Remembering ‘Strike Out’: When a building was part of the game

Remembering ‘Strike Out’: When a building was part of the game

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

(photo by Lee Bey)

I was passing through Oak Park yesterday when I saw the above box, meticulously drawn on the playground side of Mann School.

This is a box for Strike Out, a baseball-like game in which a pitcher hurtled a rubber baseball at a batter in front of the box, in an attempt to strike him out. When I was a city kid, growing up in the 1970s, these boxes were as ubiquitous as afro hair picks; chalked or spray-painted on the sides of schools, the backs of commercial buildings–almost any place that faced a large lot or playground. But in recent decades, I’ve rarely seen them. A couple of years ago I asked a young boy if kids still played Strike Out. He looked at me as if I were talking about a game of marbles or Hoop & Stick.

So seeing two on a single wall in one day caught me by surprise. I didn’t even have my camera with me. I had to make do with my cellphone cam.

In Strike Out, a pitch inside the box was a strike, but a hit was judged a single, double, triple or homer, depending on the distance the ball traveled after leaving the bat; there were no bases for the batter to run. If the ball was caught on the fly by the opposing team, it was an out. If the pitcher caught the ball on a single bounce, it was an out.

The building was an important part of the game because you needed one with a flat brick, concrete or limestone surface with enough mass to absorb the energy of the fast pitch, yet return the rubber ball without enough velocity to reach the pitcher on a strike. And no glass near the box. Strike Out was great way to play baseball without having 18 people. A team could be as few as one to four players.

(photo by Lee Bey)

“It’s sad how kids nowadays don’t play and learn how to hit and pitch like we did,” Kenny McGregor, one of my buddies from high school (we’re both Chicago Vocational, Class of 1983), replied when I messaged him yesterday about the box I saw. In addition to the rules, he remembered games in which the ball was hit hard enough to make its way into traffic, “sometimes hitting passing cars and buses” on Ashland. “I can recall a buddy named Pete who threw so hard the ball sizzled and as it came towards you, and it changed shape and [would] look like he threw an egg. One bat, two balls, one or two gloves, and we were playing all day until we destroyed the balls.”

Henry Murphy–also in his 40s just as Kenny and I–remembered playing Strike Out on the side of a Monarch Cleaners on east 87th Street back in the 1970s. He hasn’t seen a Strike Out box in years, either. “We’ve become a lawsuit-delicate society,” he says. “Want to [have your kids] play a game with a chance of being hit with a fast rubber ball? Get your lawyer on retainer.”

And–dare I say it?–drawing a Strike Out box defaces property, which is a bit of a demerit.

I was wearing a suit and had my baseball-loving daughters (two teens and a ‘tween) with me when I photographed the Strike Out box. Maybe I’ll double back one day with a rubber baseball to see if my 44-year-old arm has the stuff, still. Just gotta remember to bring the shoulder ointment.

In other news: Check me out tonight on Fox News Chicago’s 9pm broadcast. I’m scheduled to discuss architecture with anchor Bob Sirott.