more realistically simulate a weak batter, like a pitcher, by turning around and throwing with my right hand and batting with my left. I was nowhere near as coordinated playing like this and therefore the results were more indicative of how pitchers would hit. Home runs by pitchers was rare.
The key to my game was that the ball wasn’t round. It was an off-centered rectangle, probably better described as a trapezoid. It was also flat, like a coin, but lighter. It was made of a piece of cardboard, wrapped with shiny, slick white tape. It was soft and would give slightly when struck with a bat that was about 8 inches long. The effect was very unpredictable, especially when played on a carpet. If the disc were hit on the flat side into the air, it would have the effect of a lazy fly ball or pop up. If struck on the edge, it would jump off the bat and travel great distances, sometimes as much as 8 feet, which was enough to fly over the center field wall (couch). If the disc were hit into the carpet it would roll for awhile, but would quickly slow down because the edges were uneven causing it to bounce. This would give the effect of a ground ball traveling through the infield. A catch was made if the ball hit a fielder's card on the fly. Since the fielders' cards can’t run on their own I needed a way for them to move. One card length was a running unit and the distance for the fielder to get to the ball was measured in the number of card lengths to retrieve it. The batter would be allowed to run this distance around the bases. The distances seemed magically proportional, just like real baseball.
If a ball stopped near a fielder in the infield, the fielder generally could get to the ball within four card lengths. It was 5 card lengths between bases, so if the fielder could throw the ball, which traveled somewhat like a miniature Frisbee, to the first baseman, who was also allowed to move respective card lengths to cover first base, and either hit the first baseman on the fly or land on the first baseman, then the batter was out. This also allowed for double plays, and rarely, if the ball happened to roll and land on a fielder, was it possible, with perfect throws, to get a triple play. It was truly exciting when a ball would fly in the air and hit an outfielder on the fly. If the ball happened to roll and land on an outfielder, it was possible for the outfielder to throw to first base, but it was highly unlikely that it would be successful, and could result in an errant throw and most likely allow the runner to make second base. So, this was only attempted in desperate circumstances, like trying to preserve a win or no-hitter. To tag a runner out the fielding card was placed over the runner and the throw needed to land in such a way as to be touching both cards (difficult, but very possible with practice).
To this day I still remember the most fantastic throw and tag ever completed. The centerfielder was Mickey Mantle and the catcher was Yogi Berra. The runner was a player on the White Sox who I don't remember. The ball (disc) was hit to the centerfield wall by the last batter on the Sox. The tying run was within one card length of home plate when Mantle retrieved the ball. As was customary I placed Berra's card on the runner trying to score and then moved back to centerfield. The situation seemed impossible, but I flipped the ball over my should and watched as the ball hit near the shortstop and rolled on edge toward home plate stopping on one or both cards. I crawled to home plate and put my nose to the carpet to see that the ball sat firmly on the Berra card and the tiniest part of the disc also touched the runner. I stopped... looked at the Mantle card smiling in centerfield (all Mantle cards smiled) and raised my thumb to call the runner out. --- I had just witnessed the greatest throw in Major League Baseball Card history. At the time I was the only one who saw it and back then I would never have thought that it would be possible to tell the entire world about it, though I had this believe that God would keep track of all of these occurrences and somehow it would never be forgotten. Is it possible that God had WiFi Internet before all of us?
Since moving the players on and off of the field every three outs was very burdensome, an inning was deemed to be a full rotation of the batting order, with the cards shuffled to make the lineup unpredictable. A game was composed of 3 innings. Naturally, if one team was ahead by more than nine runs going into the last half of the last inning, then the game was over. This event was very rare since seldom were more than 9 runs scored in a game. No-hitters were also rare.
I kept statistics for the home team for the entire season (God kept stats for all the other players). The entire baseball league was under my control. My father once brought home a large color, cardboard scoreboard from the tavern he frequented, which they used to inform customers of the score of the game on the TV at the time. The addition of the scoreboard to the playing field made my ballpark extraordinarily realistic.
The calculation of batting averages and earned run averages helped my math skills. I also think that managing the players helped in later life, but it was rare to get arguments from pieces of cardboard, so I was not only an owner and manager, but king.
Now, as a child I thought that I played fairly and gave no benefit to one hand, or team over another. The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, or so I thought. In fact, when Sandy Koufax was the opposing pitcher he was nearly unhittable; and, somehow my beloved Cubs won two World Series's.
It is amazing that we sometimes think this way today, even as adults, as we form opinions and mold our thoughts into beliefs based only upon what we think.