Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Great Wiffleball Fire of 1975

Yes, just like the fire that torched the Fenway Park bleachers in 1934 (pictured), the Great Wiffleball Fire of 1975 almost burned down a "stadium."

July 18, 1975


SPRINGFIELD—A series of mysterious fires erupted during a Wiffleball game at Herman Stadium yesterday, repeatedly delaying the contest. In the fifth inning, a large conflagration flared behind home plate, threatening the Riccardis’ garage and almost resulting in the postponement of the game. However, fire crews responded in time to save the structure, and the game was resumed.

The above was the headline and the lead paragraph in the main story of the Maebeth Enquirer on July 18, 1975 (or thereabouts). I guess you could say that my neighborhood “newspaper”—named after our street—paved my way into journalism. Every day that summer, along with the following summer, I produced a one-sheet issue detailing our Wiffleball games, vandalism exploits, and fights. To write the headlines in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS I used one of those plastic rulers that had the outline of the alphabet running through it.

Needless to say, the Great Wiffleball Fire of 1975 had to be covered in great detail in the Maebeth Enquirer. (More on that later.)

I was pretty adept at keeping up with my daily Maebeth Enquirer deadlines that summer. I had to be: if I took too long with an issue, the delay would cut into our Wiffleball time. And that simply wasn’t tolerated.

“Come on!” yelled my friends as I wrote feverishly. “Finish it up!”

Yep, only five occurrences, other than my Maebeth Enquirer issues, could possibly hold up our all-day Wiffleball marathons:

• A “time out” or two was sometimes called during a game while my brother and I argued and sometimes fought.

• If the ball was so busted up and couldn’t be repaired with our cigarette lighter “plastic surgery,” someone had to get on his bike and buy another ball or two at Parker Drug.

• When the Ding Dong Cart came down the street, we inevitably had a break to pig out on popsicles, ice cream, and other junk food.

• If we were sweating bullets on a hot day we would take a break to splash and dash in the neighborhood pools.

• Lastly, every day our Wiffleball play was interrupted when Frank Herman’s parents called him in to dinner and told all of us to scram while the family ate.

“Frank! Dinner!” yelled his mom around 6 o’clock every day. These were two words we were in no mood to hear.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” said Craig Stewart to Frank Herman. “Why can’t your old man let us play while you’re eating?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Just come back later. We’ll finish the game after I’m finished eating.”

“Fuck that shit,” said Craig. “You just tell your fucking parents that this is our stadium, and we’re just letting your family live here.”

“Uh, yeah, OK Craig,” said Frank laconically as he turned to go inside. “I’ll be out later.”

Frank was by far the worst Wiffleball player on Maebeth Street, but we let him play because we had to use his backyard. We had played Wiffleball in other yards, but all of our parents were sick of our yelling, fighting, and other antics—not to mention the permanent base paths, pitchers’ mounds, and batters’ boxes worn into our lawns. The Hermans, for some reason, didn’t care about their yard being trashed, so we played there for much of the summer.

The problem was, of course, the matter of the Hermans’ dinner, which was an annoying daily ritual. How dare they? We were furious when we had to suspend a game, so every day we voiced our frustration by saying that it was “our stadium, and we’re just letting your family live here.”

We didn’t have to say this. He knew we were pissed. But we said it. We knew it was cruel. But hell, that’s what 11-year-olds and 12-year-olds do.

God, did I love Wiffleball back then. And I still do. So when I discovered that you could buy a Wiffleball hat online (pictured on the Wiffleball company site below), what do you think I did?

I bought one, of course! Here it is on a Teddy bear in my office.

Here is the back. Yep, I wear that motherfucker with pride. Jealous? Buy one for yourself!

The only other situation that could possibly put a temporary stop to our Wiffleball games back then (no, it wasn’t rain—hell, we played through that) was the occasional outbreak of flames on the field.

I guess the major contributing factor to the Great Wiffleball Fire of 1975 was the fact that we all carried matches and lighters, not because we smoked (we didn’t), but because each of us had a personal arsenal of fireworks.

Another factor was the Frank Herman’s old man raking up dead grass and leaving it in a bunch of mounds all over our field for several days without picking it up.

Well, I thought it was perfectly hilarious to secretly flick a lit match on a grass pile while I was on second base or on deck. There we were, in the middle of a game, with Craig just about to pitch, when all of a sudden a smoldering grass mound would burst into flames, requiring a time out while someone stomped the fire into submission.

“Bob, will you cut it out?” asked Frank. “My parents are gonna be bullshit if they see that.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“Seriously, cut the shit, Bob,” barked Rick Riccardi. “I don’t wanna step on that when I’m catching a pop fly or something.”

“I didn’t do it,” I said. “It must’ve been spontaneous combustion. It’s a hot day. The heat builds up. They shouldn’t leave these piles on our field.”

I could see that my friends, who thought the fires were funny at first, were beginning to get annoyed. And they were right—this could be dangerous. So I cut the shit. As for that match I had flicked on the large cardboard box behind the batter’s box, it didn’t seem to be smoldering, so I forgot about it. I should have known better than to fire a match on a box that was sandwiched in the three-foot space between the Hermans’ chain link fence and the Riccardis’ garage. After all, it was right next to some dried up tomato plants that had withered in the summer heat.

Still, nothing happened. The match didn’t ignite the box—for an inning or two. And then, POOF! Holy shit. The flames shot up eight feet and spread to the dead tomato plant stalks, sending a plume of black smoke in the air. We found out later that old man Herman had filled the box with dead grass, but had left it in his yard, and Craig Stewart had simply tossed it over the fence before a game to get it out of the way.

Oh. My. God. The garage was going to go up in flames, I thought, as I came running in from center field. And the garage has a car in it! We all stood there like idiots—the fire was too big to stomp out and getting bigger. I tried to kick dirt from the batter’s box onto the fire, but at that point even a few bucketfuls of dirt would have been useless.

Fortunately, Steve Hostetter was smart enough to run over to the Hermans’ hose, turn it on full blast, and spray the flames into oblivion.

“Bob, you fucking idiot!” yelled Rick. “You almost burned down my garage. Look at the scorch marks!”

Indeed there were scorch marks on the side. How would we explain those? Neither the Hermans or the Riccardis—or any other neighbors for that matter—saw the smoke or heard the few moments of confusion in the yard. It was a good thing that the Riccardis never really saw that side of their garage. Rick’s father had stopped tending to the tomatoes a month prior to the Great Fire.

“Shit. Sorry,” I said. “I guess we can say that we shot a Roman candle at it by accident, or something. I don’t know.”

“A Roman candle,” scoffed Rick in disgust. “Jesus Christ. Fucking idiot.”

I was going to write WIFFLEBALL GAME GOES UP IN SMOKE as a headline in the Maebeth Enquirer, but the truth was that the game went on. After narrowly averting a catastrophe, we simply picked up where we left off. Obviously, my book of matches went into retirement during Wiffleball games that summer, to be used only for fireworks.

I was kind of curious if anyone had pulled a dumb stunt similar to mine during a Wiffleball game, so I Googled "Wiffleball" and "fire" and came up this gem on YouTube: a couple of guys soaking a Wiffleball and bat with a flammable liquid, lighting them ablaze, and then hitting the flaming ball onto a backyard deck, almost burning it down (pictured above). I guess they have me beat.