What could be more fun and relaxing than attending an evening game of Donkey Baseball in the dismal Fall of 1936? The local newspaper offered free tickets to the top twenty readers who could submit the longest list of words using the fourteen letters in “Donkey Baseball”. The tickets were 50 cents, and dictionaries came off the shelf.
As it turned out, it would be like winning a ticket on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. However, bad surprises were almost guaranteed during the dark years of the Depression.
For the game, the high school football field had been converted to a baseball diamond. The field was located near the intersection of Guyton and Liddon Streets, adjacent to a present softball practice field. The Federal Works Progress Administration “(W.P.A.)” had built bleachers along the western side of the football field. This organization, created to provide depression-era jobs, was filled by willing workers who had little or no construction skills. The bleachers had a framework of iron girders with heavy pine planks bolted in seating rows. With a height of thirty feet, the spectator capacity was several hundred. Atop tall poles, electric lights had recently been installed. The “WPA” laborers had been busy.
As the name implies, normal baseball rules apply in “Donkey Baseball” with one comical exception: After a hit, all players must ride donkeys. The stubborn little animals have a mind of their own, and might run in any direction or refuse to move at all. On balance, it is a scenario of mass confusion and frustrated players. The crowd provides shouted advice with much laughter. The opposing teams were comprised of Rotary and Kiwanis Club members, all well known locally. The two organizations were sponsors of the game.
With the enthusiasm of a ten year old, I arrived early, clutching a winning ticket. Climbing to the top row, I didn’t intend to miss any of the action. As the bleachers filled, a group of about 10 or 12 senior boys stayed close together as they made their way up near my perch. Settling in shoulder to shoulder, they appeared to have their own agenda. Halfway through the game, they made their move. Locking arms, they began to throw their weight from side to side, swaying in unison. Weeks earlier, they had discovered that they could cause the empty structure to rock. Now, with the weight of the crowd, the sway would provide some “Added fun and excitement”. At first, there was no motion, but the big teenagers kept at their team effort.
As time passed, the first slight movement to the south could be detected, followed by a somewhat longer sway toward the north. As the momentum increased, the spectators suddenly became silent. There was no laughter. The teenage “rock team” sat motionless and frightened, but it was too late. “The die had been cast,” and the bleachers seemed to have acquired a life of their own. In the long final sway, the iron framework began to snap with the sounds of firing shotguns. The groaning structure balanced upright for an optimistic and short-lived few seconds. It then proceeded to crash toward Kelson Avenue like a giant house of playing cards! Some three hundred occupants were thrown about and under the debris.
Along the rear of the bleachers was a field of tall corn. Several top row occupants chose to take the 30 foot leap. One hapless customer misjudged his jump and landed on a group of terrified “substitute” donkeys which had been tied behind the bleachers. I stood balanced on a long loose plank which I planned to ride like a surfboard to a smooth landing somewhere below. That was a poor decision and I still carry the scar to remind me.
In the following confusion, the word was passed to carry the injured to Dr. Albert Baltzell’s small hospital on the corner of Russ and Lafayette streets. There, he would examine and dispatch the walking casualties to one of the other four physicians who opened their offices. They all worked through the night. There was a mix of lacerations, fractures and abrasions in addition to one or two permanent injuries. It was termed a miracle that there were no fatalities.
Bear in mind that medical expense insurance and benefits were unknown. All such expense was “out of pocket”, and in 1936 those pockets were almost empty. Now imagine how all this would play out in 2007. We could have a new contest to see who could compile the longest list of defendants and co-defendants. . . A personal injury attorney’s dream!!! For better or worse, the public reaction was almost unanimous, and a poignant reflection of the typical mindset of the times. It went like this: “It was simply a case of a teenage prank getting out of control. The accident was neither intended nor foreseen, and should therefore be forgiven.” When dust cleared and all was said and done, not a single complaint ever came from an occupant of the bleachers. The average person was accustomed to “hard luck” and unexpected setbacks.
Perhaps, some say, our residents were too accustomed to not complaining. There’s certainly nothing wrong with requiring standards for public safety. Nobody recalls where the bleacher builders went for their next job. They didn’t request a recommendation. . .
Well, that’s the way the evening went at “the last Donkey Baseball Game” a long time ago. . . I wonder why we never had another one?