History of Corkball

Where It All Began

batsThere is no pastime more native to St. Louis than the game of Corkball. While experts disagree on the date and precise location of the first game; one thing is certain; it was played right here on the banks of the Mississippi River sometime around the turn of the century. Forty-five years ago, journalistic accounts estimate the games disciples in the thousands. As noted by the Late Don Mr. Corkball Young, there are several hundred players in a number of leagues around town, and corkball is beginning to flourish as far away as California, New Jersey, and Florida.

World War II did much to disseminate the game. Howard Rackley, of the 66-year-old South St. Louis Corkball League (formerly Grupp Corkball League) located at Jefferson Barracks Park, introduced the game to non-St. Louisians on the deck of the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill during the war. But basically, the games remains a local pastime passed down from father to son. In fact, the South St. Louis Corkball club currently has two grandsons and one great grandson of the founders playing.

corkballAll that is required to play are a bat (34 to 38 long and 11/2 wide), a ball ( 2 diameter 1.6 oz. miniature baseball) and at least two players per team. This is what makes the game so great; you can play with just two players, or, as many as you wish. The same goes for the field. You can play on an open field, or, in an alley or, as in the old days, a cage. There is only one distributor of corkballs and corkball bats in the country and that is Markwort Sporting Goods located in St. Louis Missouri.

There are three outs per inning, as in baseball, but unlike baseball, just one swinging strike is an out, if the catcher does not drop the ball. Two called strikes constitute an out, again, if the catcher holds the ball. Five called balls is considered a walk. Foul balls and any fly ball caught are outs. Any ground ball is a hit, provided it travels 15 feet and remains in fair territory. There are no base-runners (an aspect of the game which makes it well suited for the hot St. Louis summers) hence, all hits are singles unless otherwise designated in the league rules as at Jefferson Barracks Park (home of the Sportsman’s Corkball Club) where chalk lines designate distances from home plate that represent double, triple, and home run zones. A batter hit by a pitch is given a base.

Base runners are kept track of on paper and advance as many bases as the hit. For example, batter # 1 gets a base hit and is on first. Batter # 2 hits a double. The man on first advances two bases and you now have a man on second (batter # 2) and third (batter # 1). Batter # 3 walks. Since there was an open base, batter # 3 did not force the runners, and you now have bases loaded. If batter # 3 would have gotten a base hit, all runners would have advanced one base and there would have been a first and third situation with a run scored.

St. Louis corkball is a fast-pitch game. The distance from home plate to the pitching rubber is 55ft. (60 ft 6 in baseball). Pitchers throw overhand, from a mound, and feature fastballs, curveballs, knuckleballs, changeups, and, in some leagues, are even allowed to add substance to the ball.

Don Young Corkball Fields
Because of the miniscule size of the bat and ball, hits are relatively rare, and runs even more so. The late Don Mr. Corkball Young claims to have set the record for the lowest score ever recorded in a corkball game. I hit a ball one time that split down the middle. One half of it went for a home run, but the other half was caught by Butch Stege for the out. After some debate it was decided to give my team a half run, and we wound up winning the game one-half to nothing.

There has never been a St. Louisian found willing to contradict this story; but then again no St. Louisian has ever denied that Hammering Hank Stoverink once hit a ball over the road at Jefferson Barracks, down a long LONG hill into the Mississippi river where it floated down to the golf of Mexico and out into the Caribbean and eventually lost in the Bermuda Triangle..Talk about the long ball!!!! Yea!

Corkball fanatics are absolutely addicted to tales like these, and there was no one better, or, who had the stories to tell than Don Young. No one has put more energy into tracing the origin of Corkball than Don. Don told us the game originated from a game brewery workers and tavern goers used to play. At that time, beer was packaged in wooden barrels plugged with a cork called a Bung. Players would use the bung for a ball, and a mop handle for a bat. Others maintain the game evolved from another St. Louis game called bottle caps in which a batter tries to make contact with a pitched bottle cap. As time goes on it only becomes a more a mystery.

The mystery of corkball is exciting. You can have twenty guys in a discussion about corkball, and you might come up with 15 stories on its origin. As stated before, no one has put as much time and effort trying to trace the game of corkball than Don Young. He had rulebooks and articles right at his fingertips. He had a photo album dating back to the early 1930s. Don had stacks of articles on corkball, and even a catalog from Rawlings Sporting Goods store from 1903. He once used this to prove to a reporter that there was electrical tape in those days used to tape up a cork.

Additionally, there were a couple more whimsical explanations of corkball origin stated by Don: It is claimed that the early Spanish explorers played a similar game with small wooden balls and long poles, before Pierre Laclede Liguest founded the city of St. Louis in 1763. Don Young has always maintained that might be so, but what about the Indians along the northern border of the U.S. that used tree branches and gum-balls made from the bark of the trees?

Maybe – - just maybe – - that was the start?????

Needless to say, corkball aficionados just eat up this sort of stuff. When a reporter once mentioned to Don about the 6,000 year old fertility rites involving hitting stones with sticks, Don responded: Yeah? Hey, thats great. Nobody knows exactly when the game started. I mean, I know I talked to an old gentleman who played the game as a young boy in 1910, and he told me his father played before him. It may have started much earlier than this, and, you know if I could tell you exactly when and where, Im not sure I would; a little mystery is good for people.

From Don’s records the following chronology in the evolution of the sport has been obtained.

1900 – 1910 First game played, either with bottle caps or beer barrel bungs.
Circa 1910 First ball, a fishing cork weighted with BBs and covered with electrical tape.
1920 First modern ball, horsehide covered, designed for R.H. Grady Company by Bill Pleitner.
1929 First organized leagues began to form.
1940 – 1950 First cages, Howard Rackley introduces the game to servicemen aboard the aircraft carrier Bunker Hill.
1941 Balls and strikes introduced in the Old Grupp Corkball League by former Cardinal player Heine Mueller.
1957 Sportsman’s Corkball Club is formed.