18 Jul

Step-Ball: Origin of the Game

“How to play Stepball” in Main Line Today (July, 2014).

In the early days of summer, boys and girls escape from school and seize the season with the pent-up excitement of a dog darting out the front door. They yelp, howl and yap, running through yards, hopping fences, pedaling through streets. June days belong to the pack as they fill their hours with Run-the-Bases and Goon-alarm, can-openers and cannonballs.

July arrives, though, and summer slows down. Baseball fields go empty, friends flee to the shore, and a special quietness envelops the days like summer haze. It was on just such a day that stepball must have been invented. It’s a game born of circumstance.

The child is inside, seeking shelter from the 90-degree heat. Perhaps he is nose-deep in a comic book. Or reruns of Dennis the Menace come through the tube. Maybe he throttles a joystick while Pitfall Harry navigates his pixilated jungle.

The mantra begins.

“Go outside! You’re not staying in here on such a beautiful day!”

“But it’s really hot. And no one’s around.”

“Go outside!”

“It’s 90 degrees!”

“Get!”

And so he goes. Sitting on the front stoop, he spots another banished comrade ambling down the street.

“Hey!” he calls.

“Hey!” the other answers.

“I thought you were on vacation.”

“Just got back. Man, no one’s around.”

“I know. Wanna play stepball?”

“Sure.”

And the two begin their first game.

Standing just off-center from a set of stairs, the “batter” throws a tennis ball at the bullnose of a step with all his might. The rules are simple. If the “fielder,” standing a predetermined number of feet away, catches the ball cleanly – be it a grounder or a fly-ball – the batter is out. A misplayed ball leads to a hit. Balls shot over the fielder’s head lead to a double, triple or home run, all depending on the previously agreed-to landmarks reached. Anything that cleared the telephone wire across the street  was an automatic round-tripper on my home field (no running required!).

Standard Wiffle ball rules also apply: four fouls (tennis balls that either slam against the screen-door backstop or veer too far left or right) are an out; three outs an inning; and six innings to a game.

So the game began, and so it continues, summer after summer, for children in neighborhoods throughout the land, regardless of demographics or economics. Have a tennis ball and can find some steps? You’ve got yourself a game – and a perfect panacea for boredom on those steamy midsummer days.

Too few friends in town for a game of baseball or Getaway? Too hot to exert much energy? Banished from the house? Worry not.

Grab a friend, find some steps, and “Play ball!”