The sun is high in the sky, the scaffolding freshly chromed, the widgets and gizmos arrayed in an intricate latticework across the field, and your favorite slugger is standing proud at the platform. He tamps the powder in his keg, twists the wick, pauses for dramatic effect, points upward at the clouds above, and with a flourish strikes his match across the sole of his boot. You inhale in anticipation of the blast to come; will it be a towering shot to put your team ahead for the win? Or will it be a dud, a spark and a fizzle, a pregnant pause before the catcalls begin. This, my friends, is monoball at its finest.
The young kids today may not remember back this far, but before baseball there was monoball. A game not of sticks and bases, monoball was played with elaborately clever set pieces of pyrotechnics and architecture. Expensive and grandiose, to be sure, but for sheer spectacle, monoball could not be beat.
There wasn't so much a monoball league as a single professional club that fielded several sides and toured the country playing exhibition games for the crowds. Fans would come, buy their tickets and their hot dogs, look for a banner under their seat, and cheer for whatever side that matched their colors. It was all good fun, not a bit unlike like the circus or a night at the Globe. Stars were born, tickets sold, and while no one would really call it a competitive sport, monoball definitely put on a show.
Part of the allure was that the game of monoball itself was especially dynamic and malleable. Unconstrained and unconcerned, if a bit of scaffolding starting tipping or a platform started to sag under the weight of a widget, not to worry, just modify the rules during the match. Most of the fans would barely notice and the savviest entertained themselves trying to figure out the rules as the game progressed.
Yet even as monoball reached its zenith, a new game was being played on the streets and the empty sandlots. Kids, being kids, didn't have wherewithal to erect monoball stadiums or to learn the labyrinthine monoball rules, but they did have sticks and sacks and rocks and most importantly, an undying desire to play. So those kids started batting around and they invited the friends to bat around, and those friends invited their friends, and before you knew it, there were sticks and rocks and sacks on every corner, in every sandlot.
And so it went, with the big money monoball club playing with itself in the stadium, and the hustling kids out on the bustling streets playing their new kind of game. And although the details are still debated to this day, the legend has it that one especially scrappy kid from Brooklyn decided to write down these stickball rules for everyone to share. Then suddenly, magically, it wasn't just some kids on the street, it was now block playing block, neighborhood playing neighborhood. Some days you'd hardly know that the monoball show was even in town; you were out in the park, grilling something up for your neighbors, and enjoying an ice-cold lemonade as the kids did their thing with their simple little game.
That game kept growing and growing, and before you knew it, there were actual professional teams being formed in real professional leagues all around the world. Now the stickball rules brilliantly captured the spirit of the game, but some things were still left to be clarified. How are the rules to be arbitrated? How are they kept up-to-date? What can change from game to game and from league to league, and what must always stay the same? The players realized that this game wasn't going to scale well without some consensus, so they had better start asking around.
Thus the players got together and said in a voice that carried loud across the land: We're going to try to officially write down the rest of the rules to this little game that we all play. Everyone is welcome to participate, it doesn't matter if you play for fun or you play professionally, just come as yourself and tell us how you're playing the game and how you think it should be played. We can't promise we'll succeed, but we can promise we'll try our best.
For next several years people got together on the corners and by the diamonds and swapped stories and ideas until they gradually reached agreement on how the game should be played. A game of baseball, born in dusty cornfields and vacant city lots, from Brooklyn to the Bronx to Fenway to Taipei, it is one game we share, and one game we love. From the kid on the street to the biggest big league star, everyone came, spoke their piece, and everyone knew that they were heard.
Well, almost everyone. Throughout all of this time, nary a peep was heard from the old monoball club. Until one day, just as the official book of baseball rules was being sent to the printers, an almost forgotten voice from the sidelines calls out: "Hey wait just a minute! Baseball doesn't include platforms or gizmos or widgets or wingdings! Don't you know that monoball is played with all of those things? We're just going to take our scaffolding and contraptions back and then we're going home!"
There was an awkward and embarrassing silence.
Then we all grabbed our bats and our gloves and played ourselves one hell of a game of baseball.
And lest you think this is all in jest, just ask yourself this: when was the last time you went to see a good old-fashioned game of monoball?
Photograph modified with permission.